Thursday, March 31, 2011

Oh, while I'm on the subject of things that make me go "Oh hell yeah!"

Roger that

I'm a movie buff.


As I've mentioned elsewhere in this "mostly movies" blog, astronomy is also a significant passion of mine. Some of my most satisfying — professionally, creatively, academically, even spiritually — career work has happened under the astronomy dome.

So I get a tingly thrill when those two areas converge in the great big Venn diagram of my life.*

So here's a public tingly thrill for Roger Ebert. While I've been enlightened and entertained for years by his film reviews and commentary, over the past few years he's become someone whose expanded writings on diverse topics in various media I greet with an appreciative, admiring fist-bump, sometimes a vocal "Oh hell yeah!" He occasionally waxes into matters cosmic, and his latest journal entry almost sounds like one of my planetarium shows.
"On this dot of space and in this instant of time, the human mind is a great success story, and I am fortunate to possess one. No, even that's not true, because a goldfish isn't unfortunate to lack one. It's just that knowing what I know, I would rather be a human than a goldfish."
When I read his post, I can hear it in Carl Sagan's voice, which takes me back to one of the reasons why I got into the field in the first place, back when. (Isaac Asimov played a part too when I was in fifth grade, in a serendipitous karmic "circle of life" payoff years later. I may tell that story here sometime.)

While the past several years have been a (generally, generously speaking, squinting through one eye) not too objectionable time to be a movie buff, we live in an awesome** time to be into astronomy, whether as a pro or an amateur enthusiast. I sure would love to see those two fan-thusiasms of mine converge more often, especially on the screen.

So consider this post a public fist-bump, with an "Oh hell yeah!" thrown in too. An excuse to swoon dreamily at Jodie Foster at the Very Large Array ain't too bad either.

* Oh, it's a rare convergence. I'd make a first-rate astro consultant for the movies. But do they call me? Noooooo. I wrote and directed the one and only Star Trek astronomy show, so if you know J.J. Abrams please send him my way before his Star Trek sequel starts shooting. The supernova that "threatened to destroy the galaxy" chaps my ass every time. So does that whole "Delta Vega" thing. And....

** In both the formal and colloquial sense.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Revelation found in an attic — Seattle's Admiral Theatre, 1-23-42

From last night's West Seattle Blog, my top source for all things within walking distance.

From the blog entry:

Heike shared that Admiral Theater ad from the January 23, 1942, “Seattle Daily Times.” We asked how the old paper was found. Reply: “We put a few can lights into the ceiling, and had to go up into the attic for rewiring. Pretty amazing that it’s been there all this time!”

The "Inaugural Program" feature: Weekend in Havana with Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, John Payne, and Cesar Romero (also Sheldon Leonard as "Boris"). Admission was 30¢, children 10¢ "(plus tax)." I'd love to know what the selected shorts were.

Moviegoers stepping out on that cold Seattle night to catch Carmen Miranda's fruit hat might have chosen it over Woman of the Year, starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, which opened four days earlier. Also released that January were The Man Who Came to Dinner (starring Monty Woolley, Bette Davis, and Ann Sheridan) and Lady for a Night (John Wayne, Joan Blondell; not one of either star's better titles). 

Johnny Eager with Robert Taylor and Lana Turner premiered in L.A. in December, then opened wide January 17. Similarly, the great Preston Sturges' great Sullivan's Travels saw its official release in December, though its New York City premiere didn't occur until January 28.

January 29 marked the release of Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake, starring Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, George Sanders, and Frances Farmer, the self-described "freak from West Seattle High" who once lived just a few blocks from the Admiral Theatre site.

Disney's Fantasia, from 1940, was back in wide release again. King's Row (Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan) was just ten days away.

Probably still playing locally were such December releases as The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney, the musical Hellzapoppin', and Tarzan's Secret Treasure, the fifth in the series to star Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan. They Died with Their Boots On (Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland) had been around since November, though since it became 1941's second-highest grossing film after Sergeant York, it must have been still packing them in through that January.

John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor (of course), had been on screens less than four months, and Citizen Kane was just eight months old.

In January '42 Casablanca was in an early production phase to premiere the following November. (Shooting began on May 25 and was completed on August 3.) Also in various stages of production at the time were Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur, which premiered in April, as did Jungle Book with Sabu; Tortilla Flat (Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, John Garfield) in May; come June film buffs got both Mrs. Miniver (1942's box office champ and Best Picture Oscar) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (Cagney's Best Actor Oscar), followed in July by Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (sort of) and Pride of the Yankees with Gary Cooper and Babe Ruth.

