There is no substitute for watching a silent movie in a theater on a big screen with live musical accompaniment and a simpatico audience. But last year, as the worldwide pandemic trapped us in our homes, entrepreneurial silent-film accompanist Ben Model devised an alternate plan: screening silent short subjects for a virtual audience online. The Silent Comedy Watch Party has now passed its first anniversary and draws a loyal cadre of fans every Sunday at 3pm EST.
Ben doesn’t just compose (and often improvise) piano scores; he is a proactive silent-movie scholar and enthusiast who releases rare shorts and features on his home-grown DVD label, Undercrank Productions. He has even arranged to use the Library of Congress restorations of such rarities as Marion Davies’ early features Beauty’s Worth, Little Old New York, and When Knighthood was in Flower. His ever-expanding catalog includes collections of shorts featuring forgotten comedy players like Monty Banks, Alice Howell, Marcel Perez, Johnny Hines, and “Musty Suffer.”
Silent comedy expert Steve Massa, author of Lame Brains and Lunatics, is on hand every Sunday to discuss and introduce the rarities on display, some of which are loaned out by fellow collectors.
Part of the appeal of this weekly grab-bag is that it is a livestream that’s happening as you watch it on YouTube. There’s nothing wrong with a pre-recorded score, but knowing that Ben is playing at the moment you’re watching adds immediacy to the presentation. I also like the DIY atmosphere, with Ben’s wife Mana cheering him on from the sidelines and Steve broadcasting from the bedroom of his New York City apartment. The occasional glitches and mishaps are part of the charm of this enterprise.
On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend Ben and Steve offered encore showings of three rare comedy shorts that elicited positive feedback when they were first shown. Sure—Mike! (1925) is the charming Martha Sleeper’s only starring short, produced by Hal Roach and costarring James Finlayson, with a brief appearance by young Fay Wray.
Ziegfeld Follies star Harry Watson, Jr. headlines 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 foreshadow the Surrealist movement of the 1920s.
Finally, Mr. and Mrs. Carter DeHaven star with Pal the Dog in A Waggin’ Tale (1923) The DeHavens were headliners on stage whose movie work is unjustly neglected. This digital copy was transferred from a deteriorating 35mm nitrate copy by the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive at USC School of Cinematic Arts.
You don’t have to wait till Sunday to sample The Silent Comedy Watch Party. Just go to Ben Model’s YouTube channel (silentcomedywatchparty) and pick from a number of existing programs. There is no charge, but Ben and Company welcome donations.
I love the idea of using modern technology to expand the worldwide audience for silent films. How ironic that a pandemic inspired the idea.
Not so incidentally, Ben Model has also made an invaluable contribution to our understanding of silent filmmaking. The debate about “proper” silent-film projection speed has gone on for decades, but Ben is the first person I know who has explained the arcane practice of undercranking. If you don’t know what that means, here is just one illustration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDu5qXdlDa4. This excerpt from Buster Keaton’s two-reeler The Goat makes the point especially well. There’s more where that came from.
Whether you’re already an aficionado or just getting your feet wet, there is much to discover in the realm of silent movies. Next time, I’ll review some recent Blu-ray releases of rare feature films.