THE WEIRD AND WONDERFUL WORLD OF CHARLEY BOWERS
Pussy willow trees that sprout live cats, eggs that hatch tiny cars and dancing ostriches made of cushions and feather dusters… No, not images from Edward Lear, Dali or ‘Sgt Pepper’-era Beatles lyrics, but from the surreal fantasy world created by Charley Bowers. Inventor, animator, writer-director and comedian, Bowers was a pioneer and a true original. In the late 1920s, he produced a series of unique short films combining live action comedy with stop motion animation. These shorts turned the traditional silent comedy film on its head, opening up new possibilities and adding a large dose of surreal humour. For many years forgotten, only recently have these unconventional comedies been getting their due as a truly unique pocket of the silent comedy canon. To illustrate, here’s a rough outline of maybe his best film, NOW YOU TELL ONE (1926).
The story opens at the annual truth-stretching competition of the Liars Club; unimpressed by the competitors’ attempts (including Elephants marching into the White House and the tale of a man who can shrink to fit inside his hat), the president takes a wander outside and bumps into Charley, who is attempting to commit suicide by sticking his head in the end of a cannon. Asked his reason, he tells the story of his failed invention, a substance that can graft any objects together and make them grow. With his substance, Charley is able to grow an eggplant that contains real eggs, some new laces for his boots and a straw hat from a single straw. He tries to sell the potion to farmers, but his demonstrations go awry, leaving one farmer stranded on top of a huge tree, and another with a wheelbarrow that grows into a fully decorated Christmas tree! Finally, he runs into a farm overcome with violent mice, who fire at the housecats with miniature guns. Charley’s solution is to graft catnip onto pussy willow, growing a tree that produces “battalions of cats” from its branches. The cats finally rid the farm of the mice, but the farmer complains that he cannot afford to feed them all and sends Charley packing. Charley wraps up his story, and is awarded the best liar medal by the club. When he protests that his story is true, he is returned to the cannon to complete his deed!
I challenge anyone to find another silent comedy (or for that matter, a modern film) with such a bizarre plot! However, what really makes the film so remarkable is the seamless integration of incredibly lifelike animations with real-life footage. There are no cheating cutaways here; we see all of the bizarre events unfold before our eyes in a dazzling display of camera trickery that almost makes Keaton’s ‘SHERLOCK JR’ seem run of the mill! At one point, a straw hat grows on top of Charley’s head as he busies himself with his tasks, and the animation of cats sprouting from the tree is completely convincing.
Each Bowers Comedy contained many of these mind-blowing moments, and audiences were, quite naturally, flabbergasted. “Astounding”, “novel” and “hilarious” are words that pop up again and again in contemporary reviews. The films influenced surrealists like Andre Breton and still have the power to amaze audiences when they are shown. Yet, for many years, they were almost completely unknown, with Bowers one of the most obscure of silent comedy’s “lost boys”. French film historian Raymond Borde accidentally came across some of his films when he bought a huge pile of old film cans from a travelling show. Borde was amazed by the surreal and brilliantly funny films he saw, but could not identify them. As with many silent film comedians, the French endowed Bowers with his own nickname, Bricolo. This is how he was billed, with no clue to his real identity. Only years later did Borde find a promotional brochure listing Bowers’ real name, and the jigsaw started to fall into place.
His identity may have been disclosed, but Bowers is still shrouded in mystery. Take his biography, for instance. One of the sole sources for information is this account in Photoplay, from 1928:
“His life has been as goofy as his pictures. His mother was a French countess, his father was an Irish doctor and Charley was born in Iowa. After that, anything was possible.
It happened. At five a tramp circus performer taught Charley to walk tightrope. At six the Circus kidnapped him. He didn’t make it back for two years and then the shock killed his father. At nine, he supported his mother by walking rope, mowing lawns, ran elevators, printed menus, broke broncos, jockeyed horses, packed pork, sketched cartoons, toured vaudeville, directed plays, designed scenery, produced advertising, wrote history, animated one hundred reels of cartoons, worked out the Bowers process, invented a camera and – grew up.”
