Poor Musty Suffer is just trying to sleep in the middle of the road when he finds himself picked up in a wheelbarrow and ends up as the subject of a mad scientist’s experiment. It’s going to be one of those days.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
I’m not crazy, I just don’t give a darn.
George Kleine is not a household name even among silent film fans but his body of work as a producer is never less than fascinating. One of the founders of the innovative Kalem film company, Kleine later partnered with the Edison film company when it was in decline. On paper, these films don’t sound promising but in practice, the later Kleine releases are frequently fascinating.
The Musty Suffer series starred Harry Watson, Jr. and was released under Kleine’s own Photo-Comedy brand and, thanks to the Library of Congress’s purchase of Kleine’s entire collection, most of the series survives. The films lay safely in the archive, preserved but obscure and forgotten, before their release was crowdfunded by film historian and accompanist Ben Model.
So, what is Musty? It’s safe to say that the series fits neatly into the crazier, more anarchic comedies of the 1910s and before. I am thinking of the wild films of Edwin S. Porter, Jean Durand and George Albert Smith. However, even reviewers of the day commented favorably on the strangeness of Watson and his Musty Suffer character. If these people thought he was weird… yeah, that’s pretty weird.
Just Imagination was number eight in the Musty Suffer series and begins with Musty (Watson) asleep in the middle of the road. A peculiar figure with a wheelbarrow full of straw comes along and finds his way blocked by Musty. Will he go around? There’s room. No, he dumps his load, loads Musty into the wheelbarrow, covers him with the straw and continues on.
And this is before the dream sequence even begins! Musty Suffer’s world is bizarre even without the subconscious.
Through a mishap, Musty ends up clonked with the wheelbarrow. He is discovered by military medics and carried off to the stockade by a pair of ice tongs (nice variation on the “insane asylum orderly with butterfly net” trope—that comes later) and escapes by bending the bars and walking out.
Musty sees an ad for a “refined looking chap” to act as a subject to Dr. Hickory and Dr. Nut and decides to take the job, with the help of clothing magically purloined from a mannequin. Once in the hands of the mad doctors, it becomes clear that they intend to drive Musty mad. They serve him dinner but the food disappears before he can take a bite. They put him to bed but move the clocks ahead twelve hours before he has had any sleep. They repeatedly bang him on the head with heavy objects.
Musty finally awakens with the broken remains of the wheelbarrow beside him and declares that he wasn’t dreaming, it was “just imagination.”
But then again, given how intensely weird the “real” world of Musty Suffer is, perhaps the dream or imagination was not so very strange to him after all.
Howard Hawks once stated that the reason audiences of the time did not respond to Bringing Up Baby was because everyone was screwy, there wasn’t a normal character in the picture. I disagree with that notion as unrelenting madness has a magic all his own and Musty Suffer proves that point.
Now, onto the villains of the piece, mad scientists. The movies love them. The audiences love them. They are the perennially popular villain of pop culture and for good reason: they’re real. Obviously, ethical scientific experiments are in the majority and are a whole different category but the use of unwilling subjects has always been an issue and the matter continues to be debated to this day, in halls of legislation and courts of law. In fact, many of the most infamous cases of experimenting on unwitting, nonconsenting subjects launched decades after the silent era had ended.
Obviously, the race, sex and socioeconomic status of the victims played a huge factor in who was selected for experimentation in the real world but in entertainment, the targets were frequently middle class or well-heeled. So, ironically, in portraying a homeless man in the hands of mad scientists, Musty’s fantasy is slightly more realistic than some of the wilder science fiction.
To put Just Imagination in context, in 1874, Roberts Bartholow of Cincinnati was criticized for using electrodes to probe the brain of a terminally ill Irish servant named Mary Rafferty, whose deteriorating health made any claims of consent shady at best (keep in mind that the Irish in America were heavily discriminated against at the time). H.G. Welles’ vivisection horror The Island of Dr. Moreau had been published in 1896. In 1913, Selig released the mad jungle science film The Fifth Man, in which a college man prospecting for gold is captured and made a specimen by a mad scientist.
The topic of mad science continued after Just Imagination with Douglas Fairbanks famously being driven mad by an unethical psychiatrist (or is he?) in his 1919 comedy When the Clouds Roll By. That film featured surreal imagery and bizarre sequences that would have been quite at home in a Musty Suffer short. The Fairbanks film also parallels Just Imagination in that the goal of the experiment is not some kind of breakthrough based on physical discovery but to push the subject over the edge into insanity.
This review has already taken an exceedingly dark turn but I suppose I should also mention that the time, food and reality deprivation that Drs. Hickory and Nut use in their experiment are basically goofy versions of very real “enhanced interrogation” and torture techniques.
So, what does all this grim content tell us about Musty Suffer and Just Imagination? Well, the Musty series has been extremely well-received by modern viewers and I think that a large part of that is due to Watson tapping into legitimate terrors. Horror and comedy are only a hair apart, after all, and there are times when we laugh so that we don’t scream. Dark humor can mask true concerns about life and safety and considering the state of mental health treatments in the 1910s, it’s safe to say more than a few people watching the Musty films would have appreciated the twisted gags.
I’m not sure that Watson meant his picture to go this deep—he was a product of his time and place and would have absorbed these attitudes by simply living his life—but the fact that his humor, no matter how bizarre, was rooted in reality gives his films a timeless quality.
Just Imagination is a pretty good example of the Musty Suffer series and the kind of anything-goes humor that Watson brought to the screen. The series ended in 1917, around the time Kleine parted ways with Edison and quit producing his own pictures. It’s a shame because without Musty, comedy was a little less weird.
Where can I see it?
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