Bob Hoskins and “Musty Suffer”

I first saw one of the “Mishaps of Musty Suffer” at the annual, now-defunct Slapsticon festival. I assumed it was another obscure comedy shorts series no one knew about. I found out later that some of these had aired on PBS in the early 1980s. Really? Out of all the public domain silent comedy one-reelers to pick from — this?

When I released the first Mishaps of Musty Suffer DVD in 2014, I found that occasionally someone would mention that they’d seen one of these films on public television many years ago.

I’m sure there’s an interesting story about someone at the PBS affiliate that bought or licensed the British series Flickers (1980) for air having chosen some of the “Musty Suffer” films to fill out the hour. Flickers was a six episode series that starred Bob Hoskins. It was produced or distributed by Thames, ITV or ATV — I can’t find a consistent production company credit online (so if you know, let me know and I’ll revise this). 

Each episode was 50 minutes long, and filler was needed.

Bob Hoskins in “Flickers” (1980)
Production still from “Flickers” (1980) starring Bob Hoskins

I have a distinct memory of seeing The Automatic Moving Company many times on my local WNET Channel Thirteen as end-of-program filler, so I guess this was the same sort of thing. The one Musty short people who saw them remember the most, based on their description of the synopsis, turns out to be Musty’s Vacation (1917).

The Mishaps of Musty Suffer was a series of shorts, made in three ten-film spurts from 1916-17 by the George Kleine company. The episodes, or “whirls” as they were called, had the same ensemble of performers in each short, and were filmed in studios in the Bronx. The shorts starred Harry Watson, Jr. as “Musty Suffer” and were directed by Louis Myll. Both are blips on the silent comedy film radar. Very creative and inventive, but pretty much only worked on these films.

Watson and comedy partner George Bickel had been Ringling clowns in the 1890s, and as a team were headliners in the first years of the Ziegfeld Follies. They were signed by Kleine to make 5-reel features. Two were made — The Politician and The Fixer, both in 1915 — and a third went into production and sputtered. What had been shot of this episodic film got repurposed into some of the entries in what became The Mishaps of Musty Suffer

Serials were at their peak of popularity in the US at the time, kicked off in 1913, and each of the three Musty series of ten one-reel “whirls” were made, previewed all at once for press and industry, and then released on a weekly basis. They are weird, bizarre, funny, cartoon-like, and unwittingly seem to anticipate the surrealist movement. They’re something of a live-action cross between the visual comedy sensibilities of  Melies and Bob Clampett.

Bob Hoskins, who had been in the popular Pennies From Heaven series was now in a series called Flickers, set against the backdrop of the beginnings of the moving picture business.

The description in the YouTube-posted trailer for the series’ 2010 DVD release reads:

“Bob Hoskins (Pennies from Heaven) and Frances de la Tour (Rising Damp) star in this light-hearted, captivating series set in the very early days of the silent movie industry. Flickers was created and written by sitcom veteran Roy Clarke (Keeping Up Appearances, Last of the Summer Wine) and directed by Cyril Coke (Upstairs, Downstairs, The Duchess of Duke Street), and originally screened to huge acclaim in 1980; the series received a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Limited Series in 1982.”

I’ve never seen Flickers, and am curious as to how many people remember it. Just think — now you can buy the DVD of both Flickers and The Mishaps of Musty Suffer if you really want to recreate the early ‘80s experience of watching it on your local PBS station.

There are online articles about Flickers at Memorable TV and on the Bioscope.

Visit Amazon to buy the DVD of Flickers, as you can with The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, volume 1 and volume 2. And if you want a deep dive into Musty, pick up the monograph about the series by Steve Massa.

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Phil McDonnell

Hi, Ben. Thanks so much for your wonderful blog and podcast. They enhance my enjoyment of your performances at the Silent Clowns series at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. I enjoyed “Flickers” when it first aired in the early 1980s though I don’t remember much about it, aside from the appealing chemistry between Bob Hoskins and Frances de la Tour. Recently I purchased an Acorn Media DVD of the show at my local public library. So now I have an opportunity to see and assess it again. And to tell you it’s identified as being “An… Read more »