Thursday, November 26, 2009

DVD Report: Charley Bowers

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Charley Bowers: The Rediscovery of an American Comic Genius
Co-produced by Image Entertainment (USA) and Lobster Films (France)
2-disc DVD; run time 149 mins.

Several DVDs have come out in the past year or two that I should be blogging about, multi-disc sets of the work of Harry Langdon, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charley Chase, for example. Instead, I want to do some catching up and write about a DVD set that came out five years ago on the work of Charley Bowers (1889 – November 26, 1946) . Why? Because it’s exciting stuff, and because today is Thanksgiving and it was on this day 63 years ago that Bowers passed away in almost total obscurity. Let's see if I can show you why we should be thankful for his life's work.

I suspect that most of you are saying “who in the hell is Charley Bowers?” In brief, he was a cartoonist, animator, and silent film comedian who, between 1926 and 1931, created a series of short films (no features), sometimes labeled “novelty comedies,” that combined live action with stop-motion animation, and that display a unique comic imagination. While much of silent film comedy exhibits a certain formulaic sameness, Bowers is a refreshingly original thinker whose work I think you’ll love.

Bowers' name does not even appear in many of the standard books on the silent era, such as Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns (1975), and the reason is simply that his films were lost for decades. Even Neil Pettigrew's more recent authoritative history, The Stop-motion Filmography, does not mention Bowers, but that book came out in 1999, this DVD in 2004. Although Bowers was popular enough in his day to be able to write, animate, and usually star in over twenty movies for R-C Pictures and Educational Pictures, by the time Keaton, Chaplin, et. al. were being appreciated anew in the 60s and 70s, his name had long been forgotten.

The story of his rediscovery is told on a 15-minute documentary on disc 2 of the DVD. Raymond Borde of the Toulouse (France) Cinémathèque was a relentless collector of old films. He knew that traveling carnival acts would often open performances by showing a short American silent film comedy, so he would buy these from them whenever he could, paying for reels by the kilo, sight unseen. He hit the jackpot one day when a rusted cannister of films he bought from a gypsy family turned out to contain three films by Bowers. The only problem was that instead of being attributed to Charley Bowers, the sole credit was to Bricolo, the French name for his movie character. No one knew who this Bricolo was, and years went by without any progress. The films were even shown in a retrospective at the 1976 Annecy (France) film festival, without anyone yet knowing this was the work of Charley Bowers.

One day this ad in an old film directory was discovered, providing the link between Bricolo and Charley Bowers. This eventually led to a film historian in Montreal who had some slight knowledge of him and to a folder of info buried away at the Library of Congress. More information was uncovered, as were more films, but there are still eleven lost films, and the details of his life are few. The only account of his early years is from a 1928 press bio that seems too colorful to be true: he was born in 1889, the son of a French countess and an Irish doctor. When he was five, a tramp circus clown taught him tightrope. At age six, he was kidnapped by a circus. When he finally made it back home two years later, the shock killed his father.


What we do know is that between 1916 and 1926 he wrote, produced, and directed hundreds of cartoon film shorts based on the Mutt & Jeff comic strips. At some point he made the transition from these hand-drawn cel animations to stop-motion animation, in which you move or manipulate a physical object a small amount, recording a single frame so that when the movie is played back the object appears to move at normal speed. Here are two brief clips about an automated restaurant that show this transition. The first is from one of his Mutt & Jeff cartoons, Grill Room Express (1918, aka The Extra Quick Lunch), the second from He Done His Best (1926).

In 1926, he began combining stop-motion animation with live action, and there are historical references to the "Bowers process" and to a "Bowers camera" that he invented precisely for this purpose, but so far I haven't uncovered any info on this. Bowers has been credited by some with being the first filmmaker to develop this hybrid form. This may not strictly be true, but the extent to which he did this, and the overall technical level of both the animation and the live action was very likely groundbreaking for 1926. In fact, the story has it that a scene where a herd of elephants seem to enter the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. so fooled people that certain muckety-mucks demanded an official investigation.

Before going any further, let's get more of a taste of his work. (Both of these next two clips are on YouTube, but there's not much more of his work up there.) First is a sample of Bowers the silent film comedian from Egged On (1926), the earliest film we have of this hybrid form. The live action star is none other than Charlie Bowers, playing an eccentric, misunderstood outsider whose persona has been compared to that of Keaton. (As a performer he's no Keaton, but he gets the job done.) Charley the eccentric inventor can't pay the rent, but he's on the verge of riches with his invention of the unbreakable egg. His approach to selling his invention is a good example of Bower's offbeat sense of humor.

