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TCM Film Festival Spotlight: Ben Model and the Sound of Silent Film

“The Roaring Twenties” – the very phrase evokes images of Great Gatsby-esque decadence. It was an era of big fashion, secretive speakeasies, and musical innovation. However, it may come as a surprise that the main source of employment in the United States for instrumental musicians during the decade wasn’t concert halls, bars, or Broadway theaters, but rather the burgeoning auditoriums of local cinemas. Thousands found work creating music to accompany the then-silent world of film. Organist Ben Model’s silent film accompaniment keeps their memory alive.

Today, the number of live silent-film accompanists has dwindled to a scant twenty individuals; Ben Model is perhaps the most notable of them. Model’s name has become synonymous with the silent-film genre that for decades seemed forgotten to everyone outside of a film studies classroom. Now silent-film music is enjoying a renewed interest in the digital age.

“In many ways, we’re experiencing a renaissance of silent film,” Model said. “The
internet provided a new platform that made these films accessible to new audiences, and
provided a place for fans to meet and interact with everyone else who enjoys them.”

Clip from the 1919 silent film Looking for Trouble starring Snub Pollard, with a new score composed by Ben Model

Model’s passion for silent film began long before the digital revolution got underway. As a child, he was introduced to silent movies and shorts on television. “I was crazy about silent movies as a kid,” Model said. “At the time, some networks would use them for filler or comedic shorts of children’s programming. I discovered Charlie Chaplin as a toddler.”

Years later, Model was again viewing silent features, this time in the classroom as a film school student. This time they triggered a different emotion than he experienced as a child. “I began to realize many of those silent prints died in front of a group of a couple of hundred students every week,” he reflected. “There have to be new people exposed to them in order to keep them alive.”

Keep them alive he has. In the past four decades, Model has created and performed film scores for hundreds of silent films at venues across the world. If audiences haven’t heard his work in-person, they’ve heard it in the scores for numerous silent features that have appeared on home media and Turner Classic Movies (TCM).

This month, the relationship with TCM will be two-fold, as his latest score for Warner Brothers’ 1925 film The Clash of the Wolves will not only air on the network, but will also be performed live at the TCM Classic Film Festival this weekend in Los Angeles. “I think more as a programmer than a musician,” Model said. “I’m constantly aware of the audience during a performance, and it’s about the ride we go on together.”

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers Discovery

Model’s score for The Clash of the Wolves is marvelous, engaging modern audiences in the
kind of emotions that audiences in 1925 must have experienced watching film, which is headlined by famous dog-star Rin Tin Tin. Silent films like Wolves attracted young audiences in their heyday, but today’s screenings draw an older demographic. This shift serves to amplify Model’s glee when he’s able to expose a younger crowd to silent film.

“We always get excited when we see a younger audience – those with the non-gray hair – enter the theater,” Model laughed. “When you see someone attending under the age of 40, you want to shoot confetti and celebrate them coming!”

Ben accompanies the screening of The Clash of the Wolves at the TCM Film Festival on Sunday 16 April at the Hollywood Legion Theater in Los Angeles.

Learn more about Ben Model on his web site silentfilmmusic.com


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