Bambi opened in August alongside Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Finally in December the Admiral could screen the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur Cat People and Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, the last film to star Carole Lombard, who was among those killed in a plane crash near Las Vegas on January 16.

Moviegoers on that January 23 probably extra-appreciated Weekend in Havana's bubbly nonsense six weeks after the Pearl Harbor bombing. Three days after this ad ran, on January 26, the first American forces arrived in Europe, landing in Northern Ireland.

Now a second-run house, the Admiral is still there, just a mile from where I'm sitting. Its ongoing existence — 70 years next January, apparently — has been precarious at times, so it's always a pleasure to walk in and catch the vintage vibe that remains of "Seattle's Newest Theatre."

Music: Carmen McRae & Betty Carter, Duets: Live
Near at hand: A faceted glass heart, chipped, found at our front yard entrance gate. Curious.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) — Mint julips and hot slips

Elizabeth Taylor died today. The obits and appreciations and tributes everywhere tell us that she was 79. But that suggests there was an earlier time, an epoch, a state of existence that predated Elizabeth Taylor. Was there ever such a time, really? From where I sit, there has always been *Elizabeth Taylor* in tall type and a photo three columns wide.

As an actress gifted, apparently, starting in the womb — then later as a persona, a pop-cult presence, a totemic "violet eyes to die for" emblem of a particular Hollywood era and glamor — eight times out of ten she was more interesting than the movie she was in. Out of her fifty films, maybe a half-dozen remain easily retrievable from the extempore cultural memory. (How many people today acknowledge her more for her eminent AIDS charity activism?) And yet no matter how hard a script or director tried to lock the tractor beams of camp onto her (a case in point), somehow she resisted the pull, even if only by inches. Her bold, liberating, Oscar-winning Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Mike Nichols' debut film from Edward Albee's play, is the performance that will long stand as testimony to her being, at her screen best, a presence beyond *Elizabeth Taylor* in sequin lights and the staccato of paparazzi flashes.

As usual, I'm compelled to reach to the discs on my shelves and restore her for a while. Here's the first movie I ever saw her in. It's not one of my favorites, honestly, but she left an impression.

Among the sweatiest of Tennessee Williams' southern character studies, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955 gave Broadway an iconic sizzler in provocative Maggie "the Cat," a passionate, determined young wife with a smoldering case of the sexual fantods. In 1958, the inevitable Hollywood adaptation forged an equally iconic screen image in Elizabeth Taylor's Maggie, her body heat barely contained within a clinging white slip. No retrospective montage of Taylor's career is without it, and today the sight of her is still one to give us the vapors. She was 26 years old, in her 26th film.

(This isn't the earliest point in her career at which Taylor causes me to fan my collar. That would be A Place in the Sun with Montgomery Clift from 1951. Then there's MGM's "knights in shining amour" storybook epic Ivanhoe from '52. While Joan Fontaine was one of MGM's marquee beauties, she must have rued the day that Ivanhoe's other damsel went to Taylor, then only 20, who steals Fontaine's thunder with her eyes alone.)

As her alcoholic, broody, and cripplingly repressed husband Brick Pollitt, Paul Newman's was a make-or-break performance. The artless Production Code watered the gin of this Pulitzer-winning play's translation from stage to screen, in particular the play's implication that what haunts Brick are memories of a homosexual relationship with his lamented dead friend "Skipper." Although that significant layering got cut down to nothing — well, almost nothing — the role of the self-loathing, aging football hero broken by his best friend's suicide gave rising star Newman (MGM's "new Brando") a prestige-picture opportunity that springboarded his career to its later signature peaks.

Together Taylor and Newman's intimate scenes, which amp up tension out of Maggie and Brick's paralytic lack of intimacy, are the emotional wheels of a film that's simultaneously gunning its engine on a tempestuous reunion at the Pollitt plantation mansion.

This gathering of the dysfunctionals is ostensibly a 65th birthday celebration for the family's patriarch tycoon, Big Daddy. Played with image-defying bearishness by Burl Ives, Big Daddy is an obese, cancer-stricken Mississippi Lear, raging at the lies and "mendacity" polluting his materially wealthy, but emotionally and spiritually impoverished, world.