Well, the bit about Iowa is reasonable enough, but after that, a spadeful of salt is required! Bowers (or his publicity department) seems to have been working overtime to create a fantastic life story to match his cinematic creations. On and off the screen, fact and fantasy become one in Charley Bowers’ story. This is borne out by some of the only surviving testimonial of the man himself. Isadore Klein, an animation colleague, paints him as an egotist and a pathological liar, always coming up with tall tales and false boasts. His favourite was when Bowers told a story completely seriously, of having walked a tightrope between two skyscrapers while carrying a lighted oil stove in each hand! Of course, one should always be wary of taking one witness’s word as gospel (just think what Frank Capra did to Harry Langdon’s reputation), but one cannot deny that Bowers seemed to be fascinated by lying. We’ve already seen that the plot of ‘NOW YOU TELL ONE’ is based around telling tall tales and this would be a recurring motif in several Bowers films. More broadly, the suspension of disbelief in the face of fantastic happenings is central to the world he created on celluloid.
What is verifiable in the biography above is his work designing, illustrating and animating. He had a great talent for drawing and by the early 1910s had fallen into newspaper cartoonist work, and then animation. He worked on a series called ‘Pif and Paf’, and ultimately worked up to being head animator at his own studio on a series of ‘Mutt and Jeff’ cartoons, which continued successfully until 1925.
By the mid-1920s Bowers was becoming interested in the possibilities of using his animation talents in conjunction with live action. He must have sensed an affinity between his cartoons and the madcap world of silent comedy then blossoming, and seems to have been especially influenced by Buster Keaton’s approach. In the mid-20s he patented a filming process for mixing the two. To show off his process and perhaps create a wider market for it, he embarked upon a series of 12 ‘Whirlwind comedies’, independently produced and starring himself.
The first of these is ‘Egged On’, released in May 1926. Playing an eccentric inventor, Charley is basically a caricature of himself. He decides what the world needs is the unbreakable egg shell and locks himself away in his room until he has a design for a machine to fulfil this purpose. Attempting to create interest, he visits the offices of the National Egg Shippers Association. Unfortunately, his sales pitch begins with a demonstration of the fragility of eggs, ie. by smashing them all over the offices of the businessmen; he is forcibly ejected. Undaunted, Charley sets off to build his machine alone, scavenging parts from a wide variety of sources, including a postman’s bicycle, a window cleaner’s ladder and an old man’s beard. Finally, his machine is finished and he attempts to find eggs for a demonstration. However, transporting the eggs in the hood of a Model T Ford seems to have had an adverse effect on them, and out of each one unfolds a miniature Ford before our very eyes!
‘EGGED ON’ is a template for the films that followed in several ways. First of all, Charley’s character is fixed as the eccentric, slightly otherworldly inventor. His demeanour is deadpan and not dissimilar to Buster Keaton’s. In fact Bowers does not look unlike Keaton and is a natural extension of his fondness for gadgetry. Charley could be Buster’s autistic cousin; how Keaton might have turned out if he’d stayed locked away from the world developing his inventions instead of trying to win the girl. Charley essentially plays a technocrat, brilliant in his own way but a one track mind oblivious to the chaos he causes in pursuit of his inventions. (He’s almost a precursor to the character of Sheldon in current sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’).
The second significant thing about ‘EGGED ON’ is its use of eggs as a key feature. Bowers had a persistent fixation with eggs and the process of metamorphosis. The mysterious transformations that take place inside an egg proved a source of immense fascination for him and this was reflected in his animations, which often involved strange creatures hatching out of eggs or morphing into something else. In Bowers’ world, forms and the state of being are transient and dreamlike at best, nightmarishly inconsistent at worst. He would find himself an innocent victim caught up amongst strange creatures, out-of-control machinery and impossible circumstances as he wandered through a bizarre poster paint dreamland. Here was a hostile place where figures in portrait leapt from their frames to attack you.
