The cinematic lovechild of George Melies and Frank Tashlin is about the quickest way to describe the eccentric comedic phenomenon, known as Charley Bowers – a name that no doubt most movie fans have never heard of. He is rapidly earning a belated place in motion-picture history, thanks in great part to the efforts of international archivists, who have teamed up with those grand folks at Flicker Alley to present a new two-disc Blu-Ray collection of his 17 existing works (some only in fragmented form), not surprisingly dubbed THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD OF CHARLEY BOWERS. And it truly is.
The collection of shorts (from new 2K transfers), spanning 1917-1941, and with the collaborative assist of no less than the Cinematheque Francais, MoMA, eye, Narodni filmovyarchiv, the George Eastman Museum, La Cinematheque de Toulouse, the Library of Congress, Blackhawk Films, Lobster Films and ROAM is as impressive as Mr. Bowers’ movies are inventive. That said, his strange and often disturbing views on life (for example, his obsession with eggs, chickens, and oysters) may have been TOO WEIRD for mass movie audiences. It comes as no revelation that most of his existing celluloid evocations hail from France, where, early-on, he was hailed as a brilliant visual master, and given the name Bricolo.
But who WAS Charley Bowers? His biography reads like a Chaplinesque/Dickensian narrative – itself worthy of a cinematic depiction. Born in Iowa in 1877, Bowers was kidnapped at age six by unscrupulous members of a circus troupe. Not exactly complaining, Bowers lived the kid’s dream, and in childhood became a tightrope walker among other Big Top vocations before he safely returned home two years later, at the ripe old age of eight! This early apprenticeship undoubtedly blessed (and likely cursed) the lad with the imagination of Tim Burton (ages before the Dumbo director’s great-grandparents were even conceived), and soon he drifted back into the sawdust and tinsel world, a universe heralded for its strangeness. Bowers honed his tightrope skills, also adding broncho busting to his resume; soon, all of this took a backseat to his new love – cartooning, ultimately becoming fascinated with animation, and gaining favor with the Bud Fisher Film Corp. Fisher, creator of the wildly popular Mutt and Jeff series, eventually put the now 40-year-old in charge of the studio’s production department. Bowers remained there for nine years (1917-1926), supervising hundreds of M&J cartoon one-reelers.
Indeed, the emergence of the motion-picture was like manna from Heaven to Bowers, who immediately glommed on to the medium’s immense possibilities, combining live-action with animation, conjuring up phantasmagorical creatures and outlandish mechanical contraptions. Add his “original” takes on traditional boy-meets-girl scenarios, and you basically get the point.
Eventually, Bowers partnered with enterprising producer-codirector-writer-cameraman Harold L. Muller (and later Ted Sears), and, as any Sherlock will tell you, the game was afoot.
While the 17 pics comprising this set, many starring Bowers himself, are of varying quality and construction, ALL warrant a cineaste’s attention, as each one contains at least a few examples of jaw-dropping “out there” craziness – and many a treasure trove of loopy, ahead-of-the-curve surreal (and even progressive) exercises that redefine “theatre of the absurd.” In short, Green Acres Meets Edward Scissorhands.
1917’s THE EXTRA-QUICK LUNCH shows how Bud Fisher’s beloved cartoon characters nicely adapted to the screen. It’s quite well-animated (especially for 1917), and technically, holds up even in today’s world. The storyline already displays Bowers’ penchant for the bizarre. The idea of such cartoony, grotesque subjects as Mutt and Jeff (working in a restaurant) romancing gorgeous women (contrasted by the femmes being drawn realistically) is, to put it mildly, borderline cringeworthy. The females are smart ‘n’ sassy stylish flappers; thus, their “jones” for M & J is too much for me to contemplate (and this is from someone who accepted the possibility of 2019’s Long Shot).
1918’s A.W.O.L (or, ALL WRONG, OLD LADDIEBUCK) takes the above duo to the next level. The boys are up to their necks in WWI intrigue, and the pair’s putting their sexual urges over country redefines the Mata Hari scandal that likely (or, at least, partially) inspired this short’s tale of enemy agent hotties on the prowl. Here, we can see Bowers’ love for the mechanical – cars and other fairly recent additions to the world’s new culture are given amusing “what if” potentialities.
We jump to 1926 for the live-action/animated EGGED ON, a milestone in Bowers’ filmography. Bowers himself is the star of this mind-boggling short. Seeing the Rube Goldbergian inventor on-screen is a bit of a jolt, as he resembles a cross between Buster Keaton and famed dancer Ray Bolger (so, the guy from Cops, Sherlock, Jr. and The General gene-spliced with Oz‘s Scarecrow). Will say that he doesn’t look his age (he was approaching 50). The plot is a silent comedy standard: local boy MUST make good to win the girl of his dreams. Where this veers way off the normal road and onto a whacked detour encompasses Charley’s krazy inventions, mostly revolving around stepping up chicken-laying production to produce an unbreakable egg. The piece de resistance comes when his car’s motor ends up incubating a dozen or so newbies, resulting in the hatching of a brood of tiny flivvers that take off all over the joint. Bob Clampett once told me that Frank Tashlin used to frequent a theater in downtown L.A. that only showed silent comedies; he would implore the Termite Terrace gang to join him. I have no doubt Tash saw several Bowers works, as they definitely seemed to have influenced the Loony Tunes output (if the rest of the gang didn’t accompany their coworker, they unquestionably took note of his discoveries). Clampett’s own Porky in Wackyland, with its hypnagogic characters and situations, now plays like a Bowers homage.