The grasping, gold-digging fawners surrounding Big Daddy and vying for his fortune include Brick's conniving older brother Gooper (Jack Carson) and Gooper's grotesque, perpetually pregnant wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), whose five "no-neck monsters" are such odious children they may have turned the entire Mississippi Delta on to birth control. Australian Judith Anderson (later Dame Judith) impresses in a second against-type role as fluttery, spiteful "Big Mama" Ida. A now clichéd literary Old South incarnate, here's a family trapped in its social network of deception, greed, hypocrisy, and denial, where "liquor and death do remain the only exits" — in other words, 180-proof Tennessee Williams.

Williams — born one hundred years ago this Saturday, by the way — was one of America's foundational dramatists. This production's bowdlerized adaptation of the stage play diminishes his raw sensitivity and plugs in some safe triteness about the value of family over material possessions. And the play's core topical hot spots — definitions of manhood, acknowledged female sexuality, Brick's own hidden sexuality — are hardly flashpoint material anymore. Still, this over-scrubbed production kept enough of Williams' energy and poetic Americana intact, fleshing it up with an ensemble of career-imprinting performances and MGM production lavishness.

Despite a few dips into obviousness and (unavoidable) melodrama, the film's pacing and drive remain steadily under the assertive, discerning control of tough-guy director Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood, and 1962's Newman-Williams Broadway adaptation, Sweet Bird of Youth). Brooks also adapted the script with James Poe, and, despite an apparent lack of interest in Southern verisimilitude, did a seamless job "opening up" Williams' single-set play.

The film's Academy Award nominations went to Taylor, Newman, and Brooks, also Best Picture, Cinematography, Color, and Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. (Alongside the film's name-brand star power, the art direction and the cinematography by distinguished cameraman William H. Daniels really are first-rate all the way.) None won, and it's an inexcusable Academy gutterball that Ives wasn't even nominated. All the same, this was MGM's top box-office hit of the year.

Two years later, Taylor finally won her first Academy Award for Butterfield 8. It was a film she hated, but there she is in a slip again, and I can't say it doesn't work for her.

Music: Frank Zappa, Broadway the Hard Way
Near at hand: SFWA 2011 election ballot

"You the people have the power to..."

A remix of Charlie Chaplin's famous speech at the end of The Great Dictator:

The Great Dictator at Wikipedia.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Of lighthouses and foghorns and beasts from evocative fathoms

I live within walking distance of a lighthouse (Google Maps). Okay, it's not a casual walk like a stroll to a neighborhood coffee shop as an excuse to procrastinate stretch my legs after hours here in this chair. But it's a doable walk when the mood strikes to shut down this laptop and head out for an afternoon outside these four walls.

At 98 years old, it's a working Coast Guard lighthouse, one that's open to the public only a few weekends each summer. As far as picturesque lighthouses go, it's a modest structure, but as a walking destination nearby it beats the colossal hole in the ground where the Whole Foods was supposed to go three years ago.

Any lighthouse is inherently romantic. Perhaps especially during the lingering gray of a Seattle winter, such as the one that ended (officially) yesterday.

From my home office window, I can hear the foghorn, invariably evoking images of a lonely sea creature rising from Puget Sound to seek the source of the baleful call and hump woo it.

Which brings to mind, every time, the forlorn and frustrated creature from Ray Bradbury's Saturday Evening Post story "The Foghorn," and particularly its atmospheric visualization in Ray Harryhausen's seminal The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

This enjoyable "B" popcorn cruncher from 1953 is noteworthy not just for establishing a template for the Atomic Age Behemoth flicks that followed. Its giant dinosaur was the first solo project by upcoming stop-motion talent Harryhausen, a protégé of Willis O'Brien of King Kong fame. For the first time, Beast allowed Harryhausen complete special-effects control of a feature-length film.

It opens in the white Arctic wastes, where a nuclear bomb test rouses a "rhedosaurus," an immense dinosaur suspended in the ice for a hundred million years. Driven by its primitive instincts, the giant reptile heads for its ancient breeding grounds — which are now occupied by New York City. The ensuing Wall Street walloping remains archetypal (and, lately, extra soul-satisfying), with automobiles crushed beneath reptilian claws and policemen gobbled like Jell-O shots.

