Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Film of Charles Lindbergh's May 20, 1927 transatlantic flight - new DVD

40 minutes of rarely-seen vintage newsreels documenting Charles Lindbergh's historic transatlantic flight on May 20, 1927 were recently released on a new DVD from Undcercrank Productions. Available on Amazon, the DVD also features a rare Monty Banks aviation silent comedy feature "Flying Luck" (1927), inspired by Lindbergh's flight and co-starring a young Jean Arthur.

The three newsreels, made by Kinograms, Pathé News and the William J. Ganz Company, document Lindbergh's take-off, flight, landing, receptions in Europe and his triumphant return to the United States. Each newsreel covers the events from different angles or perspectives, giving the viewer or historian a full perspective of the historic events of the flight.

"Flying Luck" went before the cameras in July of 1927, and was one of the popular comedian's last films in the silent era. It was transferred from a rare, vintage 35mm nitrate print, and both the Banks feature and the newsreels feature new musical scores by Ben Model on theatre organ and piano, respectively.

From the Amazon listing description:

Monty Banks wants to be like his hero Charles Lindbergh, and will do anything to learn to fly a plane. After building his own doesn't go so well, he winds up enlisting in the Army. During basic training, Monty falls in love with the Colonel's daughter (played by a young Jean Arthur), tangles with a mean drill sergeant (Kewpie Morgan) and is mistaken for a visiting French dignitary. But eventually Monty winds up in a plane and wins the big Army-Navy air polo match!

On May 20, 1927 Charles Lindbergh successfully performed the first transatlantic solo flight, captivating the nation, if not the world. Two months later, motion picture trade papers announced that comedian Monty Banks’ next feature-length comedy would be An Ace in the Hole — which was released on December 5, 1927 as Flying Luck.  This aviation-inspired comedy was the last produced of a string of Monty Banks features made 1924-27.

Monty Banks entered films in 1916 and, after supporting other comedians for a few years, had a successful series of starring shorts from 1920 to 1924. Banks is probably best known for the climactic reels of his thrill comedy feature Play Safe (1927), which were featured in Robert Youngson's compilation movie The Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961).

Flying Luck capitalizes on the 1927 airplane craze and co-stars a young Jean Arthur (Easy Living, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Shane). This extremely rare silent film has never been available on home video, and is seen here in a transfer from a rare, vintage 35mm nitrate print.

BONUS: This DVD includes 40 minutes of newsreels covering Lucky Lindy’s infamous flight from New York to Paris from "weeklies" (newsreels) produced by Kinograms, the William J. Ganz Company and Pathé News.

100 mins, B&W, unrated; stereo.
Musical scores copyright © 2014 by Ben Model, all rights reserved.
Produced for video by Bruce Lawton & Ben Model
A DVD release from Undercrank Productions

Tuesday, April 01, 2014



Renowned Silent Film Accompanist/Historian Ben Model

Collaborates with Library of Congress to bring outrageous
1916-17 films featuring Ringling/Ziegfeld star to home video


NEW YORK, N.Y. (Tuesday, April 1, 2014) – Undercrank Productions and noted silent film accompanist/historian Ben Model announced today the DVD release of “The Mishaps of Musty Suffer”, an unjustly overlooked and forgotten series of slapstick comedies produced in 1916-17.  The release of the disc will be the first the general public has seen of these silent shorts since their initial release.  The DVD features new digital transfers of the films, which were preserved by the Library of Congress, with new musical scores by Model. The DVD will be released on April 22 and will be available exclusively through Amazon.com.

Produced by George Kleine in studios in the Bronx, “The Mishaps of Musty Suffer” series is a cartoony and surreal series of comedy shorts chronicling the misadventures of put-upon tramp “Musty Suffer”, who lives a slapstick version of the Story of Job. Its star is the equally forgotten Harry Watson, Jr., a very popular stage clown and who had graduated from vaudeville and Ringling Brothers' Circus to become headliner of the early Ziegfeld Follies. Wildly popular during its release, the series has been oddly overlooked and neglected ever since its initial release. Fortunately the Library of Congress preserved the 24 surviving films from the Musty Suffer series.

“I’d never seen anything like these films before,” says Historian and Silent Film Composer Ben Model, “and believe me…I’ve seen a ton of silent comedy shorts. They’re so different from what Chaplin and Keystone were putting out at the time, the oddball combination of vaudeville and unintended Dada in the gags and stories is both hilarious and bizarre. Plus, they unwittingly recorded bits of circus routines in some of these. It’s the cartoon-like scenarios of the Musty Suffer films that make them so accessible and funny.”

Model funded the DVD by returning to Kickstarter, where he’d successfully funded his 2013 Accidentally Preserved vol 1 & 2 DVDs. He then arranged for new HD digital transfers of the archival master prints held the Library of Congress, and composed and recorded new musical scores for the films. The DVD contains 8 of the funniest from the series, as well as extras and an image gallery. Model is publishing a companion guide booklet to the DVD, written by film historian Steve Massa, which is sold separately and fits inside the DVD case.

