The list of things that have proved difficult since the onset of closures due to the COVID-19 virus are too numerous to name. In the midst of the struggles, however, many positives have surfaced, innovative ideas that have united us virtually in common interests. Among those is a weekly Sunday afternoon gem that focuses on early slapstick comedy and offers insights and historical references. If you have not seen it, the Silent Comedy Watch Party is the best thing you have missed for an entire year.
It is probably no surprise to anyone that I would recommend movies as a tool to beat doldrums in all manner of ways, but of all those tools, knowing that you are guaranteed a good time every week from the comfort of your own home has to sit high on the list. That is the Silent Comedy Watch Party co-hosted and produced by silent film accompanist Ben Model and film historian Steve Massa. The Silent Comedy Watch Party will be celebrating its one-year anniversary next week with usual enthusiasm and flair no doubt and I wanted to pay it tribute. Each episode, which streams live on Sunday afternoons at 3pm EDT on YouTube, features two or three silent comedy shorts with live accompaniment by Model. The shorts are sourced from rare archival prints, the details of which are offered. It is like the most entertaining school you’ve ever been to because aside from the historical and background information offered the one thing you can bet on is laughter.
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of The Silent Comedy Watch Party, I sat down with Ben Model and Steve Massa for a few questions. Or rather, I sat down and assume they did too as we got this done from a distance. I took the opportunity to ask them about their careers as well as the Watch Party.
Aurora: Let me begin by thanking you both for The Silent Comedy Watch Party. I know you have brightened many a Sunday afternoon for people during a difficult time. How did it come about?
Ben: You’re very welcome. We’ve heard the same from many many people over the course of the last year, even from the beginning. People have written that they’ve laughed themselves well, or gotten through a dark time in their lives because they’ve gotten to laugh every week through our shows.
The show was my idea. I’d had the concept and had accumulated the various tech pieces for it for a few years but never given it a shot. I was too busy playing shows in and out of town. But here we all were suddenly, told to stay home, to cancel all large gatherings of people, stressed out of our minds with no idea when this was going to end or how we’d all navigate through it. I thought, well — this seemed like a moment to give this a shot. I thought of all the people who wouldn’t be able to go to silent movies with live music who now couldn’t, and wouldn’t be able to for an indefinite period of time.
Aurora: How did the two of you team up for the show?
Ben: Steve came to one of the shows at The Silent Clowns Film Series in NYC back when it started. He was wearing a t-shirt with the Education Pictures logo, and knew some of the other people at our shows. We were chatting after the show and he offered to do our film notes. We met Marlene Weisman and her husband Mike Abadi the same way. Then, Steve and I put together an Arbuckle retrospective for MoMA in 2006 together with Ron Magliozzi, one of their film curators. This led to the various iterations of the “Cruel and Unusual Comedy” series we did with Ron at MoMA and the DVDs I’ve done with my label Undercrank Productions. It’s a very collegial and collaborative partnership, and it’s about what we can show to or share with fans.
Aurora: And boy de we appreciate that. How do you approach choosing the featured shorts each week?
Ben: It was haphazard, a bit, the first bunch of months, but we’re now at a point where we’re mapping this out a few months at a time. We know who the big draw stars are, and so we make sure there’s a Chaplin or Keaton or Arbuckle or Chase short etc. every month, and we’re rotating through those comics’ 2-reeler output. They’re all great films, so it’s really a matter of ‘what haven’t we shown yet?’ mostly. What’s been a nice surprise is the response we’ll get to something we think of as a warhorse that’s been shown a lot or one of the titles that doesn’t get run as often. The comments we’ll see for something like Chaplin’s One A.M. or especially on Keaton’s Balloonatic were really refreshing, for instance.
Aurora: Those lesser-known comedies from the likes of Chaplin and Keaton really spotlight their talent. Did you think the show would last a year and beyond? Was that the goal?
Ben: What goal? The only goal was to keep the laughs going until the all-clear sounds for everyone and we can all come out of our caves safely. All we could do is watch the news and see where all of this looked like it might be headed. And even then we didn’t know.
Aurora: Will you continue the live stream when and if restrictions are eased?
Ben: Yes. We will probably adjust its frequency — maybe shifting to every-other-week and eventually to being monthly — depending on how things develop and resume with my getting booked to leave our apartment to go play someone else’s piano or theatre organ at their venue.
Aurora: Has the Silent Comedy Watch Party procured a new audience for silent comedies? If so, why do you think that is? What has the feedback been like?