Collaborating with Bowers on direction and script of this, and all subsequent films, was a gentleman by the name of H.L. Muller. Amongst the many mysteries of Bowers’ career is the nature of his working relationship with Muller. Opinion has been divided on this matter; some believe that Muller was merely a pseudonym for Bowers himself, while at the other end of the spectrum are those who claim that Muller was the actual creative talent behind the films, with Bowers merely contributing the animations. I would say that the truth lies somewhere in between. Muller definitely existed, with reports from Film Daily and Motion Picture Weekly commenting on his appointment to the Bowers series, including a brief resume of his career up to that point. Most of his other work seems to have been not in comedy or animation, but in documentary films, so it is unlikely that he was the creator of all the gags. However, he had worked with sound film experiments and colour film, so was obviously a bit of a technical whiz himself, so almost certainly requires a good deal of the credit for the on-screen wizardry. Indeed, if Bowers was as stingy at sharing recognition as Isadore Klein reported, he must have recognised that Muller’s contributions were invaluable to the success of the films. The most likely scenario is that the two men shared a rare, offbeat sense of humour and were able to feed off one another in the creative process. Bowers probably provided some of the more wacky cartoonist’s ideas and animations, while Muller could help harness these into the film format that Bowers was unfamiliar with. Their teaming seems to be another one of those instances where talents come together to create magic, then fade away when they go their separate ways; neither man had a particularly distinguished career after the Bowers Comedies ceased production.
It’s also worth mentioning here two other notable names involved with the Bowers films. Ted Sears acted as gagman and animation assistant, and would later become famous at Disney, for his work on ‘SNOW WHITE’ and other films. Eddie Dunn, later supporting actor and gagman at Hal Roach studios, also worked faithfully for Bowers as writer and supporting actor. Although they never received on-screen credit (how many gagmen did?), their contributions are consistently noted in press releases from the Bowers studio. Bowers can’t have been all that stingy after all.
Whatever the truth, the partnership was producing incredible results in the Whirlwind comedies. The second film, ‘HE DONE HIS BEST’ starts out conventionally enough, with Charley searching for a job so he will be able to marry his girlfriend. he eventually finds work as a waiter, but as he is non-union, the kitchen staff walk out on strike. From here, things start to become more unusual, as Charley invents a machine to do the work of the entire restaurant at the push of a button.
A WILD ROOMER takes a similar approach. Here, Bowers is busy designing a machine to do, well, everything. We first see him lost under a giant pile of blueprints that fills his room, and he takes it to a demonstration, riding it through the streets of New York. Again, Bowers’ character is completely subsumed by the actions for a while, as a long sequence shows the machine creating a doll with a beating heart, that then frolics away on the back of a squirrel.
Perhaps aware of the slightly uneven ratio of action to animation, Bowers and Muller focused on the process of invention rather than invention itself. ‘MANY A SLIP’ features Charley trying to develop the non-skid banana peel. (Fortunately, the idea doesn’t work out; just think how many silent comics would have been thrown out of work!). In the sequence below, we see the moment where Charley isolates the microbe that makes the banana peels slippy, and begins trying to find his solution with the help of an ingenious invention…
Bowers and Muller also tried some more conventional storylines, without the gimmickry. ‘FATAL FOOTSTEPS’ is the simple story of Charley taking a correspondence dance class in the Charleston. Bowers takes everything to extremes by a process of warped logic. Designing a blueprint for a machine, it makes perfect sense for him to fill the room with screwed up designs until the room is swamped with them. Disqualified from joining the police force in ’NOTHING DOING’ he is faced with a line of criminals who he must escort to the police station. How to tackle the problem? If he walks behind, they can run away; if he walks in front they can sneak up on him. His solution is bizarre but practical. In the manner of a circus trick shooter, he walks at the front of the line, aiming his gun backwards over his shoulder with the aim of a hand held mirror. Endowed with the mind of an inventor who considers all possibilities, no matter how ridiculous, he comes up with solutions that are impractical yet somehow make sense.
‘NOTHING DOING’ was the last of the ‘Whirlwind’ comedies. They had caused quite a stir and an offer came in for Bowers to continue his comedies at Educational Pictures in Hollywood. Educational was, despite its name, one of the top comedy studios at the time, with Lupino Lane, Lloyd Hamilton, Larry Semon and Dorothy Devore on its roster, so the move was a step upward. In October 1927, Film Daily’ reported that Bowers was packing up all his equipment from his Long Island studio and preparing to bring his process to Hollywood. Accompanying were Muller and his gag writers Sears and Dunn.