The second clip, from his only sound film, the 1931 It's a Bird, showcases his amazing animation talents. An expedition to deepest, darkest Africa has netted Charley a rare metal-eating bird, which he hopes will prove to be his road to riches:

A Bowers film tends to follow the same general formula. Charley is an eccentric but brilliant inventor, a 1920s Doc Brown, only Bowers is younger and counting on his creations to help him escape poverty and win the girl. To solve the predicament at hand, he typically throws together a Rube Goldberg contraption from spare parts that somehow performs miracles that defy the laws of science. His character's French name, Bricolo, is from the French verb bricoler, to tinker, and the French noun bricolage, do-it-yourself. Bricolo's invention always works, but his ultimate success can still be thwarted by unforeseen twists of fate. One aspect of his films I particularly enjoyed is the unpredictability of his endings. The first one I watched did not end well for Charley, so I assumed the stories would always be aiming for Chaplinesque pathos. The next film, however, was the opposite, more along the lines of a Keaton or Lloyd ultimate-vindication finale. He keeps you guessing.

Bowers attracted the attention of André Bréton, leader of the surrealist movement, who wrote of It's a Bird! that it "took us away, for the first time, our eyes opened to the dull sensory distinction of reality and legend, to the heart of the black star.” (Those surrealists sure had a way with words.) And in his Fifty Year Surrealist Almanac (1950), Bréton listed the one film that had meant the most to him each year, and It’s a Bird! was one of those films, as was Duck Soup for 1933.

Bowers' movies are uneven affairs, a bit choppy, what with the combination of elements, and at times the storytelling can come to a screeching halt while he shows off with lengthy animation sequences. In his best moments, however, Bowers' humor is wonderfully quirky and even downright brilliant. At one point his character says “sometimes I nearly ran out of ideas,” but with Bowers the opposite is the case, his head bursting with wild premises. There he is, struggling to invent a non-slippery banana peel, or trying to win a Charleston contest by taking a correspondence course.

His physical comedy always goes one step further. His sweetheart's cop father doesn't throw him out the door, he throws him thru the door. In A Wild Roomer, he tows an entire staircase out of a house — by accident. I'm pretty sure he has the highest WDR (wall destruction ratio) of any silent film comedian.

Bowers also does not shy from social commentary. In Fatal Footsteps, he satirizes uptight townspeople who are fighting the popularity of social dancing, and particularly the upcoming charleston contest. The name of the town is not subtle: Dumbville. Sam, the leader of the opposition is exposed as a hypocrite, but even he is eventually converted to the joys of cutting a rug when he accidentally puts on Charley's latest invention, a pair of automated dancing shoes.

By movie's end, Sam is getting his fellow old fogies to dance, and the final shot of the film is a fish dancing in its bowl.

Another example is the ending to Now You Tell One, one of my favorite Bowers movies, but I won't spoil it for you since you can watch it below. It all starts at a meeting of a "Liar's Club." The head of the club is disappointed in the stories the members are coming up with. Stumbling on Charley and his story, he brings him to the club to tell it. Beginning of the movie within the movie.

It seems Charley fell for this girl and when he visited her house he discovered a sad picture. The girl's house is seriously overrun with mice. The woodwork is full of holes and collapsing, the father gone batty from the onslaught. The sole cat is battered and beaten down. Charley moves in and sets to work developing a breed of more robust cats to fight the infestation. Here's the rest of the movie:

There are a few hours of this on the DVD, so check it out. It looks like it's on back order from most DVD vendors, but it is available on NetFlix.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!


Disc One
Egged On (1926; 24:08)
He Done His Best (1926; 23:42)
A Wild Roomer (1927; 24:27)
Fatal Footsteps (1926; 22:20)
Now You Tell One (1926; 22:21)
Many a Slip (1927; 11:35)
Nothing Doing (1927; 21:13)
Disc Two
Grill Room Express (1918; 5:36) [alternate title: The Extra-Quick Lunch]
A.W.O.L. (1918; 5:24 )
Say Ah-h (1928; 14:03 = part 2 only)
It's a Bird (1930; 14:09 )
Believe it or Don't (1935; 7:55 )
Pete Roleum & his Cousins (1939; 15:38)
Wild Oysters (1941; 10:07)
A Sleepless Night (1940; 11:00)
Special Features
Photo Album slideshow (1:45)
Looking for Charley Bowers (15:43)

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