If films can be accidentally lost, then it stands to reason that they can also be accidentally preserved. Doesn’t It? Silent film musician slash historian Ben Model certainly thinks so. This week he released the third DVD in his Accidentally Preserved series: a compendium of short silent comedies, fished from obscurity, with brand new musical scores by Model himself.
You shouldn’t expect to find the big four (or five? or six?) of silent comedy in these discs. Accidentally Preserved is for fans who want to delve a little deeper into the world of silent comedy, and spend a little time with lesser known names such as Al Christie, Jay Belasco, Malcolm “Big Boy” Sebastian or Sidney Drew.
First the science bit. The overwhelming reason that most silent films are lost is that they were reels of nitrate film, which were either mislaid and left to decay (nitrate decays terribly), destroyed in a fire (nitrate is also inconveniently flammable) or recycled to use for another movie or even melted down to make plastic goods. Neglect could mean a death sentence.
The films that Model is releasing are from private collections of 16mm movies. These are silents that were printed on safety film stock (as the name implies, much less fragile that nitrate) mostly for home movie rentals. The 1930s and 1940s equivalent of Netflix being a 16mm projector and a subscription to a rental service. Some of the AP films were transferred to more stable stock for other reasons – for example, for rerelease or TV broadcast.
Model hasn’t, by and large, restored these films, but rescued and scored them. And reinserted intertitles where necessary. That’s no mean feat in itself, and of course it means that via the Accidentally Preserved DVD releases, and Model’s YouTube channel,we get to see movies that we might never even have heard of.
So what of the films in volume three? After the Drew/Barrymore season at Pordenone last year, the sight of Sidney Drew and his “missus” in Vitagraph’s Wanted: A Nurse (1915) was like greeting an old pal. This is the slightest of comedies, with Drew malingering in order to gain the attentions of a pretty nurse, but he is such a great comic actor that it works, for just as long as the running time allows.
I was also especially taken with The Whirlwind (1922), a sort of low-rent Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) in which a tornado howls into town causing havoc, especially in the residents’ love lives. The child actors in this one are particularly effective. And if you like them, you’ll love Malcolm Sebastian’s turn in Hot Luck (1928), in which the young scamp gets up to mischief with his pet dog, as per, or the poor infant in Whose Baby? (1929) rescued from an onrushing tram by Arthur Lake in his familiar role as Dagwood Bumstead.
No Vacancies (1923) initially looks as if it will speak across the decades to the anxieties of Generation Rent, as a young couple attempt to snare their first flat in a trying market. But it soon becomes a hectic ensemble comedy set in a swanky apartment block. And all jolly good fun until the end. More chaotic comedy comes in Service A La Bunk (1921), in which Bobby Ray plays a hapless waiter making a mess. A little of this sort of thing goes a long way with me, but interesting to see Ray, which had a long career on both sides of the camera doing his stuff.
A Citrate Special is the biggest oddity, and greatest mystery here. This undated scatological short has a largely unidentified cast. Model speculates in the valuable introductory cards that appear for each film that it may not have been intended for release, just a studio in-joke. The plot, such as it is, features a director getting caught short on set, and needing to find a toilet pronto. Highbrow it isn’t, but I will admit I chuckled.
Love’s Young Scream (1928), was stronger on plot and chuckles both, with Anne Cornwall and Jimmy Harrison as eloping lovers and some cute illustrated intertitles in between the slapstick. I thought this was a hoot, and it had real charm too. Courtesy Model, their romantic hi-jinks and crazy car chases play out to a light, nimble, organ score.
All the music on this disc is first rate as you’d expect, on both piano and (virtual) organ, thanks to a composer who probably knows these movies better than anyone else on the planet. It is all played and composed by Ben Model apart from the final snippet, a “Kidland Komedy” from 1928 called Half a Hero. All that remains is the second reel, and it comes with the soundtrack from its 1930 rerelease. As you’ll guess, we have another child actor here, little Billy Barty who, the caption informs us, started performing in films aged three in 1927 and worked until his death in 2000. Astounding. The voices on the soundtrack may jolt you, but it’s an insight into how these movies were seen beyond the silent era – and without that market, of course, we wouldn’t have these films at all.
I haven’t had a chance to talk in detail about the films on this disc, but that seems to be in the spirit of the project – the idea of Accidentally Preserved is to show us just how much is out there to discover. There has always been more to silent comedy than meets the eye, and Ben Model knows that better than anyone.
- You can order Accidentally Preserved Volume Three on Amazon, here.