The Educational series would successfully continue the formula of surreal gags and animation, but there were a few subtle changes. For starters, the shorts benefited from higher budgets and a slicker appearance overall. An interesting development was Charley’s adoption of a thicker white clown makeup and a slightly more passive, innocent character. Instead of being a ruthless inventor, he started to become more innocently wound up in the chaos caused by the animated creatures. This move from agitator to onlooker is undoubtedly the influence of Harry Langdon, who was being absorbed by everyone a little bit at this time.
The first of the Educationals was ‘THERE IT IS’. Perhaps his wildest and most off-the-wall film, it’s also one of his funniest. The story begins in the Frisbee household, where strange disturbances have been occurring. Eggs turn back into chickens in the kitchen, items disappear randomly and a ‘Fuzz-faced Phantom’ . The distraught family send to Scotland for help, setting up a fantastic visual pun: the detective HQ is literally a yard, full of men in kilts! It’s a gag that Spike Milligan would have been proud of.
Amongst the detectives is Charley, who is dispatched to the scene, along with his animated insect assistant, McGregor. There, he finds a scene of chaos, as the phantom disappears in and out of walls. Retiring to bed, a painting of a seascape above Charley’s head suddenly turns stormy and produces a massive tidal wave to soak him; Charley puts up an umbrella and falls asleep, but awakes to find that the phantom has somehow suspended him from the ceiling in his sleep! After many more frenetic, brilliantly madcap scenes, the mystery is finally solved. The phantom turns out to be the grandfather of the previous tenants, who return to claim him. No description can fully capture the lunacy of this film, but it is a maelstrom of comic invention that must be seen to be believed. See for yourself below!
Sadly, most of the other Educational shorts have disappeared. Only two others exist partially: ‘SAY AHH!’ and ‘WHOOZIT’. Both are very nearly as good, and attest to the high quality that the series maintained. ‘WHOOZIT’ takes Bowers’ comedy into darker territory. As the existing footage picks up, Charley is a harassed janitor in a busy apartment block, constantly called to the residents’ problems. Trouble is, their problems are becoming more surreal and sinister by the minute! Strange disturbances are occurring, including oysters escaping the kitchen (animated oysters being one of Bowers’ pet sequences), bizarre noises from a penthouse apartment and a terrifying man with a bushy beard who stalks the corridors sharpening a razor. In appearance and behaviour, he is basically a more human representation of ‘the fuzz-faced phantom’ from ’THERE IT IS’, able to defy the laws of time and space to cause chaos anywhere. He especially has it in for Charley, haunting him in every door or cupboard he looks in, even somehow transforming into the case he is carrying on his back!
‘SAY AHH’ is altogether lighter in tone. It returns to Bowers’ favourite theme of eggs, with Charley working to supply Ostrich eggs for an incurable grouch who has been prescribed a diet of them (!). Charley accidentally spills cement into the ostrich feed, producing an egg which cannot be broken. With the feed ruined, Charley improvises by grinding down anything he can get his hands on: cushions, feather dusters, a broom, etc. After dining on this hearty concoction, the ostrich produces an egg which hatches to produce two miniature animated ostriches, made from collars, feather dusters and collars. The sight of such bizarre creatures finally causes the grouch to break into uproarious laughter, and the two creatures dance a synchronized foxtrot as the film fades. This is one of Bowers’ most charming animation sequences, and a wonderfully uplifting end to the film. However, in the final few seconds of the film, the frame is consumed by the flashes and blotches of nitrate decomposition. This is portentous of the fate of the other three two reelers in the Educational series, of which we have not a single foot of film. A great shame, as reviews indicate the high standard was maintained. ‘YOU’LL BE SORRY’ had Charley mechanising a one-man police force; ‘HOP OFF’ had great promise for animation as a tale of Charley’s flea circus, and ‘GOOFY BIRDS’ detailed his quest for the bizarre Umbrella Bird.