After military bazookas only wound it, the stricken brute makes its climactic last stand at the Coney Island rollercoaster. There marksman Lee Van Cleef and scientist Paul Hubschmid (billed as Paul Christian) aim for the soft spot with a grenade spiked with radioactive isotopes. (A well-timed all-consuming conflagration helps too.) Every great monster movie needs a kindly professor, and that service is ably provided by Cecil Kellaway, the only standout among the cast until he's swallowed whole in his bathysphere. Genre fans will recognize The Thing From Another World's Kenneth Tobey as Col. Jack Evans.

Lacking the personality of O'Brien's Kong or Harryhausen's later creations, the rhedosaurus is just a big dumb animal eliciting little sympathy from the audience. But it's true that Harryhausen monsters die like operatic tenors, and it's a tradition that begins here.

Harryhausen and production designer-turned-director Eugene Lourie made Beast independently as a private project for $200,000. Warner Brothers then snapped it up for a song compared to the millions it raked in for the studio. Because Beast was one of 1953's biggest box-office successes, a new subgenre was born, showcasing irradiated and/or gigantized reptiles, ants, spiders, crabs, bugs, scorpions, leeches, lieutenant colonels, and Allison Hayes. It also proved that quickly-made, inexpensive monster movies could be profitable even if all the stuff surrounding the special-effects scenes (e.g., the acting of purest knotty pine, a suspiciously stagebound "Arctic," the slow and tin-ear script) failed to rise to the level of Harryhausen's tabletop creations.

After Beast, Harryhausen signed on to do it again for It Came From Beneath the Sea ('55), which substituted the rampaging rhedosaurus with an enormous radioactive octopus.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is slow and stodgy today, and its comparatively primitive visuals are impressive more for their pioneering history than their technical polish. That said, the opening twilight lighthouse scene and the closing Coney Island assault remain moody mile-markers in effective genre cinema.

As far as I know, the Alki Point Light Station has not yet been ravaged by a passionate saurian from the Mesozoic. Nonetheless, I often recall that poor beast when I see our local lighthouse, especially on those gunmetal-and-charcoal overcast days when nature gets as close as it ever does to vintage black-and-white.

Music: Sharon Isbin
Near at hand: Duck Dodgers figure

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Universal Studios Employee Video

Directed by Matt Stone and Trey Parker. From 2006, with appearances by Steven Spielberg, Tracy Lords, James Cameron, Demi Moore, Angela Lansbury, Michael J. Fox, Sylvester Stallone, and other big shots wooed with wine coolers.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

For your consideration — "Postage due" edition

When I go to the site Letters of Note ("a blog-based archive of fascinating correspondence, complete with scans and transcripts of the original missives") and plug in various movies-related search terms (e.g., "movie"), what pops up are all sorts of interesting billets-doux from cinema history. The oldest I've found dates to 1916, written by Charlie Chaplin to a young admirer.

The site provides history and context for the letters. For instance, for a 1939 letter from David O. Selznick, the site preambles its contents thus:
As U.S. audiences continued to be wowed by Hedy Lamarr's glamorous turn in Algiers, Oscar-winning movie producer David O. Selznick was both blatant and determined in his efforts to capitalise on the natural beauty of Ingrid Bergman whilst filming her Hollywood debut - Intermezzo - in 1938; so much so that he wrote the following memo to the movie's director, editor and production manager towards the end of shooting and, whilst pointing out that 'every beautiful shot we get of her is a great deal of money added to the returns on the picture', demanded more close-ups of the Swedish actress.
And sure enough, there's a photo of the memo plus a transcription, with Selznick offering an accurate forecast of "increasing the possibility of our having a new star" as well as a more withering appraisal of Hedy's (not Hedley's) position in the stellar firmament.

Other pages I find there include:

Two letters from Groucho Marx, one being his famous expression of mock outrage addressed in 1945 to "Dear Warner Bros." stating "I had no idea that the City of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Bros." (My own appraisal of the forthcoming Marx Brothers' sibling swansong, A Night in Casablanca, is here.) The second, from December 1957, comes titled A drunken evening with Grouch Marx. Audrey Hepburn, a fine lobster dinner, and "Jayne Mansfield's knockers" are no longer available for comment.

1957 was a good year for Hollywood mailrooms. To wit:
  • The birth of Roger Thornhill — Theater critic and arts editor Otis L. Guernsey hands Alfred Hitchcock the rights to a "fake masterspy" story idea, a plot we now recognize as North by Northwest. (When I was a very young and precocious theater jock, I would ride my bike to my hometown's sole library to check out Guernsey's long annual series of "Best Plays" compilations, two or more at a time. I had no idea until now that he also planted the seed for my favorite Hitchcock film.)

