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The Mishaps of Musty Suffer

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Original 1916 lobby card for the series

In 1947 the Library of Congress acquired the George Kleine collection of 456 film titles as well as stills and correspondence. Kleine was a pioneer motion picture producer and distributor who’s not well known today but was an important part of the early American film industry. He was the “K” in Kalem (named for Kleine, Samuel Long, and Frank J. Marion), imported and released European films under the Cines and Eclipse brands, and was also involved in the patents wars as part of the Motion Pictures Patents Company. When the start of World War I cut off his supply of imported European pictures, he produced and released his own independent productions, a mix of dramas and comedies made primarily in the northeast (his offices were in New York City), and many of which utilized performers from the “legitimate” and vaudeville stages.

The film elements and stills in the Kleine Collection are held at here at the Packard Campus. Some of the motion picture holdings are in 35mm, but most of them are 16mm reduction master positives derived from the original 35mm nitrate elements acquired in 1947. The Library didn’t have its own film preservation laboratory until 1970, so back when the Kleine Collection was acquired, it was accepted practice to make 16mm safety film elements and destroy the original nitrate. Just like our policy of returning nitrate film registered for copyright, this decision is lamentable now, but understandable given the circumstances. Regardless, 16mm viewing prints of the Kleine films are available for access in the Moving Image Research Center, while the Kleine papers are held by the Library’s Manuscript Division.

H.H. McCollum enjoying Harry Watson, Jr. getting some rough treatment in Cruel and Unusual (1916)

About a year ago, film historians Steve Massa and Ben Model, one of our silent film organists at the Packard Campus Theatre, took an interest in a series of oddball comedy shorts produced by Kleine called “The Mishaps of Musty Suffer.” The films follow the misadventures of a put-upon tramp–Ziegfeld Follies headliner Harry Watson, Jr.–who lives a slapstick version of the Story of Job, besieged by fate and folly at every turn.

Kleine released the “Musty” one-reelers on a weekly basis between 1916 and 1917 in three series of ten films. Twenty-four of the thirty survive, and the Library has preserved all of them. Ben and Steve visit us regularly and, working with Moving Image Curator Rob Stone (a slapstick aficionado himself), research rarities in our collections. They decided to look at all the extant “whirls” (as episodes were called back then) in the “Musty Suffer” series. From that, a plan to make the films more widely accessible was born.

Ben produces DVDs of rare silent comedies from his own 16mm collection. The Library recently signed an agreement to co-brand a series of DVD releases with him, the first of which is The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, now available from any number of online DVD retailers; also available for purchase is Steve’s entertaining and informative Musty Suffer companion guide and filmography. The master positive 16mm elements were scanned in high definition by our film preservation lab as source material, with Ben–of course–providing the musical accompaniment. Ben and Steve hosted a rollicking Musty show here last May and one at the New York Library for the Performing Arts the other week, but for those who missed them, they’re presenting another mayhem-laden program at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland, on November 15.

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