There is no substitute for watching a silent film in the cinema on a big screen with live music and a simpatico audience. But last year, when the global pandemic kept us trapped in our homes, entrepreneurial silent film companion Ben Model came up with an alternative plan: to show silent films online for a virtual audience. The Silent Comedy Watch Party is now past its first anniversary, attracting a loyal squad of fans every Sunday at 3 p.m. EST.
Ben doesn’t just compose (and often improvise) piano scores; He is a proactive silent film scholar and enthusiast who releases rare shorts and feature films on his domestic DVD label Undercrank Productions. He even got the Library of Congress to use restorations of rarities like Marion Davies’ early feature films Worth beauty, Little Old New York, and When the knighthood was in bloom. Its ever-growing catalog includes collections of short films starring forgotten comedy stars such as Monty Banks, Alice Howell, Marcel Perez, Johnny Hines, and Musty Suffer.
Silent comedy expert Steve Massa, author of Lame brains and crazy people, is available every Sunday for discussion and presentation of the exhibited rarities, some of which are borrowed by fellow collectors.
Part of the appeal of this weekly grab bag is that it is a live stream that takes place while you watch it on YouTube. There’s nothing wrong with a pre-recorded score, but knowing that Ben is playing the moment you watch the video gives the presentation an immediacy. I also like the DIY vibe, with Ben’s wife, Mana, cheering him on from the sidelines and sending Steve from the bedroom of his New York apartment. The occasional mishaps and mishaps make up the charm of this company.
On Memorial Day weekend Sunday, Ben and Steve offered encores of three rare comedy shorts that received positive feedback when they first aired. Sure – Mike! (1925) is the charming Martha Sleeper’s only lead short film, produced by Hal Roach and starring James Finlayson, with a brief appearance by the young Fay Wray.
Ziegfeld Follies Headlines from star Harry Watson, Jr Local showers (1916), one of The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, which Steve Massa describes as a paraphrase of the Book of Job, with crazy gags that seem to anticipate the surrealist movement of the 1920s.
Finally, Mr. and Mrs. Carter play DeHaven with Pal the Dog in A wagon story (1923) The DeHavens were headliners on stage whose film work is wrongly neglected. This digital copy was transferred from a deteriorating 35mm nitrate copy from the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
You don’t have to wait until Sunday to try The Silent Comedy Watch Party. Just go to Ben Model’s YouTube channel (silentcomedywatchparty) and choose from a number of existing programs. There are no fees, but Ben and Company welcome donations.
I love the idea of using modern technology to expand the global audience for silent films. How ironic that a pandemic inspired the idea.
Not entirely incidentally, Ben Model also made an invaluable contribution to our understanding of silent filmmaking. The debate about the “correct” projection speed of silent films has been going on for decades, but Ben is the first I know to explain the mysterious practice of undercranking. If you don’t know what that means, here’s just an illustration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDu5qXdlDa4. This excerpt from Buster Keaton’s Two-Reeler The goat makes the point particularly well. There’s more where that comes from.
Whether you’re already a lover or just getting your feet wet, there is a lot to discover in the silent film realm. Next time, I’ll be reviewing some recent Blu-ray releases of rare feature films.