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Q&A: Ben Model, lover of comedy and accidental preservationist of rare films

Ben Model
Ben ModelGarden State Theatre Organ Society

I recently watched an obscure silent comedy short—starring the equally obscure Lloyd Hamilton—alone on my laptop and laughed out loud. I had that pleasure thanks to Ben Model, who has released two volumes of "Accidentally Preserved" rare/lost silent film shorts on DVD with his own scores in the past year, and shares them on YouTube. Just this morning he announced the DVD release of “The Mishaps of Musty Suffer,” a forgotten series of slapstick comedies produced in 1916-17 (due out later this month).

Ben curated the recent "The Ernie Kovacs Collection" and “Here's Edie: The Edie Adams Television Collection” DVD box sets, but his heart’s in the silent era; he’s been composing and improvising musical scores for silent films for 30 years. He can be heard accompanying silent films regularly on Turner Classic Movies, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress. Ben is producer and co-founder of long-running Silent Clowns Film Series, currently presented at Lincoln Center (next up: “Chaplin at Mutual,” Apr. 12).

Q: I got hooked on silent comedies at age 6, when a friend showed me an 8mm print of Chaplin’s ‘Easy Street.’ How about you?

I am told by my parents that I discovered Chaplin on TV when I was 2 or 3.

Q: What gave you the idea for “Accidentally Preserved”?

Well, you have Louis C.K. to thank, partially. I've been interested in the nuts-and-bolts of how silent film DVDs get made and released, and have had conversations over the years with people about it, from a smaller label like ReelclassicDVD to a bigger company like Kino. I'd also been following the developments of on-demand publishing as well as crowd-funding over the last couple of years. I kept looking a these cans of films and wanted to be able to show them to people, but the trick is always how to connect a niche item with the audience you know is there for it. When Louis C.K. released his self-produced Beacon Theatre concert video in 2012 over his own website -- making an end-run around the regular distribution model -- and sold tons of downloads and made his money back within two or three days, it gave me the confidence to try what became "Accidentally Preserved". The difference was that I funded the project through a Kickstarter, and released a DVD through Amazon's CreateSpace on-demand publishing service. But the idea was the same: if you're already connected to fans, and know how to produce a product and release it, it's possible to put out your own DVD. Everybody shops on Amazon anyway.
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Related posts:

Forgotten funsters of silent screen, rare/lost short films on DVD http://www.examiner.com/article/forgotten-funsters-of-silent-screen-rare...

Finding Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase talkies, movie character actresses
http://www.examiner.com/article/finding-laurel-and-hardy-charley-chase-t...

Celebrating King Vidor’s classic, ‘The Crowd,’ making silent films come alive http://www.examiner.com/article/celebrating-king-vidor-s-classic-the-cro...

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Q: How come most silent comedy enthusiasts have never heard of the films on the “Preserved” DVD sets?

Most of these comedy shorts star comedians who didn't move into features and had nice little careers doing shorts, either as stars or as supporting players. The films were an essential part of a theatre manager's program in the 1920s, but they were also disposable product. Once they were shown, that was it. What's impressive is that all these oddball shorts were part of 16mm rental catalogs from the late 1920s thru the ‘40s and ‘50s. There are more Billy Franey shorts in these catalogs than there are Keaton shorts.

Q: Did the popularity of Vol. 1 surprise you? Did you expect the response you got?

I was pleasantly surprised at how well-received the DVD was, although I knew that I had they key elements in place, namely professional box art, high-quality transfers and decent musical scores. I had some help getting the word out in the press, and the NY Times review was a nice surprise as well. I also had a lot of help from the Kickstarter backers of the project and fans of the DVD, who posted some really great reviews on Amazon or on their own blogs.

Q. Tell me a little about your favorites on Vol. 2.

Two of my picks from Vol. 2 seem to be the same as a lot of people: Lloyd Hamilton in "Papa's Boy" and Alberta Vaughn in "Sherlock's Home". The latter was a real revelation, as it has the feel and look of a well-made 5-reel light comedy and yet it's just a comedy short. A nice change of pace from the typical slapstick shorts being made by the other studios.

More information about Ben Model and his DVDs is available at www.silentfilmmusic.com and www.accidentallypreserved.com.

More from Jordan:

New ebook, now available on Amazon — “Directing Lemmon and Matthau: On the Set with Billy Wilder” www.amazon.com/dp/B00J9Q3V5C

Jungle Book, Decasia on Blu-ray, Rossellini on DVD, Maureen O’Hara at TCM fest http://www.examiner.com/article/jungle-book-decasia-on-blu-ray-rossellin...

New Manilow-Sussman musical ‘Harmony’ at Ahmanson, Matthew Arkin’s debut novel http://www.examiner.com/article/new-manilow-sussman-musical-harmony-at-a...

Orton’s ‘Loot’ at Fullerton’s STAGES
http://www.examiner.com/article/alvin-ailey-dance-theater-returns-to-scf...

Visit my Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Jordan-R.- Young/e/B001K8E7NW
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