This last film is at least retrievable, as Charley remade it in his only known sound film, ‘IT’S A BIRD’ (1931). Presented as a Lowell Thomas ‘Tall Story’, it takes the form of flashbacks as junkyard owner Charley tells the tale of his search for a rare metal-eating bird to help him dispose of his junk. His adventure involves a torturous journey by bicycle, towing behind him a huge string of wagons including a crate, tents, washrooms, outhouse and a full Oompah band!
Finally encountering the animated bird, he lures it into the crate using a worm dipped in aluminum paint. Back home, he watches in amazement as the bird chews its way through wheels and fenders, before finally settling down to lay an egg. The egg slowly hatches into a full-size Model-T Ford, which unfolds before our eyes in an extension of the central effect from ‘EGGED ON’. Charley proposes that they go into business running a flivver factory, but the bird tells him that she can only lay one egg every 100 years.
‘IT’S A BIRD’ shows that the Bowers comedies could have adapted to sound. The effects look just fine in sound, and the addition of voices to the animated creatures allows them to flourish as characters in their own right. Although Bowers himself isn’t great with dialogue, he gets by, and we must remember this was his first talking film. Perhaps the films were just too elaborate and expensive to keep on making, especially as short films declined in importance. Maybe Bowers and Muller had a falling out. Whatever reason, there were to be no more films in this style, and the Bowers trail goes cold for several years following this film. However, one other film from the 30s does recreate their spirit. ‘FRESH LOBSTER’, an obscure, bizarre short starring Billy Bletcher, features the hallucinations of a man suffering from indigestion after overindulging in seafood. Soon, he imagines himself racing along the streets in his bed, while a giant lobster frolics beside him. The effects are much cruder than Bowers’ work, and I’m not suggesting he worked on the film, but he was surely an inspiration for it, as the surreal gags and creatures are very similar.
Speaking of lobsters, the next definite Bowers project was ‘BELIEVE IT OR DON’T’ (1934) a series of odd, animated vignettes including a lobster who plays a xylophone and is then blown up, his body parts spelling out the end title!
The remaining known fragments of Bowers’ career are in a similar vein of accomplished but odd and slightly savage animated cartoons, which appeared very sporadically. ‘PETE ROLEUM AND HIS COUSINS’ is an educational animation featuring singing and dancing oil drops, made for the 1938 World’s Fair. ‘WILD OYSTERS’ and ‘ A SLEEPLESS NIGHT’ (1941) are more standard knockabout animations, apparently the last of Bowers’ work. He had been suffering from ill health for several years, and eventually declined to the point where he had to teach his wife Winifred to draw in order to fulfil his commissions.
Death came to Charley Bowers relatively early, in 1946. Although he had slumped back into almost complete obscurity by this time, he has been rediscovered and hailed as a true maverick, a genius of animation and silent comedy. With screenings of his films at Pordenone and Bristol’s Slapstick Festival in recent years, and a recent comprehensive DVD/Blu Ray release, his profile is perhaps higher than ever before. Even in the age of CGI and special effects, audiences are still wowed by the incredible animation and surreal gags of his films. Bowers may have loved using the camera to lie, but he still had to authentically create all of those lies by hand.
Perhaps he was just too far ahead of his time in the 1920s to really succeed in the mainstream. Surrealists like André Bréton claimed ‘IT’S A BIRD’ as an influence, and his eccentric gadgets are an acknowledge influence on Aardman Animations and their ‘WALLACE AND GROMIT’ films. Mysteries and falsehoods may cloud Bowers’ biography but one certainty is his talent as a trailblazing animator and creator of comedy. With his co-conspirators, he trod a unique path and created some unforgettable short films that are unlike anything else in the silent comedy canon.
Article by Matthew Ross, 2012 & 2015. This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of THE LOST LAUGH, a free silent comedy e-zine published two-three times yearly and sent by email. Interested in subscribing for FREE? Send an email to movienightmag [AT] gmail.com
Bowers’ surviving films have recently been collated in a terrific DVD/BluRay set courtesy of Lobster Films. Available from lobster.fr as well as Amazon and other sites.