Ben: Oh yes. We are hearing from a fraction of the people who watch, but I have to assume it may represent the folks who don’t write in or comment. There are kids and families watching every week. There are spouses or partners who wouldn’t give silent movies the time of day who’ve sat down and watched now, and are getting into this. There are tons of people watching who’d never seen silent film with live music before, and that’s a big shift. I think the live element of the score and our presentations – and the informality of our format – has been part of the glue that’s gotten fans old and new stuck on these films.
Aurora: I agree that the laid-back approach to the shows really draws you in.
On audiences in general – I know you’ve been presenting silent film programs at schools to kids from Kindergarten through high school and, in fact, have a wonderful video on your website of 5-year-old kids enjoying a silent comedy. Is that how most react? If so, why do you think that is?
Ben: I think the real question to consider is why we assume they won’t like silent movies. An adult’s mindset may be that the lack of color or sound is going to be a barrier, but kids access their imagination way more than adults do. If they didn’t, there’d be no market for dolls or toy trucks or Legos.
Aurora: Great point.
Aurora: I come from a non-English-speaking household so I believe Silent movies are more universal than talkies because language is (for the most part) not an issue. Besides the work that you and Steve do to promote these movies, what more can be done to bring them to wider audiences? What can we do as fans?
Ben: Get involved. There’s no such thing as “why wasn’t this advertised more?” anymore, not with the ability to be on social media and build up email lists and blog. If you know about a classic film show, then help get the word out. It’s up to us fans to spread the word, and the internet has made doing this real easy. Don’t just like something, re-tweet it or re-post it. Box office tells a venue or programmer that what they booked was a good idea, and they’ll do it again. Supporting the networks and venues who say ‘yes’ is way more useful than whining online about the ones that say ’no’.
Aurora: I try to do that, but will step up my support because it matters.
Steve, how did you get here, to writing about silent comedy and co-hosting the Silent Comedy Watch Party? Perhaps it’s easier just to ask, how did you get into silent movies?
Steve: When I was a kid there were television shows that repackaged silent comedy shorts for children (Comedy Capers, Who’s the Funny Manns, Mischief Makers, etc.). That’s how I first saw them and got hooked. From that early beginning I tried to see as many of the films and gather as much information on them as possible. For years this was my personal hobby, but in 1985 I got invited to the FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives) Slapstick Symposium at the Museum of Modern Art. It inspired me to “go public” with my silent film interests, and begin creating programs of the films. After sending proposals to film archives and museums I curated my first silent film program in 1990, and things snowballed from there.
I’ve been lucky to work and collaborate with people who are equally enthusiastic about silent comedy, which has allowed me to move from project to project.
Aurora: How do you approach writing your books? What is your process? How do you choose your subject?
Steve: My books initially grew out of the film notes that I was writing for different programs and festivals. But these generally cover a specific or narrow topic, and I found that I wanted to tackle broader subjects and go into greater detail.
I always go with people or aspects of the films that I find fascinating, but which have been unjustly overlooked. Usually my subjects find me because they’ve peaked my interest. Slapstick Divas grew out of my initial interest in the comediennes Alice Howell and Gale Henry. While writing an article about how neglected they are I realized that really all the silent comediennes are neglected, and that their careers and lives needed to be chronicled. I did Rediscovering Roscoe as I love Arbuckle’s films, but all the previous books on him had focused on his scandal and its aftermath. No one had really looked at the films and his amazing talents as a performer, director, and all around comedy creator.
One aspect of the books that’s extremely important to me are the images. Since silent comedy is a visual medium I try to find the most evocative photos and use as many of them as possible. I think my purpose as a writer is to shine some light into the darker corners of silent comedy history.
Aurora: This may be like having to choose your favorite child, but do you have a favorite of those you’ve written about? (I am a big fan of Mr. Arbuckle, by the way).
Steve: I’m lucky as I’ve been pretty happy with the way my books have turned out. The one that I think is the most important – that covers a large and much-needed to be examined topic – is Slapstick Divas. It’s so unfair that scores of these talented women have been so neglected, so I was very happy to profile as many of them as I could humanly manage.
Aurora: I enjoy Slapstick Divas immensely and refer to it often.
Aurora: Ben, how did your career as a film accompanist start?
Ben: I was a film production major at NYU, but found that they were showing the silent films in the Cinema Studies classes in dead silence. This was before VHS, so all they had were 16mm prints. I got the OK to give this a shot from the head of the department, and started in my sophomore year, and wound up playing for William K. Everson’s classes. I met Lee Erwin, who’d been a movie organist in the 1920s himself, and we became friends and I absorbed everything I could from him.
Aurora: Describe the art of film accompaniment. How do you prepare? Do you improvise?