"Respectfully yours, Clint Eastwood" — October 26, 1954: He was just 24-year-old Universal contract player when Clint Eastwood wrote this humble, gracious letter to director Billy Wilder. Its subject: Eastwood's possible casting in the role of aviator Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis. The role ultimately went to James Stewart, so Eastwood went on to become ... Clint Eastwood.

"Men are climbing to the moon but they don't seem interested in the beating human heart" — March 1, 1961: Recently divorced, mentally exhausted Marilyn Monroe's six-page letter to her psychiatrist. A touching, unveiled peek into MM a year before she died.

"I expect to make the best movie ever made" — Stanley Kubrick's vast unfilmed bio-epic Napoleon is one of my alternate-universe Dream's Library movies. Audrey Hepburn, in a hand-written letter, gracefully turns down Kubrick's offer of playing Joséphine. (Wouldn't that have been interesting?) Next up is Kubrick's unfinished draft of a 1971 letter in which, undeterred by MGM pulling out in 1969 due to soaring costs, he lays out a revised proposal and states, "I expect to make the best movie ever made."

"Forget the impeachment of President Nixon" — Hollywood director King Vidor's 1974 letter to L.A. Times sportswriter Jim Murray about Dodger Stadium's "disgraceful" and "unbelievable" public toilets. Never mind his directorial prowess — when you can rank Dodger Stadium's facilities against those in "Moscow, Madrid, Zagreb Yugoslavia, Rome and Paris," that's one specialized area of international expertise.

"We will never get past Viet Nam if we sweep it under the carpet" — It's 1976 and Francis Ford Coppola apologizes to Marlon Brando for being "so elusive" during Apocalypse Now's notoriously troubled production. The Letters of Note site points out that this is "a truly insightful letter," one that shows Coppola's frustrations "as he first details the reasoning behind the evolution of Leighley/Kurtz; then speaks of the public's need to face the horror of Vietnam 'head on' ... so as to 'move people, and to help put this war in perspective'."

Salinger reviews Raiders of the Lost Ark — The reclusive author's 1981 letter to his friend and lover Janet Eagleson. He wasn't a fan. However, he and I are in accord when it comes to The Last Metro and Catherine Deneuve.

"I'll be waiting to see your names someday on the big screen" — Steven Spielberg congratulates the three young friends who remade their favorite movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, shot-for-shot. What a mensch.

"It was a busy year and then it wasn't" — Christopher Walken writes to his online fan club. "I was supposed to portray Batman, but when Tim Burton learned of my hot dog cravings, he asked Michael Keaton to wear the cape. To this day, I am peeved about this." The man really, really likes his hot dogs. And yes, read this one out loud while doing a Christopher Walken impression.

At least three letters (here, here, and here) testify to the Pixar honchos being just darn nice folks.

The Birth of Steampunk — Only tangentially movie-related (the term is most often applied retroactively), this one I add largely because of a personal connection with the letter's author. Elizabeth and I became friends with science fiction author K.W. Jeter and his wife Geri when we all lived near each other in Portland, Oregon. We have since moved in opposite directions (we to Seattle, they to San Francisco), though the last time Elizabeth and I visited San Francisco we went out to dinner and drinks with K.W. and Geri, enjoying the chance to get caught up. Anyway, K.W. is well known as "the father of steampunk," and here's the April 1987 letter to Locus magazine wherein the label "steampunk" enters canonical writ. Steampunk's recent surge as its own pop subgenre ("the next big thing") owes a tip of the brass goggles to K.W.

I've just begun poring though the Letters of Note site. Feel welcome to let me know of others you find there.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pic pick: Movie Narrative Charts

Click to embiggen.

Via xkcd, of course.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Charley Bowers — Breaking a few eggs

Among the first American filmmakers to blend live action with fluid three-dimensional animation, Charles R. Bowers is the Mysterious Stranger of early screen comedy.

The details of his life are sketchy. We know that he was born in Iowa in 1889, the year Charlie Chaplin was born in London. A 1928 press book bio claimed that his parents were a French countess and an Irish doctor, that at age five a tramp circus performer taught him to walk the tightrope, and at six the circus kidnapped him, after which he didn't return home for two years, when the shock killed his father.

