Profile of Silent Film Collector Ben Model
By Phil Hall
There are few people who enjoy a greater degree of expertise on silent films than Ben Model. The New York City-based Model is a noted silent film archivist and historian, as well as a composer and performer of new musical scores that accompany contemporary screenings of silent classics.
Model’s passion for collecting 16mm prints of silent films has proven to be something of a blessing for the cause of film preservation. It seems that many of the 16mm prints in his collection – which were originally created for the home entertainment market in the 1930s and 1940s – represent the sole surviving copies of silent films from the 1920s. These films were shot on nitrate film, but the highly unstable nature of that medium has resulted in the deterioration and disappearance of many films.
Model has gathered nine short films from his collection – seven comedies, an animated film from the Fleischer Studios and a short industrial film on the Elgin Watch Company – into a new DVD anthology called Accidentally Preserved: Volume 1. Thus, Model’s passion for collecting films has brought back
cinematic gems that have not been seen by the general public in decades.
Q: When, how and why did you become interested in collecting 16mm prints of silent films?
Ben Model: About 16 years ago, an elderly aunt passed away and her brother’s 16mm collection, sitting in her basement, needed to be dealt with. I had been a Super 8 collector and filmmaker in high school, so this wasn’t completely new to me. I took on the collection, which was mostly poor dupes of Chaplin films made in the 1940s and 1950s, plus worn rental prints from Castle Films. Sifting through these revealed, though, that there were several gems among all the soot-covered vinegar-smelling cans. One of these, a 1948 printing master of a rare Fleischer cartoon, is on Accidentally Preserved: Volume 1. Over the ensuing years,
I picked up a lot of silent comedy shorts, things I could program and accompany, and then began concentrating on oddball rarities because they were easier (meaning cheaper) to acquire on eBay.
Q: How many 16mm prints do you currently own, and where are they stored?
Ben Model: Maybe four or five dozen, not exactly what you’d call a “private archive” like a few friends of mine have. The films are on a couple shelves in my apartment. My ultimate plan for the 16mm prints on Accidentally Preserved is to donate them to the Library of Congress.
Q: Briefly, what is the history of the 16mm print market that emerged for home viewing during the 1930s and 1940s?
Ben Model: The 16mm format was debuted by Eastman Kodak in January 1923 – so, this year is its 90th anniversary – for people to shoot home movies and safely watch them in their home. 16mm was on safety film, which had been around for some years already, and so the flammability issue of 35mm nitrate wasn’t a worry for mom and pop and their kids. The Kodascope Library began renting out films in 1925, and before the end of the silent era there were several companies renting film in 16mm, with offices around the country. Universal established the Universal Show-At-Home Library, which showcased that studio’s product.
The Kodascope Library ceased in 1948, with its prints then scattered to collectors or camera shops or other outfits like the Mogull Bros. rental library, which continued for another couple decades. The Mogull prints, when that outfit shuttered, went to a couple private collectors and to another private archive whose holdings are now in the possession of the Library of Congress. The Select Film Library operated out of Willoughby-Peerless in New York City until the early 1980s, and those prints also went to private collectors. The individual prints that sort of got scattered to the wind during the last half of the 20th century still turn up in attics, basements, flea markets and eBay.
Q: When did you begin to realize that some of the prints you owned were the last surviving copies of these rare films?
Ben Model: In some cases, I was able to determine this as I acquired them. My friend Steve Massa, who is a major historian when it comes to silent film comedy, would look things up when I’d spot them on eBay or just knew if something was lost or rare.
Because I’ve been accompanying silents at the Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress, I’ve become friends with film curators/archivists there and have gotten them to look titles up on an international film archive database that’s an online, updated version of Ron Magliozzi’s “Treasures from the Film Archives” book. Sometimes I’d consult other experts. I wrote to animation historian Jerry Beck about the Fleischer cartoon I have and he knew where and if and in what format this title survived. I’ve written to two major pocket-watch historians and they’ve never ever heard of the Elgin Watch Company film I turned up. So that film – The House of Wonders – was really lost.