1926’s HE DONE HIS BEST, released through F.B.O. (Film Booking Office, later to morph into RKO Radio Pictures) has political overtones. Bricolo, again, trying to make good in both business and romance, promises the head of an eatery that he can shave off man-power via one of his machines (in effect, computerizing and downsizing, 1926-style). “In a week’s time I can build you a much better place,” brags restaurant dishwasher Charley via a title card (they’re in French, with English translations). The angry coworkers gang up on him, adding drama to the comedy-fantasy, as they scream “He’s a scab!” to the non-union intruder. The remarkable result Bowers comes up with actually predates emailing, as well as some of the more famous sequences from Chaplin’s Modern Times.
1926’s FATAL FOOTSTEPS has Charley inventing sure-thing dancing shoes that allow clods to become Vernon Castles. Suffice to say, the combination of hooking-up, terpsichorean Charleston expertise and Prohibition doesn’t mesh exactly as planned. Many Bowers supporting players, some recognizable to comedy fans (including Eddie Dunn), are on view, and, what would soon become a business as usual segment, fish are seen dancing their little gills off.
Again from 1926, NOW I’LL TELL ONE is peak Bowers. He’s brought in as a prospective member for a rich man’s organization, called The Liar’s Club. And, natch, Bowers comes up with whoppers. This gives the artist/comedian full-range to reveal his inventions and tales of the fantastic. His magic lotion not only can grow hats, but his shoes grow laces, and eggplants sprout (what else?) eggs; furthermore, Republicans see real elephants take over the Capitol. Even better, Bricolo has animal kingdom revenge sidebars that have mice hunting cats with pistols (a bandaged feline on crutches shouldn’t be funny, but it is), plus pussy-willows giving birth to kittens.
In a precursor to Green Acres, Pee Wee Herman and Jacques Tati, 1927’s bucolic A WILD ROOMER has Bowers having to prove himself to his strict father. Stop inventing, and start farming. Bricolo decides to combine both, thereby justifying his passion and pleasing his pater. His machinations take on a life of their own. Literally. Egg shampoo is self-explanatory, however, Charley’s sewing a sawdust head onto a doll redefines “reanimation.” One wonders what Bricolo could have envisioned with a zombie apocalypse! Incomplete, but certainly watchable.
Bowers and his crew are in full control, as evidenced by 1927’s MANY A SLIP, the clever title being a narrative clue. With Charley’s horrible in-laws about to visit, Bricolo realizes that he must impress them with some examples of success. To this goal, he strives to create the non-slip banana peel (the accident-friendly fruit skin racially referred to as the world’s other yellow peril). Having failed at a revolutionary heating system (it melts the radiators) and an innovative mousetrap (the house rodents scoff at it, and continue their routine of cheating at cards), it looks like a no-win battle for poor Charley (by this time, Bricolo’s antics should have earned the right to be dubbed “Boweresque”).
1927’s NOTHING DOING is a more traditional slapstick pastiche, with Charley denied wedded bliss to his beloved unless he joins the police force (her folks love and are cops). This caveat of bad judgment isn’t helped by the fact that the law enforcement group Bowers chooses makes the Keystone Kops look like a precinct of Sherlocks. Typical Bowers fun is on view via pictures that come to life and dogs and cats duking it out with boxing gloves.
With a contract now at the budget-conscious Educational Pictures (whose output was anything but), Bowers seemed to revel in the studio limitations, creating perhaps his masterpiece, 1928’s THERE IT IS. Promoting the Bowers Process (of animation and live-action), the short is absolutely ingenious in its tale of a supposed affluent American family plagued by supernatural episodes. They finally call Scotland Yard, but contact the wrong one – a battalion of buffoons who run around in kilts. They send Charley overseas to New York, and, in a scenario that should (and likely would) delight J.K. Rowling, the sleuth arrives with a suitcase containing – no other way to describe it – fantastic beasts – to assist the detective in his quest of getting to the bottom of the situation (remember this is also practically the exact time period when the 2016 Harry Potter spinoff pic takes place). Even with its Caligari capper, the events on hand still can’t entirely be explained away. This only increases the enjoyment of this two-reeler, where Charley finds love with the daughter of the head of the “special” home. The creatures living in Bowers valise truly are unusual and quite delightful in their rascally behavior. FYI, Charley and Eddie Redmayne additionally have the same hair.
