Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Lions and Tigers and Colonel Selig

The kind folks at Classic Movie Hub have given me the opportunity to create a series of posts dedicated to the history of silent film in Chicago. The second post about Selig Polyscope post is live here, and here's an excerpt to get you started... 

In the early days of silent cinema, Chicago was responsible for 20% of the total output of the US film industry. One of the biggest contributors to this staggering statistic was Chicago’s own Selig Polyscope Company. What was the reason for the company’s success? Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my!

You can read the entire post over at Classic Movie Hub here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Review: "The Mishaps of Musty Suffer"

the mishaps of musty suffer

Ben Model has done it again. Today marks the official release of Model's most recent Kickstarter venture, "The Mishaps of Musty Suffer," and this latest offering is every bit as entertaining as the last.

Musty Suffer is the title character in a series of films originally created and produced by George Kleine in 1916 and 1917. Starring Harry Watson Jr. as Musty, the various installments or "whirls" follow Musty's Book of Job-esque existence (Must he suffer?). Although that synopsis might suggest otherwise, the premise itself allows for hilarious run-ins, sticky situations and slapstick fun. The series ended rather unceremoniously in 1917, and remained largely forgotten and overlooked, but Model's Kickstarter project and supportive backers have helped bring these lesser-known films back into the spotlight.

the mishaps of musty suffer

The DVD features 10 Musty whirls, including installments created with Kleine and installments filmed and produced in and around Chicago by Essanay. The prints, which have been preserved by the Library of Congress, look great and are accompanied by Model's well-timed and thoroughly enjoyable original compositions.

Not only are these 10 whirls regarded as the funniest of the Musty films, their plots alone are fascinating. While some feel like they could easily belong in the same universe as Chaplin's one and two-reelers, such as 1916's "The Lightning Bellhop," others are surprisingly surreal and darkly funny. "Just Imagination" sees Musty as the victim of the sadistic Fairy Tramp who, rather than give him a job, sets him up as the guinea pig for a number of mental experiments. Similarly, "Outs and Ins" sees Musty as the operator of an automat who has a disturbing use for the diners who are eager to rip him off.

the mishaps of musty suffer

The most historically interesting film is "Capturing Chicago," a 10-minute piece filmed during Kleine and Watson's visit to Chicago for the Motion Picture Exposition in 1916. Musty and his gang parade around town, are presented with a key to the city, and even hijack a mini train in Lincoln Park.

Whether you're new to the world of silent comedy or a silent film historian, "The Mishaps of Musty Suffer" is hilarious, entertaining, and fascinating. You can buy it now via Amazon. For you completists out there, there is also a fantastic companion book, written by film historian Steve Massa, which details the history of Musty Suffer and gives an overview of the men behind Musty. You can also buy it now via Amazon.

Eager to learn more about Musty? Visit the official page here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Selig Polyscope Company and the Birth of Film in the Windy City

The kind folks at Classic Movie Hub have given me the opportunity to create a series of posts dedicated to the history of silent film in Chicago. The first (intro) post is live here, and here's an excerpt to get you started with the first (full) installment, all about Colonel Selig.

By the time William N. Selig died in 1948, he had produced thousands of films via the Selig Polyscope Company, discovered a number of silent film stars, and had been recognized as a true pioneer in the film industry. Yet, his name isn’t nearly as widely known as it should be. So, who was this man, and what was the company that he created?

You can read the entire post over at Classic Movie Hub here.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Man Behind the Film: An Interview with Accidentally Preserved's Ben Model

Recently, silent film accompanist/film historian Ben Model released the second installment of his “Accidentally Preserved” series. The DVD features nine more restored versions of previously thought lost and rare silent films, all with brand new musical accompaniment courtesy of Model himself. In honor of the release, I spoke with Model about the new DVD and the experience of restoring these previously lost treasures.

Scene from "Why Wild Men Go Wild"

The dates and print quality on these films ranged quite a bit. What film(s) posed the greatest difficult to transfer/restore? 

Well, most of the prints themselves are from the 1930s, and surprisingly were not huge challenges to transfer. The films that were dupes of an original 16mm from the ‘30s, like the Lloyd Hamilton short or the Bobby Vernon, needed a little more goosing in terms of adjusting things like gamma, etc. than the others. The most time-consuming part of the process is usually the creation of new main titles and credits. I try to find a film from a similar year, studio or series, and do as close a match to that title as I can.

Like the previous volume, this volume presents films from a wide variety of genres (cartoons, comedies, ads, instructional safety films), and they feature a wide variety of notable silent stars. Even though they’re all very different, do you have a favorite film among those listed on this installment? 

I find that my favorites almost never line up with other peoples’ on these DVDs. While it’s not the greatest comedy ever – and what Bobby Vernon short is? – there are things I like about  “Why Wild Men Go Wild.” It’s a film whose plot point has fingers on various pulses of American culture in 1920: the start of prohibition, the novelty of middle-class men going to college and partying too much, and especially the woman wanting a “cave man” for a mate. Plus, Steve Massa is pretty sure it’s Vera Steadman’s first short for Christie, and the film has a very nice bookend device with her swimming in a pool. That aspect of a cultural/social context appeals to me. I like the blasting cap film for the same reason. On the other hand, I’d have to say the Hamilton short and the Telephone Girls short are favorites purely for entertainment reasons.

Still from "House of Wonders," from "Accidentally Preserved Vol. 1" 

The previous volume of “Accidentally Preserved” featured an industrial film that offered a behind- the-scenes look at the Elgin National Watch Company. You mentioned in a Kickstarter update that you received a response from someone with ties to the company. Tell me a little about that experience. 

