“The lost film,” a phrase that inspires articles and videos, as well as intriguing people bold enough to go out on a literal treasure hunt for fans in the hopes of finding something once originally deemed gone for good. Film accompanist and Undercrank founder Ben Model may not consider himself a film preservationist, but his company goes out in search of the rare and obscure, putting out films niche fans thought they’d never see. His latest project is a rare Marion Davies costume drama from 1922, When Knighthood Was in Flower. Successfully funded via Kickstarter and soon to hit DVD and Blu-ray, Model sat down to talk about Davies’ work, his search for rare films, and Undercrank as a company.
Kristen: Can you start by giving your background with film restoration and silent cinema in general?
Ben Model: I’ve been a silent film accompanist for 35 years, mostly at the Museum of Modern Art. I mostly coproduce the Silent Clowns Film Series with Bruce Lawton and we’re finishing up our 19th year of programming. I’m also the the resident accompanist both at the MoMA as well as the Library of Congress, a good deal of my background is in that. I came to that from being a filmmaker with a deep interest in silent film, and not being a musician who got into this. I had been a pianist – I’ve played piano since I was five – but I went to film school.
I began accompanying silent films at the film history classes at NYU. I grew up in a town in suburban New York called Larchmont where Walter Kerr lived, the author of The Silent Clowns and the drama critic for the New York Times, and when I was 12 I wrote him a letter asking if I could see films; I’d heard he had a huge silent film collection, and he called me a few days later. I spent the next fifteen years going over to his house and watching silent comedy films at the home of the guy who literally wrote the book on it. He had a huge collection of stuff, and I’d go over and he’d say “What do you want to see?” So I got to film school having seeing all of Chaplin’s films, all Keaton’s films, all of Raymond Griffith’s films, all of Harry Langdon’s films. He wasn’t didactic, but in a way he was very open to showing me stuff because of my interest. I’ve been playing for films ever since.
K: How did that transition into starting Undercrank?
BM: There’s a point in the last fifteen, twenty years where I was really concentrating on making a living working as a film accompanist, where I got into the presenting of the films. When Bruce and I do shows we don’t just turn off the lights and run movies for the audience. We get up, give a little background and put the film into context and answer questions afterwards. When theaters call me to do a show and ask “What do you like to play for?” I don’t have an answer. I like to know “What has your audience seen? What can we show them?” I gradually became a programmer, both in terms of choosing the films I’d show at different theaters, and I conceived of and was the co-organizer of the Roscoe Arbuckle retrospective at MoMA that ran for two months in 2006, working with Steve Massa and Ron Magliozzi, who was a curator at MoMA. The three of us also then did a series called Cruel and Unusual Comedy at MoMA, which we’ve done four or five different series. I’ve learned so much from Ron about this, the idea of finding a way to package films that are in an archive so that it’s palatable and appealing to an audience, and also shows off the collection.
What happened with me, as far as DVDs, was I’d always been fascinated by the process of how a film winds up going from “Oh, this is a good movie” to having it released. I’ve scored films for Milestone and Kino over the years and we’ve asked questions, “How does this work? How does that work?” I’ve learned a lot about how to make a DVD, the nuts and bolts of it. The whole thing got started with the first Accidentally Preserved volume, because I accumulated a bunch of these films – these obscure, lost or rare films – thinking there’d be opportunities to show them, and that never panned out. I felt, if I have these films, and they’re rare or they’re lost, and nobody can see them, then they’re still lost. So who cares if I have them? So I thought of finding a way to make them available to people.
That’s when I launched my YouTube channel, posting a few things, as a trial balloon for what became the Accidentally Preserved series and I got a lot more subscribers; Leonard Maltin wrote it up, which helped. The question was always a matter of funding. How do you fund a project like this? This is right when Kickstarter started becoming known as a platform. The thing that tipped it for me was Louis C.K. when he did his Beacon Theater concert; he sold it direct to his fans over his website, and made his money back over the course of a weekend. I realized that crowdfunding, by reaching out to fans, was the way to go. In the arts you’re always throwing things – you’re throwing spaghetti at the walls and seeing if it sticks, and sometimes it doesn’t. In this case I did this Kickstarter for Accidentally Preserved, and I got more money than I needed, which allowed me to roll some of that over and combine with royalties from the sales of the first volume – which got a very nice write-up in the New York Times – to do a second volume. At the same time I’m going down to the Library of Congress to play, because I’ve been playing for them for about six years, and I would tell Rob Stone about Accidentally Preserved and the nuts and bolts of how to make these things.
My second Kickstarter was for the Musty Suffer project. Once I’d done this with Accidentally Preserved I realized it is possible to release silent films that companies like Kino or Flicker Alley might not be interested in because of name recognition – there’s always a minimum number of units they need to sell. The production is funded through Kickstarter and I don’t have to run off a thousand copies, so it doesn’t matter how well or poorly something sells. So when Steve Massa was telling me about an article he was writing on the Musty Suffer films, I became fascinated with the series; the fact it was extremely popular, it was released on a weekly basis like a serial. What I learned from Louis C.K. is you don’t need a distributor anymore. It was just a matter of finding interesting product that deserves to be seen, and then creating a package that has a) good transfers, b) good music and c) good artwork.