I'm calling bullshit, but it makes an entertaining story. More about that later.

We do know that between 1916 and 1926 he wrote, produced, and directed hundreds of cartoon shorts based on the "Mutt & Jeff" comic strips before turning his talents to fusing live action with lunatic stop-motion model animation (called the "Bowers Process" in his PR), thus giving birth to creations that may be whacked-out hybrids of Buster Keaton and Willis O'Brien.

For the bulk of cinephile history that's where it stood — that is, if you had heard of Charley Bowers at all, and chances are you hadn't, even if you were a deep-dyed fan of early cinema. Not only did this creative filmmaker-animator-comedian utterly disappear down the memory hole, his presence outside the hole at all seems to have barely registered even in his time. Kevin Brownlow's essential 1968 book on silent cinema, The Parade's Gone By..., doesn't mention him. Nor does Bowers get so much as a name-check in any other reference book on my shelves. His rediscovery is one for the digital age.

Today, if not for a few dogged historians and old tins of footage scattered across Europe, Bowers would be utterly forgotten, one of America's lost independent filmmakers.

In the 1950 Surrealist Almanac (very different from the Old Farmer's, I imagine), French surrealist André Breton wrote a piece naming, by year, the films that had left a lasting impression on him. For 1937 he selected Bowers' 1930 short "It's a Bird." But by 1950 Bowers had already been dead four years. Two decades later Breton's passing mention became a clue toward identifying Bowers.

In the late 1960s, Raymond Borde, of France's Cinemathèque de Toulouse, collected old second-hand reels from traveling gypsy performers and carnivals, which had used the films as warm-up acts. A reel labeled only "Bricolo" caught his attention, and his research suggested that the pseudonymous "Bricolo" was an American named Charley Bowers. Probing the curio further, Borde communicated with Louise Beaudet, film curator and head of the animation department at Canada's Cinematheque Quebecoise. She added more data to the mystery of the enigmatic Bowers. 

In 1983, Beaudet screened six of Bowers' shorts for a film series at U.C. Berkeley. (That screening's program notes are archived here.)

France's Lobster Films began its worldwide search to retrieve surviving Bowers prints in 1992. Although Bowers was an American filmmaker, his rediscovery occurred through sources in France, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia. The resulting 2004 DVD set, Charley Bowers: The Rediscovery of an American Comic Genius, with its 15 films and documentary, remains the single best wellspring of Bowers material, the means of his escape from cinema history's Phantom Zone.

My review of that set for DVD Journal became, for better or worse, an authoritative source for other writers, some crediting me and some not. [Full disclosure: I'm also pulling text from that review for this post.] As I recall from those Precambrian days of seven years ago, all the information about Bowers I put into that review came from the DVD itself — chiefly the 16-minute French documentary Looking for Charley Bowers, about the small scattering of international film archaeologists whose detective work led to Bowers' resurrection. There was precious little else to go on.

Now there are pages devoted to him at Wikipedia and Facebook, and a Google search for "Charley Bowers" turns up ... let's see ... "About 10,200 results."

Bowers' films are entertaining, but they aren't what you'd call art. Taken altogether, they tend to dawdle and recycle ideas, some of his gags are real groaners (see "Scotland Yard" below), and as a director-actor he lacks the polish, charisma, and depth of expression possessed by his celebrated contemporaries. Also unlike those contemporaries, even at their most outrageous, Bowers usually didn't concern himself much with rudiments of Story or Character. Both at best are excuses for and subordinate to his visual phantasmagoria. Beyond a certain magic-show "how'd he do that?" spectacle and whimsy, his films don't try to engage with, or generate feeling from, us in the audience. Moreover, they have zero truck with rationality, logic, or everyday physical laws. It's a no-rules, no-common-sense aesthetic of absurdity that certainly appealed to the Surrealists (and to cartoon animation of the glorious Warner Bros. years) and it can be interesting/amusing for its own sake, but here it does tend to hold its audience at arm's length, unmoored from any grounding in explicable, consensual reality.

Instead, the appeal of these antiquities lies almost solely in Bowers' execution of his laudanum-dream imagination. Yet if that makes him a lineal descendant of the great Georges Méliès, that's not too shabby, I think.