That falls under the heading of “you just never know who’s going to find something interesting.” Here you have this completely lost film that watch historians knew nothing about all about the Elgin Watch company’s factory. The print came from an eBay seller in Canada (as did the print itself), and it’s a really nice sharp old original. When I released the films from volume one on YouTube a few months after the DVD came out I sent a link to it to the Elgin, Illinois Historical Society, and they absolutely flipped. Then a couple months later, a woman wrote me who is the educator at the planetarium in the building where the Elgin observatory and telescope was housed. She sees 18,000 students every year, and said “I can't believe that there is footage of Frank Urie at the telescope that was used to measure time for the factory,” and would it be okay if she showed a portion of the film to visiting groups. A lot of people I know couldn’t hit the “next chapter” button on their remote fast enough on this one, but I’ve also made a lot of peoples’ days by making this available. What’s satisfying for me is that now here’s this historic film record of probably the main industry in Elgin that people in that city – or anyone else on the planet who’s interested in antique watches – can now view for study or entertainment.

With Kickstarter, you’ve been able to fund the production of “Accidentally Preserved” and the upcoming “The Mishaps of Musty Suffer.” Do you think you’ll continue using the crowdfunding method to fund the production of these volumes of rare silents? Do you think this will soon become the go-to route for others looking to transfer, preserve and share rare and lost films? 

It’s the most viable way to go on a production that’s really a niche-within-a-niche like this is. Over the past few years I’d been paying attention to on-demand publishing platforms like CreateSpace as well as crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter. While I had the formula of Kickstarter funding a DVD project that I could release on Amazon through CreateSpace, it was Louis C.K.’s end-run around the standard distribution model in 2012 – where he sold downloads of his Beacon Theatre concert show on his own website – that showed me that this was a viable business model. The big thing to be aware of is that with crowd-funding, you have to have a crowd… a crowd who digs what you already do or have done, as well as what your project is. It’s not just a matter of having a great idea. The Accidentally Preserved Kickstarter ended in December of 2012, and I’m still sending out project updates and inside info to backers. In terms of economics, I think it’s the ideal formula for this kind of a project. The big labels need to know they’re going to move 2,000 units or something like that if they’re going to spend money up front on a project so they’ll make their money back. Rob Stone of the Library of Congress was talking to me about this and asked, “So, how many units do you have to sell to break even?” And I said, “Zero.” And that’s why I was able to fund volume 2 without having to go to Kickstarter…royalties from volume 1 covered the expenses for volume 2.

“Accidentally Preserved Vol. 2” is now available, “The Mishaps of Musty Suffer” will probably be released in March… Do you have any immediate plans for other crowdfunded film projects? 

I have a number of ideas for DVD projects, but I think it’s best not to say anything publicly about projects when they’re only in the “great idea” stage. But I can tell you that in working with the Library of Congress in getting the films for the Musty Suffer project, talks have begun about finding a way to in some way collaborate so that more of LoC’s preserved silent films can get released.

Purchase your own copy of “Accidentally Preserved Vol. 2” here and learn more about the Accidentally Preserved series here. Or, check out my review here.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Review: "Accidentally Preserved Volume 2"

Accidentally Preserved Volume 2

In the last month or so, the rest of the world has realized something that film fans and film historians have known for years -- 75% of American silent films are considered “lost.” Thanks to vault fires, decomposing original nitrate reels and a lack of foresight, the majority of silent cinema has been lost to time. While that’s a heartbreaking statistic, it also seems that every day a previously thought lost or extremely rare film is rediscovered or restored. Thanks to film fans and historians like Ben Model, these films are once again seeing the light of day. Last summer, I reviewed Model’s “Accidentally Preserved,” a volume of nine rare/lost silent films that was funded by Model’s successful Kickstarter campaign. The response to the DVD and campaign was overwhelming, and the success of the film was great enough to fund a second volume!

“Accidentally Preserved Volume 2” once again presents viewers with nine more rare/lost silent films with beautiful new musical accompaniment by Model himself. The films were made between 1919 and 1928, and include comedies, cartoons, an ad and even an instructional safety film. The transfers are crisp and clear, making the jokes and animation that much more powerful.

Alberta Vaughn in "Sherlock's Home"

One of the highlights is a previously thought lost installment in the “The Telephone Girl” comedy series starring Alberta Vaughn. This episode, entitled “Sherlock’s Home” features a scenario written by Darryl F. Zanuck himself and co-stars Al Cook and Kit Guard.

"Charley on the Farm"

The cartoons are also notable and very entertaining and interesting on their own. “Charley on the Farm” is a Universal cartoon featuring a caricature of Charlie Chaplin rehashing some of the Little Tramp’s gags from the Essanay film “The Tramp.”

Here’s a complete list of the films featured on Volume 2:

Bobby Vernon in WHY WILD MEN GO WILD (1920)
Charlie Chaplin cartoon: CHARLEY ON THE FARM (1919)
Alberta Vaughn in SHERLOCK’S HOME (1924)
Neely Edwards in THE LITTLE PEST (1927)
Lloyd Hamilton in PAPA’S BOY (1927)
Henry Murdock in COOK, PAPA, COOK (1928)
Blasting cap safety film: HOW JIMMY WON THE GAME (1928)
Animated ad: CHRISTMAS SEALS FILM (1925)

“Accidentally Preserved Volume 2” is available now via If you’re a fan of silent film or film history, or just want to support film preservation, I highly recommend picking up a copy. Who knows...if this release goes well, it could help fund a third installment of odd and wonderful forgotten silent films.

Visit the Accidentally Preserved official site for more information.