Q: For years, there has been a figure claiming that 90% of all silent films are considered lost. Is that number correct?
Ben Model: I have no idea. Every time I hear or read about this, the percentage is different. I often wonder if this percentage reflects whether private collections are taken into account or not. I doubt it. There’s a lot of film out there that you think isn’t around, and someone will go, “Oh, yeah, so-and-so has a print of that.” During the silent era, movies were a disposable product and weren’t thought of as having a shelf life, and when sound came in there really was no use for them as far as most studios were concerned. We have this percentage, and yet films seem to turn up every year. It’s not going to make a dent in that percentage, but at least it’s getting chipped away at a little.
Q: What was the impetus of the Accidentally Preserved DVD series?
Ben Model: I’ve been reassessing the 16mm film I own lately. The films I picked up so I could book shows with are no longer really necessary, as most places I play have video projection or do not have the budget to hire a second person to operate the 16mm while I play the piano. The oddball shorts that I picked up because of their rarity and low price have not been shown anywhere in the time I’ve had them. I figure: if I have these films that are lost, and no one can see them, then they’re still lost.
My initiative with silent film is for exhibition; I think like a programmer. When I see a great silent film I haven’t seen before, especially if the film’s gone over really well with an audience, I think, “Where can I get this shown?” I’ve been watching the trends in online streaming, YouTube, video on demand, etc. as alternatives to traditional distribution. I also have a few friends with 16mm film transfer equipment. Last summer I got about a half-dozen of the films I have transferred to video (standard def), scored them and uploaded them to YouTube, releasing them bi-weekly. It was like a series pilot. It went well, and I got a lot of nice comments and an increase in subscribers, which doubled after Leonard Maltin mentioned the web-series in his column.
Anybody can throw an iffy-looking transfer of a silent film onto YouTube with the CD of Joplin piano rolls or Jelly Roll Morton 78s that everyone seems to use, and they do. My idea was to present these films in good transfers with good custom scores, and it has paid off. During last summer’s series, two collectors wrote me and offered lost silents from their 16mm collections to me for the series.
The other big inspiration was Louis C.K.’s major success last year with the whole “who needs a distributor if I can reach the fans directly?” end-run around the industry. If there’s an interest and a fanbase, and you can reach those people yourself, you don’t need a distributor.
Q: At the risk of being rude, why should today’s viewers be interested in these old and obscure films?
Ben Model: Well, part if it is that you just never know who’s going to be interested in these, so why shouldn’t I make them available? The films of Accidentally Preserved will also get “released” on YouTube. YouTube is used in the classroom, in all grades and on the university level. I’ve gotten emails from relatives of silent era comedians like Fay Tincher and Bobby Burns, who are looking for videos of their great-aunts and grandparents – they’re going to hit YouTube first to find something, because Netflix doesn’t have as much content and isn’t searchable the same way.
I posted a film on the making of a Stetson hat a couple years ago, and later discovered it being mentioned on some Stetson hat posting forum. As much as the Elgin watch film seems to be the snoozer of the DVD, and I’ll admit a 23 minute film following every step of making a pocket-watch may not be Safety Last, but I bet there are hundreds of watch enthusiasts who will get a bang out of seeing the Elgin Watch factory circa 1930.
Q: What will the next volumes in the DVD series contain?
Ben Model: Most short silent films are comedies, so the DVDs will be top-heavy with those, filled out by the occasional cartoon, western or industrial or educational film. I only have another six or so films that I think would be worthy of including, but there are a few other collectors who’ve offered stuff from their collections for the series, so who knows what goodies will turn up? I’m still finalizing the title list for Accidentally Preserved: Volume 2, but I can tell you one of the films on it is a rare Lloyd Hamilton comedy short that doesn’t seem to circulate or exist in any archive.
More information on Accidentally Preserved can be found online at www.accidentallypreserved.com.
Phil Hall is a contributing editor for the online site Film Threat and author of the new book The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time, published by BearManor Media.