For instance, his 1926 short "Egged On" involves an inventor who builds a Rube Goldberg contraption that renders eggs as pliable and unbreakable and tire rubber. At its climax, a basket of chicken eggs, warmed on the engine of a Model T Ford, hatch open — and out pour a gaggle of tiny Model T's that unfold like origami and trundle around mama Ford until she snuggles them beneath her chassis. The scene is weird and giddily funny.

Other screen burlesques displaying that oddball creativity soon followed. We can wonder if young Theodor Geisel (later known as "Dr. Seuss") pocketed inspiration while watching Bowers' inventive visual jabberwocky. Likewise we can imagine these films hinting at what might have been if Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel had blended their experiments in film surrealism with Seussian gonzo humor.

Machines (or machine-creatures) generating artificial life of their own is an image Bowers delivers several times in his films, and no doubt a film-school thesis could come from exploring this comical-bizarro poetic representation of the industrial age.

In "A Wild Roomer", a brazenly elaborate 24-minute work also from '26, he invents a white-gloved mechanical monstrosity that bathes, manicures, dresses, and feeds its owner. It's controlled via a push-button console attached to a comfy sofa, presenting modern electro-conveniences presaging "The Jetsons" by two generations.

When Charley "drives" the giant machine through his workshop's wall and into the (quite real) city streets, we get some of silent cinema's more peculiar scenes of creative clowning. We can only imagine what the local residents and shopkeepers thought about the goings-on filling their streets when Bowers brought his robotic behemoth chugging to town with a camera crew.  

Charley demonstrates the machine to his boo-hiss villain uncle, who for reasons of his own has tried to blow up the contraption by tossing anarchist cherry bombs while the machine was en route. The uncle, who, as God is my witness, looks like Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 From Outer Space, ultimately gets trapped in, and suitably abused by, the machine's arms while Charley's auntie plays with the hand-labeled knife-switches. The switch marked "Egg Shampoo" is a high point.

There's not much we'd call narrative in "A Wild Roomer." Amusing spectacle is the main goal, and that's one of the reasons Bowers doesn't approach the Olympian genius of Buster Keaton, an obvious inspiration. But Bowers does manage to give us more than just chuckles in his mechanical gosh-wow. His clanking iron beast — well, we can imagine hearing its clanking, whirring life over a jaunty piano score — brings its own beauty when it in turn bestows life in the form of a stuffed fabric puppet that awakens with the beating of its own newly created cloth heart. The machine even fashions its child a set of clothes when the puppet realizes its own Edenic nakedness.

Bowers' skill as an animator, and his knack for naturalistic timing while doing it, is extraordinary here. The detail we see in the machine's gloved fingers as they interact with the puppet's expressive face (and wiggling toes when it's putting on its shoes) displays a lovely feel for nuance and character.

One of the most eye-poppingly inventive films of the silent era is Bowers' "Now You Tell One":

A gentlemen's Liar's Club, "The Citizens United Against Ambiguity," has convened for its latest telling of tall tales. Bowers takes the prize as an inventor botanist who has developed a potion that will "graft anything." So through impressive "Bowers Process" effects, we're treated to witty gags worthy of a Tex Avery cartoon, such as an eggplant tree that sprouts hardboiled eggs complete with salt shaker.

When the home of his would-be girlfriend is besieged by mice (one of which wards off her cat with a tiny revolver), he harvests pussy willows and grows an army of rodent-battling felines — one of the oddest, possibly the most creepy-funny stop-motion animation scenes from the age before Ray Harryhausen.

Note the scene where Charley drives a herd of elephants and donkeys into the Capitol building in Washington D.C. According to James R. Quirk, then editor of Photoplay, in a 1928 press book for Bowers' distributor Educational Pictures (therefore many grains of salt are recommended), our elected lawgivers "got so excited they demanded an investigation. They had been deceived by trick photography. Charley and the elephants had never been near the District of Coolidge." (Full piece here.)

In "He Done His Best" (1926) Charley builds a machine that performs all the chores at a restaurant, from cooking to setting tables to serving.

Modern convenience: a robot restaurant plucks fruit already canned.

Only the second half of "Say Ah-h!" exists, but we still see Charley feeding an ostrich food ground from a broom, a hoe, a pillow, clothes, and a feather duster, after which the ostrich lays an egg that hatches an ostrich constructed of those items. The freakish creature eats everything in a shed, including a metal stove, and dances to a phonograph record.