Ben: I watch the film at least once, and will jot down important story notes, as well as visual cues to look for that precede them so I can transition smoothly and anticipate these. That’s the ideal situation. Sometimes I’ll “sight-read” the film, but I don’t tell the audience. A lot of it’s improvised, but I’m really drawing on a musical vocabulary I’ve developed over many years and continue to augment and revise. Lee was an improvisor, and between his influence and the fact that working this way allows me to score way more films, this has become how I currently approach the process. Having trained in and performed improv comedy for a bunch of years back in the 1990s also really helped.
Aurora: I’ll ask about your improv career at another time, but sounds fascinating. Are there any other major projects in the horizon you both want to tell us about?
Steve: Besides the ongoing Silent Comedy Watch Party I have a few film programs coming up for places like the Niles Film Museum, but there are two main projects. The first is the DVD of Edward Everett Horton silent comedies that Ben and I are putting out through his Undercrank Productions. These are two-reel shorts made in 1927 and 1928 that star Horton and were produced by no less than Harold Lloyd. People don’t think of silent comedy when they think of Mr. Horton, but he had a substantial career in silent films, and this series of shorts is part of the final peak of silent slapstick alongside the films of Laurel & Hardy and Max Davidson.
The other project is my new book Lame Brains and Lunatics 2: More Good, Bad, and Forgotten of Silent Comedy. It’s a sequel to my first book Lame Brains and Lunatics with new essays on overlooked aspects and people of silent comedy. The book will be out sometime in the middle of 2022, and so far includes pieces on the silent comedy animal stars, the influence of the English music hall on silent slapstick, the careers of the directors Leo McCarey and Edward Luddy, the series The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, and a history of Christie Comedies.
Ben: The Edward Everett Horton DVD project is in its final couple of months of production, and we’re hoping to be able to release this set of 8 comedies no one’s seen since 1928 this coming summer. I’ll be scoring Zander the Great with Marion Davies for Ed Lorrusso soon and also plan to release that on DVD later in the year. I have a few other DVD project ideas I’d like to pursue, but it’s too early to say anything about them.
Aurora: All of that sounds wonderful, but the Edward Everett Horton DVD project will no doubt be hugely popular. He is a favorite of every calssic movie fan I’ve ever talked to.
Aurora: Steve, why would you say restoring silent comedies (or movies in general) is so important?
Steve: Restoring silent comedies is the same as preserving great works of art such as the Mona Lisa or Starry Night.
Aurora: It really is that simple. I know you’ve programmed for MoMA, the LOC, and the Smithsonian among others, but what would a perfect evening of silent comedy look like to you?
Steve: For me the perfect evening of silent comedy would be a program of three important but “lost” silent comedies. The two shorts would be Laurel & Hardy’s Hats Off (1927) and Robinson Crusoe LTD (1921) starring Lloyd Hamilton. The feature would be Heart Trouble (1928) starring and directed by Harry Langdon.
Aurora: That gave me goosebumps. Sounds like a great idea for Capitolfest.
Aurora: Finally, what silent movie comedian would you recommend to people interested in viewing silent comedies?
Ben: I don’t have a favorite. They’re all great and they all have different strong points — if anything what I really enjoy is discovering someone whose work I don’t know or, as with Marcel Perez or Hank Mann or Alice Howell, getting to see another of their films when they surface and get taken off the “missing” list. Keaton’s probably the most accessible for modern audiences, but nothing rocks a movie theater audience like a Harold Lloyd picture and I look forward to doing in-cinema shows of things like For Heaven’s Sake and The Kid Brother when it’s safe for everybody again.
Steve: It may sound corny, but for new fans I’d recommend Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel & Hardy. This is because they’re so universal and I think still very accessible today. And they were great masters in front of and behind the camera. If someone really responds to Chaplin, Keaton, and L&H, then they can move on to other great comedy creators like Arbuckle, Charley Chase, and even Harry Langdon.
Aurora: That’s a great way to wrap this up. Thank you both for taking the time to do this. I know how busy you are. And, a hearty congratulations on the success of the Silent Comedy Watch Party.
As you can tell, both Ben Model and steve Massa are deeply entrenched in the world of rare film releases and the histories of the featured players. No doubt that, like me, you will learn a heck of a lot from their expertise. The level of information both hosts offer at each of the Silent Comedy Watch Party episodes is truly astounding. And the best thing is it is all presented in an entertaining, laid-back show from Ben Model’s living room. I cannot say enough about the show. It is required viewing for all who believe in laughter therapy.
If you miss a week’s programming you can access the show at your convenience on The Silent Comedy Watch Party YouTube page where each episode is archived. You can also view a listing of all previous shows on their Vault page.