Charley Bowers: the film genius no one's ever heard of
July 10, 2011 12:44 AM   Subscribe

“Highbrow critics talk in ornate polysyllables about the ingenuity and art of the German filmmakers. If they condescended to witness the nonsensical genius of a Charley Bowers comedy they could drool dictionaries.” Educational Pictures Press Book for THERE IT IS, January 23, 1928
Charley Bowers is a genius of silent film and animation that never got the level of attention of his peers Buster Keaton or the Fleischer Brothers. You'll have to search hard to find him in film literature. But watching his work—as a bird lays a Ford Model T or a scruffy ghost tortures a Scotsman and his insect sidekick—you can see the inspiration for the later sight gags of Ernie Kovacs, the visual non sequiturs of Looney Toons, the cut paper trickery of Terry Gilliam and surrealist Andre Breton citing one of Bowers' shorts as the most influential film of 1937.

Bowers' early life is unknown, with claims about his childhood full of fanciful stories of kidnapping, losing his father and being raised in the circus as a tightrope walker. But what is known for sure is that he went from a career as a cartoonist to turning Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff comics into animated cartoons as his first major foray into film making. (Although the Winsor McCay-like AWOL shows he was exploring the medium outside of Mutt and Jeff early on.)

He then began to experiment with a mix of live action and stop motion, perfecting the “Bowers Technique” of incorporating the two. His films were never widely popular, he tried doing animation for other filmmakers and then retired to write and illustrate children's books.

Most of his films had been lost to time and flammable film stock. However, in a tale that sounds more FORGOTTEN SILVER than fact, a film archeologist bought a box of films marked simply “Bricolo” from a gypsy and through research discovered that Bricolo and Bowers were one in the same.

A DVD box set was released (sadly out of print in the US, but still around for those in Europe – or with a NetFlix account) and you can now find his work on YouTube and even like him on Facebook.
posted by Gucky (18 comments total) 103 users marked this as a favorite
Great post, Gucky. Hard to understand how stuff like this can sink out of view, but marvellous that YouTube makes it easy to access a new audience, something that probably would never have happened otherwise.
posted by Segundus at 1:51 AM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

What's this guy's obsession with birds eating stuff that isn't food? I mean it does look pretty cool but, ferserius, what the hell?
posted by LiteOpera at 2:08 AM on July 10, 2011

This is my new favorite thing.
posted by Hoopo at 3:08 AM on July 10, 2011

Wonderful! Thanks for that. For my MA dissertation I've been reading up on silent era animators and Bowers is conspicuously absent from a lot of histories. He is mentioned in Donald Crafton's Before Mickey - IMO this book is a must for any early animation enthusiast.

A related endeavour is the Bray Animation Project - a labour of love bringing together the films and ephemera relating to the pioneering animation studio. I like this website particularly because it sheds light on the archives who house the films, giving access to the process of preserving moving images and making obscure material available.

I wonder where master prints of Bowers' work reside?
posted by dumdidumdum at 4:17 AM on July 10, 2011

LiteOpera: dunno, but from ostriches to goats (and tiny, nervous fish who even eat the credits), truly omnivorous animals became a staple of cartoons.
posted by IAmBroom at 4:23 AM on July 10, 2011

This is amazing. I love it.
posted by h00py at 5:29 AM on July 10, 2011

I have the "bird laying a Model T" piece on a VHS I purchased probably over 20 years ago as one piece in a "weird animation" collection. I think Bambi Vs. Godzilla was also on there, along with quite a few other bits.

Interesting to have some better background on where that came from and who created it. Thanks for posting!
posted by hippybear at 5:48 AM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh. My. God.

I am instantly a HUGE Charley Bowers fan. Thank you so very much for this post.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:56 AM on July 10, 2011

I love early film and animation and I'm not sure I've ever heard of this guy. Thanks for the post; I'll be checking the links out.
posted by immlass at 6:16 AM on July 10, 2011

"There It Is", with the comically bizarre bespectacled man that moves stiffly through the house doing strange things, it's just... so great. And the stop-motion animation is excellent. When the bagpipes get up and walk away... the little bug in the matchbox... Then the phone moving up and down, and Bowers jumping on and off it... god, it's all just so damn creative, I'm really just dumbstruck that this guy is not as famous as Chaplin and Keaton.

You know what else is cool? How much screen time the black actor gets, and how the "blackness" (that is, the expected "steppin-fetchit-ness") is not ridiculously overplayed in the usual racist manner of the day. That's a revelation, really, and gives me immense respect for the newly-discovered Charley Bowers.

Gucky, this is one of the best MeFi posts to come down the pike in a long time, IMHO. And I look forward to exploring all these links. Again, thanks so much.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:16 AM on July 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ha, hippybear! I thought I was the only person in the world who owned Weird Cartoons. I won it at an elementary school auction a long-ass time ago.
posted by mynameisluka at 8:38 AM on July 10, 2011

A post worth waiting 6 years for. Awesome work.
posted by Trurl at 9:53 AM on July 10, 2011

You know what else is cool? How much screen time the black actor gets, and how the "blackness" (that is, the expected "steppin-fetchit-ness") is not ridiculously overplayed in the usual racist manner of the day. That's a revelation, really, and gives me immense respect for the newly-discovered Charley Bowers.

He spends the entire film cowering with a wide-eyed a-scairt look, and his one line contains the word I'se. Seems pretty standard to me.

And then there's the whole Scots-are-cheap thing throughout.

Which isn't to put down Bower's work on the whole--I just think describing it as some kind of progressive breath-of-fresh-air might be overstating things just a tad.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:03 AM on July 10, 2011

I thought I knew a lot about film and animation, but there are obviously some gaps in my knowledge. However, now I know Charley Bowers and one gap is filled. Thank you!
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 2:18 PM on July 10, 2011

He spends the entire film cowering with a wide-eyed a-scairt look, and his one line contains the word I'se. Seems pretty standard to me.

i disagree. Sure, he's playing a guy who's scared of the bizarre character, but no more so than anyone else in the film. I find the performance far less stereotype-like than most any other black part I've seen in any other movie from the period. And, like I mentioned, there's the amount of screen time he gets, which again, to me, makes him seem much more like just another player in the comedy, as opposed to "the black character" in the comedy. The fact that he actually comes and sits down on the sofa with the two white characters, for example, just after his first appearance in the film is already, for the time, rather remarkable. In general he is presented essentially as equal to the other characters in a way that is very rare for the period.

As far as the use of vernacular (I'se), well, if that is inherently racist, then virtually any movie representation in American film history is de facto racist, outside of performances from, say, Sydney Poitier and a relative handful of others. By that definition, then, you'd have to accuse, say, Quentin Tarantino as a racist director for the way Samuel L. Jackson speaks. For example.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:43 PM on July 10, 2011

This is a super post. Thanks so much!!!!

I just watched "There It Is" and I'm dumbfounded. How could someone so innovative drop out of sight? Yet another instance where I stand in awe of the Internet's ability to raise the dead.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:03 AM on July 11, 2011

That was my reaction, kinnakeet. I had to do an extra hour of research just to make sure it wasn't a modern retro-looking gag.
posted by Gucky at 3:05 PM on July 11, 2011

Just thought I'd add that the about-to-be-published anthology Funny Pictures: Animation and Comedy in Studio-Era Hollywood contains an essay by Rob King on the films of Charley Bowers. (Full disclosure: I have an essay in the book, as well.)
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:31 PM on July 15, 2011

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