Last week, I recommended a new Buster Keaton box set. Well, there’s an evergreen sentiment. I remain a devotee of physical media (and in the interests of full disclosure, also make part of my living from it), but I realise it’s getting a little trickier for people to get hold of news discs right now, whether that’s because of distribution difficulties or lack of funds. I hear you.
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 …
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.
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.
“I think that exhibition is an important part of film preservation and the audience participation is part of that as well. If you bring somebody whether it’s a date or kids, you’re helping to build the audience for these great films.”
Ben Model, silent film pianist, interviewed in Huntington Patch