Slapstick 2017: Ben Model on being a silent comedy detective

Ben Model, silent film historian, accompanist and film-maker, has been championing early cinema for years. One of his most interesting projects is the Accidentally Preserved series of DVDs, which collect rare silent comedies that have only been saved from the ravages of time because they were put out on early home-movie formats. This way, he has been rescuing the reputations of many once-beloved silent comedians and sharing many, many laughs. 

The 2017 Slapstick Festival, which takes place in Bristol from 19-22 January, will feature a programme of Model’s Accidentally Preserved  comedy shorts in an event hosted by Bill Oddie and Robin Ince, with music by Günter Buchwald. That event is on 22 January and you can buy tickets here.

Ben Model was kind enough to answer some questions about the event and his silent comedy sleuthing …

Ben Model
Ben Model
Where did you discover the films that will be showing at Slapstick Festival?

Most of the films on the programme are 16mm prints that I won on eBay. If you have your radar tuned the right way, and sometimes if the sellers mislabel or mis-identify something, it’s possible to win something fun and obscure for a decent price. A Bathtub Elopement, on the other hand, was something Rob Stone from the Library of Congress (USA), Steve Massa and I turned up in a large collection of old rental prints from the 1930s at the LOC. It was a film we knew was lost, and which was of significant interest for us – especially for Steve, who has spearheaded the rediscovery of Marcel Perez’s films. I included it on the Marcel Perez Collection DVD, which I released last year on my Undercrank Productions label and which won an award at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Italy.

Will this Slapstick screening be the films’ first showing in the UK?

It’s hard to say without doing deep research in trade papers from England as to whether or not these films were shown there during the silent era. A Citrate Special was never shown anywhere theatrically, and clearly was a prank film made internally at a studio and intended only for private use. No one has been able to find any information about where it was made or how it wound up being made available in 16mm. There are no listings in home movie catalogues from the 1940s – when my print was made – or later for this title. We screened it at the annual Mostly Lost film identification workshop at the Library of Congress a couple years ago and none of the 125 or so experts in the audience could figure out anything more about the film. I may post it on YouTube channel for the global hive mind, as sometimes that helps yield information like this.

Why have these films have survived when their 35mm versions have not?

Comedy shorts were ephemeral and plentiful. They were in a constant demand and, unless they had major comedians like Chaplin or Keaton or Harold Lloyd in them, they were rarely re-run. There had to be a constant flow of new product week after week, month after month. No one thought they needed to be saved or preserved. When sound came in, all silent film was almost immediately ridiculed and thought of as antiquated, And there was no thought that there would be any further use for these films. The reason I refer to these copies made on 16mm (and in Europe on 9.5 mm) as “accidentally preserved” is that the movie companies who made these prints for rental or sale were just thinking of an additional way to make money from home-movie enthusiasts. People were filming their families and here was something else to show in their living room. Silent films were an ideal fit for home-movie-makers because their home-movie projectors were silent. The Pathéscope 9.5mm libraries in Europe as well as 16mm and 8mm home movie rental outfits in the US were in business up through the late 1950s.

Marcel Perez
Marcel Perez
Which of the comedians or films in this show are you most happy that people can see again? 

Well, my top pick would have to be Spain’s Marcel Perez: a former circus and music hall performer in France, who made a starring series of films in Italy for Ambrosio from 1910 to 1915, and then made films in the US right up until his death in 1928. He spent his last several years just directing, after losing a leg. But he was the star of his own comedy films for about 12 years and was director on most of them. He has an engaging & charming persona, And his comic sensibilities and cinematic storytelling techniques are ones that put him on par with second-tier stars like Charley Chase and Roscoe Arbuckle. Every audience I’ve shown a Marcel Perez comedy has the same enthusiastic reaction, and people always ask “How come I’ve never heard of this guy before?” Thanks to Steve Massa’s enthusiasm for Perez and his detective work, finding films in different archives, we can now see 10 examples of his work – out of the more than 200 films that he made.

Do you think there may be more films of this type out there? What should someone do if they think they have found one?

There must be lots and lots of these films out there, and not just in the US in 16mm or in Europe on 9.5mm (or on the obscure French format of 17.5mm). As a matter of fact, a 9.5mm print of a Baby Peggy silent film that was lost just turned up a few months ago … in Japan, in a print with Japanese titles. One thing that people should do if they find something that seems to be rare or obscure is to work with an archive or a preservation outfit to have the film preserved and made available. There is very active group of 9.5mm film collectors in England, and they have had a few screenings recently. It’s not a route to a fortune, though. Sometimes people will find something rare and act like they’ve have found Adam and Eve’s home movies, trying to ransom the film for as much money as they can. But there is no money in this is sort of thing and we are all doing this for our love of silent films, and to keep alive the memory and art of the people who made them.

THE LITTLE RASCAL (US 1922) Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow
Baby Peggy in THE LITTLE RASCAL (US 1922) Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow
Is there a comedy film or comedian you haven’t found yet but would really like to? 

We’d love to see more of Marcel Perez films turn up. I’m convinced that some archives may have his films but don’t realise that that’s who it is in the films. We just found a fragment of one that way at an archive in Wisconsin. Alice Howell is another other comedian who made tons of comedy shorts, most of which are missing, but some were made available on the 16mm rental market, and a few of those have surfaced. And of course, everybody’s Holy Grail of silent comedies is the Laurel & Hardy short Hats Off (1927). It would be really nice if that turned up.

With thanks to Ben Model and Pam Beddard

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