The Mishaps of Musty Suffer DVD sells for $19.95, and the 55-page DVD companion booklet for $5.95; both will be available April 22, 2014 at Amazon.com. 117 mins, B&W, produced and scored by Ben Model.

press inquiries: ben@silentclowns.com or visit www.mustysuffer.com. 


Ben Model is one of the nation’s leading silent film accompanists, and has been a resident film pianist at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) since 1984.  He accompanies silent films on piano and theatre organ regularly at MoMA, the Library of Congress, the Silent Clowns Film Series (in NYC), and at many theatres and schools around the country.  His recorded scores can be heard on numerous releases from Kino Lorber and on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).  He is also co-curator of MoMA’s annual “Cruel and Unusual Comedy” silent film series, and this month will be accompanying films at MoMA’s “Aesthetics of Shadow” series. Model is also the archivist for the Ernie Kovacs/Edie Adams collection and has programmed two “Ernie Kovacs Collection” DVD box sets for Shout Factory as well as MVD’s “Here’s Edie: The Edie Adams Television Shows”. He is based in New York City.  His website is www.silentfilmmusic.com.


GOING UP (1916) - 12 mins - itinerant tramp stumbles upon old pal Dippy Mary, who allows him to spend the night at the home she is caring for, but a beer bath and a serenade by a German band make for a difficult night.

THE LIGHTNING BELLHOP (1916) - 13 mins - Musty gets a job in a hotel where his duties as bellhop include being the elevator's counterweight and the hotel's maintenance man.

JUST IMAGINATION (1916) - 14 mins - when the Fairy Tramp appears before Musty, he wishes for a job, but is instead treated to a series of mental experiments in one of the most surreal films in the series.

BLOW YOUR HORN (1916) - 12 mins - this "whirl" finds Musty working as a bike messenger in the wilds of either the Bronx or Fort Lee, where he delivers building supplies and lingerie items. In the final third of the film Watson recreates a routine with two mannequins that was original a circus "walkabout" gag.

WHILE YOU WAIT (1916) - 14 mins - still looking for work, Musty tries an employment office and winds up with three different jobs…all at the same time for the same employer.

LOCAL SHOWERS (1916) - 12 mins - Musty must brave a dentist's office to have an infected tooth pulled in a bizarre film that anticipates the mania of Bob Clampett's WB cartoons.

OUTS AND INS (1916) - 12 mins - Musty works at a large indoor arcade, the set-piece of which involves his culinary and strangely sadistic work on the kitchen side of an automat.

SPLICED AND ICED (1917) - 12 mins - Musty tries to finally settle down at long last, and prepared to marry the woman of his dreams, but life with wifey and her father turn out to be a nightmare after the wedding.


CAPTURING CHICAGO (1916) - 10 mins - producer George Kleine made sure to have newsreel footage taken of Watson/Musty being feted during a motion picture exposition in Chicago in July 1916, and released it as this promo film.

HOLD FAST (excerpt) (1916) - 6 mins - the second half of this Musty "whirl" is basically a reenactment of Bickel & Watson's famous boxing routine from the Follies. (Look for ensemble player Snitz Edwards in the background!)

IMAGE GALLERY – rare photographs, production stills, clippings and trade ads

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hal Roach silent comedy shorts on Sun March 23 **FREE**

On Sunday, March 23rd at 7:15pm, the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church (NYC) is hosting a FREE evening of silent comedies! Wind down your week – or kick off the one that's starting – with two solid hours of belly-laugh-inducing classic comedies.  These 1920s films will be presented with live musical scores by renowned silent film accompanist Ben Model.

The line-up of Hal Roach comedy shorts is:
  • SHOULD MEN WALK HOME? (1927) wtih Mabel Normand, Creighton Hale,  Oliver Hardy
  • A PAIR OF TIGHTS (1928) with Anita Garvin, Marion Byron, Edgar Kennedy
  • PASS THE GRAVY (1928) with Max Davidson
  • MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE (1926) with Charley Chase, dir., Leo McCarey
  • HIGH AND DIZZY (1920) with Harold Lloyd 
  • IT'S A GIFT (1923) with Snub Pollard

The film prints are courtesy of archivist Bruce Lawton, who will also project them. Ben Model will perform his original accompaniment on the St. James Chapel's 3-manual 44-rank Holtkamp pipe organ. Films will be introduced by Karl Tiedemann.

Sunday, October 20 – 7:00pm
James’ Chapel, inside the
Union Theological Seminary
enter on Broadway at 121st St 

** admission is free **

The films will be accompanied on the James Chapel's
3-manual/44-rank Holtkamp pipe organ

Union Theological Seminary entrance, on Bway nr W 121st St.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Doin' it wrong…on purpose

Working even harder this year on improving my playing/accompaniment. Last night, as an exercise, I hauled out the DVD of something I'm playing for later this month and ran it on my laptop (mute) and played for it… as wrong as possible. Song title puns, a waltz when people were doing the Charleston, dissonant music, R&B riffs, opposite moods, you name it. Anything to get me out of my "usual".