K: That goes nicely into When Knighthood Was in Flower; in terms of name recognition, you can’t do any better in the silent era than Marion Davies. How did that project come about?
BM: One of the things that came about as a part of the Musty Suffer project was that those films were preserved by the Library of Congress and I had access to them. I now have a co-branding deal with the Library of Congress, so anything I put out has their logo on the box and the film itself. This is where, not just Musty Suffer came from, but also The Family Secret (1924) with Baby Peggy. I had seen Family Secret. We showed it at Mostly Lost the second year, and the Library of Congress had done this restoration on it. I thought it was good, and I hadn’t seen every Baby Peggy film but I thought it was her best feature film. The restoration was fantastic and I knew from talking with Rob Stone that other companies weren’t interested in putting it out, so I thought I’ll put it out. Last year I was able to get two comedy shorts of Baby Peggy’s from MoMA to fill out the disc.
With Knighthood it was a matter of [having] this relationship with the Library of Congress; I’m down there five, six times a year to play for stuff, so I do spend time watching stuff and familiarizing myself with the collection. This also comes back to before with MoMA, just knowing the collection you can percolate different ideas. I was looking for other things to release that are in the public domain and which the Library of Congress has in their collection with no donor restrictions. I don’t know if the Library acquired [Marion Davies’ collection] or she gave it to the library, but there are several Marion Davies films in their collection. A number of them are copyrighted by MGM so they were off the menu. But LOC has a gorgeous print of The Patsy (1928), when you see it it looks like it was released last year. Looking around it turned out there was a print of When Knighthood Was in Flower. I liked The Patsy and Show People (1928), and I recognized Marion has a huge fanbase.
I started doing some research about When Knighthood Was in Flower in terms of her career, which is what sparked my interest. I realized this is the film that put her on the map and it’s hardly been shown. Is it the greatest film ever? That’s for everybody to judge, but I felt we had her earlier films and her later silent films available, but this ought to be available for her fans to see. I looked at the film and saw some of the idiosyncrasies in the print, and we were able to access the nitrate. For me it’s not really a marketing ploy – there’s a fanbase for it, let’s see what we can do about making it available.
K: You bring up Davies’ earlier work, and Warner Archive has put out several of films over the last few months. What do you think it is about Marion Davies that makes her so compelling to watch?
BM: She’s different than most of the leading ladies of the silent era. She’s not a flapper – the gum-chewing, wisecracker – and she’s not Lillian Gish or Norma Talmadge. The only other person who has the same kind of grounded humor and personality is Constance Talmadage, somebody else whose films are wonderful but they’re not as well-known. There’s something about [Marion’s] personality that comes through and transcends. Even though this film takes place at the time of King Henry VIII there are things in her performance that remind me of what Mary Pickford is known for; these moments where she gets really feisty and stamps her feet and won’t stand for something her brother, the King, is doing. There are a couple little moments that show her versatility. The other thing I noticed about Knighthood is the film was available in the late ’90s on VHS, [and] it’s a transfer at eighteen frames per second. I noticed a number of reviews I read online about the film talked about how draggy it is and how her comedy doesn’t hold up that well, and it’s because of the speed.
K: How’s the Kickstarter campaign going? Where is the film now and what’s still left to do?
BM: It’s been astonishing! The Kickstarter ended but I was fully funded at eight hours of launching it. I usually go over my funding goals by $1,000. My last Kickstarter for the Marcel Perez Collection funded in 24-48 hours. I literally launched this campaign for Knighthood right before I started teaching my class as Wesleyan, and when I was driving home that night I hit the funding goal. I wound up with 319 backers, which I typically get 125-130 backers for my project. It’s more than double funded, although I am know sending three times the number of product I had initially planned. It will all even out, but we were able to add on a couple things, like have Lara [Fowler] write a booklet and I’ve reinstated the hand coloring in reel 12. I found a book by Robert E. Sherwood on all the top films of 1922 and there’s a chapter on Knighthood where he mentions the amazing effects of knights riding on horseback at night, and the torches were handcolored and streaked across the screen. The only thing I’m really restoring is the color tinting. As far as film restoration or preservation, people refer to me a lot as a film preservationist and I’m not. I’m not preserving anything. This is a distinction that people are confused about: releasing a film on DVD is not preservation; it’s a form of exhibition but it’s funny to tell people you’re an exhibitionist. What I’m doing is a form of exhibition that hopefully, through making these films available on disc, will lead to theatrical screenings.
K: I know you’re knee-deep in this, but is Undercrank working on anything else?
BM: I’m working on another volume of Accidentally Preserved that will be all rare or lost films that are coming from 9.5mm, that’s a European home movie format. It’s if you took 16mm film and shaved the sprockets off the sides, and then put the sprocket in-between each frame, that’s 9.5. [Accidentally Preserved, volume 4, is currently schedule for a fall release. Details can be found here.] We’re hunting down more Marcel Perez shorts, and if we have enough another volume can happen.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.