The 1928 two-reeler "There It Is", directed by Bowers' frequent collaborator Harold L. Muller, stars Bowers as a kilt-wearing Scotland Yard detective who with his faithful companion — a bug named MacGregor — investigates a Haunted House that's being pranked by the baffling Fuzz-Faced Phantom. Meanwhile the Phantom is at work hatching full-grown chickens from eggs, floating various items across rooms, appearing and vanishing through hidden doorways, and causing pants to dance on their own and paintings to come to life.

Along with "Now You Tell One," here's the Bowers film I'd rate as his magnum opus. Its gag-packed narrative is his strongest and holds its own well enough alongside his "Bowers Process" and other photographic sleight of hand, making me think of a blend of Georges Méliès and a Looney Tunes short. In 2004 the Library of Congress added "There It Is" to the National Film Registry for its "cultural, aesthetic, or historical significance." This film isn't included on the Lobster Films DVD set, though it seems that Charley Bowers' oeuvre has finally found its audience in the era of YouTube:

Bowers had a thing for birds, eggs, metal, and machines. All four feature again in 1930's "It's a Bird", the only talkie Bowers starred in. He plays a junkyard employee who travels to darkest Africa to capture a rare bird that eats metal. The talking bird is a marvel of bizarre puppet animation, equaled only by a full-grown Tin Lizzie hatching from its egg.

Was "It's a Bird" inspirational source material for Bob Clampett's 1938 Looney Tunes short, "Porky in Wackyland," in which Porky Pig travels to darkest Africa to capture the last of the Do-Do birds? If so, I sure would love to know what André Breton thought of Clampett's masterpiece.

In a similar vein, I'd like to know if two of Bowers' films from 1940 — "Wild Oysters" and "A Sleepless Night" — provided grist for Chuck Jones with their family of house mice conniving to evade the cat or snag some cheese (although the sight of oysters shucking their own shells to assault a mouse is a singular bit of strangeness).

Bowers' known work thins out considerably for the rest of the '30s. The few exceptions include a lesser effort, 1935's "Believe It or Don't" (peanuts perform in a peanut circus, a drunken lobster plays a xylophone, yet another car hatches from an egg), and a peculiar oil industry promotional short, "Pete Roleum and His Cousins", that Bowers and director Joseph Losey (his first in a long career) made for the 1939 New York World's Fair.

After 1940 Bowers drops out of history until '46, when his death in Paterson, New Jersey, after a five-year illness, prompted a notice in the Nov. 27 New York Herald-Tribune (transcribed here).

The most interesting of Google's 10,200 ("about") returns is an article written by Imogen Sara Smith for Bright Lights Film Journal. There, she digs deeper than most investigators by relaying an impression of Bowers from Isadore Klein, an animator who worked for Bowers in the teens and twenties. According to Smith, Klein recalled Bowers as
a colorful and difficult character; a ham, a prankster and a congenital liar whose tall tales (always illustrating his own prowess and heroism) were so obviously phony, and so entertaining, that no one took him seriously or minded. He claimed to have been a precocious tightrope walker, a talent that led to his being kidnapped at age six by circus performers, with whom he spent two years. He told of working as a jockey and taming wild horses out west, and said that only after an accident while climbing a building to promote his tightrope act did he seek more sedentary employment as a newspaper cartoonist. No information remains to contradict him. He was, prosaically, born in Cresco, Iowa in 1889, and by 1916 was in New York, prolifically drawing Mutt and Jeff animated cartoons and later supervising the studio where they were produced. He was fired for padding the payroll, started his own studio, and was eventually forced out by several of his staff, who took over. He was known to pass off scripts written by his employees as his own.
With that new information, I can't help but wonder if Bowers disappeared down the memory hole not so much because his films didn't attract a clamoring public the way Keaton's or Chaplin's (and many etceteras) did — but because the man himself was such a first-rate dick and bullshit artist that people just couldn't or didn't want to work with him.

Whatever the reality was, it's unlikely we'll ever fully know it, or him.

But I do sort of love that this filmmaker from the silent and early-sound era has been granted a second life in the DVD and Internet age. It seems to me likely that his surviving films reach more eyeballs in one month now than they ever did throughout his entire lifespan.

Maybe he was a dick and a bullshit artist. But as the saying goes, it's all about what you leave behind.

Near at hand: A bowl of leftover spaghetti and the script to Claudia Shear's Blown Sideways Through Life