A good exercise and while nothing's come out of it yet (first time up at bat on this), it confirmed my aesthetic that while bad and incorrect music choices can be made to line up with or fit a film, they still have the overall effect of undermining the entertainment potential of the film.  At the end of playing "wrong" for the movie, my impression of it was that it was a pretty weak film.  Which it isn't.

The right choices can make a mediocre film, even a bad one, still come off well for an audience.  Ask me about the time I played for the Larry Semon Wizard Of Oz sometime.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Harold Lloyd in "For Heaven's Sake" Sun 10/20 *FREE*

On Sunday, October 20th at 7:00, the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church (NYC) is hosting a free evening of silent comedies! Wind down your week – or kick off the one that's starting – with two solid hours of belly-laugh-inducing classic comedies.  These 1920s films will be presented with live musical scores by renowned silent film accompanist Ben Model.

The main feature on the program is Harold Lloyd in FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE (1926). "A man with a mansion…and a miss with a mission!"  Spoiled rich man Harold inadvertently falls for a pretty young woman whose father's skid row mission is threatened by gangsters. Harold's pals try to stop him from marrying her, but on the wedding day there's a hilarious drunken race to the altar.  Preceding the feature are the shorts: THE SCARECROW (1921) with Buster Keaton, LIMOUSINE LOVE (1927) with Charley Chase, and BACON GRABBERS (1929) with Laurel and Hardy.

The films will be accompanied on the James Chapel's
3-manual/44-rank Holtkamp pipe organ
The film prints are courtesy of archivist Bruce Lawton, who will also project them. Ben Model will perform his original accompaniment on the St. James Chapel's 3-manual 44-rank Holtkamp pipe organ.

Sunday, October 20 – 7:00pm
James’ Chapel, inside the
Union Theological Seminary
enter on Broadway at 121st St
** admission is free **

Union Theological Seminary entrance, on Bway nr W 121st St.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Undercranking's "smoking gun" courtesy of Milton Sills

I knew it.  I just knew it. I've been looking for years for written evidence that silent film actors had to adjust the way they moved to compensate for the speed-up of silent film.

It has always appeared to have been the case to me when I've slowed down silent film segments to the speed they were shot at. (See examples here.) It's the reason silent film, despite being shown 30-50% faster than taking speed, still reads just fine…and most people's attempts at silent filmmaking today just look like they're being shown too fast. (Yes, there are a handful people who are working with the speed properly; then there are also the people who think the speed-up is a mistake and do everything in real-time. But that's another topic.)

In June 2013, I gave my lecture "Undercranking: the Magic Behind the Slapstick" at the Library of Congress' annual unidentified silent film conference "Mostly Lost".  Afterwards, while debriefing with fellow historians in the lobby, Richard Koszarski mentioned to me that Milton Sills had written a piece on motion picture acting for Encyclopedia Brittanica that discussed exactly what I was describing.

Here it is, from the 1929 edition:

"While the normal speed of the camera in filming a performance is 16 pictures a second, or 60ft. of film per minute, when the picture is projected in a theatre, it is the custom to run it at the rate of 24 pictures per second, or 90ft. per minute. This, together with the fact that the film does not record movement as adequately as the eye, makes it necessary for the actor to adopt a more deliberate tempo than that of the stage or of real life. He must learn to time his action in accordance with the requirements of the camera, making it neither too fast nor too slow – a process of education only to be acquired through experience in the studio. The first mark of a novice is the rapidity and jerkiness of his movements, registered upon the screen as blurred and meaningless streaks. Another essential feature of the screen actor’s technique is a careful spacing of significant items which constitute the sequence of the scene. One thing and one thing only must be done at a time, and this in a clean-cut and distinct style with no distracting, irrelevant or unnecessary movements."
-- Milton Sills, writing on "Motion Picture Acting"
in the 1929 edition of the 
Encyclopedia Britannica, pp 860-862.

Sills is inaccurate, however, in stating that 16fps is the "normal speed of the camera", as a few different speeds were usually used throughout a film, and the standard cranking speed had crept up to 18 or 20 fps (or more) by the year this article was written.  Also, by the mid-to-late '20s, there were theatres running pictures closer to 100ft per minute (26 or 27 fps).  

These numbers aside, the point here is this: anyone performing before a camera during the silent era compensated for this speed-up by developing a modified physicality, speed, and timing.

If you are interested in silent film and especially in making silent films, read this...print it out...memorize it.  

I am not crazy.  Silent film actors knew the film was being shown faster than the speed it was being shot at and created a new, modified form of movement and pantomime to compensate.

Thanks for reading.

Ben Model

Monday, March 18, 2013

episode 5: marathon of shows, music for Doug and Mary, of benches and lights, and more

episode 5: marathon of shows, music for Doug and Mary, of benches and lights, and more
A whirlwind week of performances and travel - 7 shows in 8 days
Live performance: "The Mark of Zorro" at Central Baptist Church
Preparing for a performance: music prep, bench height, piano light, etc
Live performance: "My Best Girl" at Port Washington library
Upcoming performances, including a week of Mary Pickford in April.

Click here to listen to the podcast.