1928’s SAY AH-H! is sadly incomplete, missing the first half and with nitrate decomposition infecting the surviving footage. That said, there is still much to savor in this plot involving the search of an ostrich egg that proves to be an adventure into the surreal.
Unfortunately, 1928’s WHOOZIT is also incomplete (one of the only two remaining 19 movies Bowers did that year), with the second half having been transferred from the sole surviving source – a 16mm print. It’s yet another Bowers double-take pip with janitor Charley being warned by oysters of a maniacal razor-wielding chef. Featuring magazine-reading puppies, puppets brought to life, birds turning into fish and various opium-smoking non-humans, the biggest laugh is the fact that the pic attempts to logically conclude these happenings by reel’s end.
No less than Lowell Thomas, the explorer, writer, and movie-maker (always interested in the new and unusual; think This is Cinerama) got involved with Bowers for what was to be an on-going group of short subjects, entitled the Tall Story Series. A 1930 entry, IT’S A BIRD, is what remains of their partnership. It concerns a junkman’s trip to Africa to find legendary metal-eating Aves. The visuals are, not surprisingly, crazed (with a “re-hatch” of the egg-flivver gag). As an early talkie, BIRD uses sound in an imaginative way, PLUS we get to hear Bowers speak; again, not surprisingly, his voice resembles that of semi-lookalike Keaton’s.
1935’s BELIEVE IT OR DON’T parodies the famed newsman Ripley’s celebrated cartoons. The title, in fact, is the most innovative aspect of this short, made for Novelty Productions, and dolefully brandishes its ultra low-budget origins. Charley’s preoccupation with eggs and fish serve as the main course of sight gags. It’s a menu of his we’re used to by this time, and have seen done better (and with more enthusiasm).
Two later shorts, 1940’s A SLEEPLESS NIGHT and 1941’s WILD OYSTERS must have seemed like antiques, even in the early 1940s. For one thing, they’re in black-and-white, from a time when major-minors Universal and Columbia were already releasing cartoons in Technicolor. More relevantly, these shorts, the latter shot at the Fleischer Studios, are lip-biting uncomfortable. They chronicle the adventures of a family of mice. Because of the Bowers Process, they aren’t the cute Disney or funny WB versions, but sort of a twilight zone hybrid of animated creatures and real-life rodents – something one really doesn’t want to see at an evening’s night of fun at the movies. Worse, they’re like Depression-era remnants, living in sardine cans within the walls of a human’s home. That the male head is sitcom henpecked doesn’t quite justify their unpleasant presence. Yes, the gags are inventive, but the visuals are as if Bricolo was attempting to give his creatures the Jacob Riis treatment. In the former, Mom and Pop mouse are kept awake by a snoring dog and mater makes pater do something about it. In the latter, la familia Mouse is attacked by a vengeful oyster and his gang/brood. Okay, I’m glad I saw them, but I’m not sure I ever want to see them again (SLEEPLESS only exists silent, the audio having been lost).
The final cartoon in the set is a thoroughly welcome and refreshing upgrade, 1940’s OIL CAN AND DOES. It attempts to show the benefits (sans the later documented cancer-related effects) of oil for human recreation (suntan lotion, cosmetics, etc.). Commissioned by the petroleum industry, the BBROS-animated represents Bowers’ collision with Technicolor (shot in Kodachrome). It’s a very modern-looking cartoon (more reminiscent of the stuff we saw in the late 1950s-early 1960s). I suspected (and was proven correct) that it was produced for exhibition at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair. The most balmy aspect of this piece is not the barrage of oddball animated gags, but the fact that this short was directed by Joseph Losey (one of his first efforts)! The idea of a Bowers and Losey collaboration is so beyond the fringe, and thereby demands repeated examination.
As indicated, the 17 movies comprising this collection fluctuate in physical condition and thematic content. When the former is good, it’s terrific, when not – it serves as on-going testament to our negligence of American art and culture. God bless the collectors and foreign archives. THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD OF CHARLEY BOWERS took over two decades of work to compile and restore. Special thanks needs to be bestowed upon Flicker Alley’s Serge Bromberg, Eric Lange, Emile Mahler, Antoine Ange and Jeffrey Masino. Audio, where available (music tracks) comes by way of composers Donald Sosin, Antonio Coppola and Neil Brand. A beautifully illustrated and informative booklet by motion-picture historian Sean Axmaker is included in this set that also features a 15-minute Bricolo documentary and slideshow of stills and behind-the-scenes photographs.
Certainly one of the most original citizens in early American movie history, Charley Bowers is worthy of this tribute and re-evaluation. Check it out, I think you’ll agree.
THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD OF CHARLEY BOWERS. Black and White/Color. Full frame [1.33:1]. 2.0 DTS-HD MA [music tracks]. Flicker Alley/Cinematheque Francais, MoMA, eye, Narodni filmvyarchiv, the George Eastman Museum, La Cinematheque de Toulouse, the Library of Congress/ROAM/Blackhawk Films/Lobster Films. CAT # FA0064. SRP: $49.95.