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