What would you say if I told you there was a silent comedian contemporary of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin who used stop animation in his shorts? Raymond Borde didn’t know his name, either, when he found three of his films in the 1960s, but today they’re credited to Charley Bowers, an inventor and animator from Iowa whose ingenuity unfortunately didn’t coincide with fame or recognition.
With The Extraordinary World of Charley Bowers, Flicker Alley (in conjunction with Blackhawk Films and Lobster Films) contributes to the correction of this obscurity with the most comprehensive collection of Bowers’ works to ever be released. Each of the seventeen films on this two-disk set has been restored, with alternating French or English subtitles, since many of the films were found in France. A handful are incomplete, and some are in better shape than others (“Say Ah-h!” (1928) shows the most wear and there’s a spot on the second half of “Egged On” (1926)) but all of this is openly addressed in the booklet that comes with the disks, along with an introduction by Serge Bromberg and an essay by Sean Axmaker.
For the story of how Borde was able to identify Bowers as the star and get the ball rolling for other historians to look into his work, there’s a short documentary called, “Looking for Charley Bowers.” There’s also a photo gallery where some of the stills look like they might be from shorts not included on this set but, since there aren’t any captions, it’s hard to say (and it might not be known for certain).
Information on Bowers seems hard to come by as a whole (and always with the disclaimer that what is known might not be true). If Bowers’ biography is spotty, it’s worse for his contributors. While some of his films still have opening credits, there are a few actors who appear in multiple shorts and other than Eddie Dunn (who is recognizable from his work with Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy), none of them are credited. The one name that does appear regularly, besides Bowers, is H. L. Muller. At different points Bowers’ co-director, director and photographer, Axmaker is able to tell us he was a British émigré but that’s about as concrete as it gets.
What Flicker Alley does supply is Bowers’ films and the chance to see how he combined live action and animation to tell stories centered around the most endearing of fixations. Before that though, he worked on the animation series, Mutt and Jeff, based on Bud Fisher’s comic strip. Mutt is a waiter and Jeff is a cook in “The Extra Quick Lunch,” (1917) which feels like a precursor to Bowers’ live action short, “He Done His Best,” (1926). There Bowers’ character winds up working at a restaurant after he fails to build up the courage to ask the owner for permission to marry his daughter (marriage will again push Bowers into a job he’s not qualified for in “Nothing Doing,” (1927) where he joins the police force to impress his girlfriend’s dad). When a strike sends the other employees walking and an overworked coffee machine destroys the restaurant, Bowers’ character invents a machine that can replace the workers so the diner can reopen without rehiring anyone.
Another early animation, “AWOL” (1918) (which stands for All Wrong Old Laddiebuck) follows a soldier whose impatience with waiting to be discharged leads him to accept a ride from a woman in a car named “Joy.” Unlike “The Extra Quick Lunch,” which uses intertitles, the dialogue in “AWOL” appears in speech bubbles, like a comic book.
“Egged On” marks the start of what will become an evolving gag of Bowers – the egg and what comes out of it when it hatches. In this short Bowers is committed to inventing a machine that will make eggs unbreakable (yet somehow cuttable with scissors when he wants to access the yoke). His motives aren’t completely selfless – he needs money to get married – but the result is one of Bowers’ signature machines and the joy of seeing what happens when he runs out of eggs for a demonstration. More than a decade before Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hatches the Egg, Bower stores some eggs in a basket over his car engine but when he goes to retrieve them, they hatch, releasing little cars inside. The master stroke is when the “mother” car retracts her wheels so she can sit on her brood, just as a mother hen would. it’s nurture vs nature at its most whimsical, and an image Bowers will return to (though never as satisfyingly) in “It’s A Bird” (1930) and “Believe It or Don’t” (1935). By this point, sound is involved so you get to hear Bowers’ voice in “It’s A Bird,”, but the visuals are too reliant on narration in “Believe It Or Don’t,” and both shorts come at the cars from the angle of making a profit.
Greed is completely absent from “Say Ah-h,” however (if some racism replaces it), and when an ostrich gives birth to a puppet ostrich made out of junk she’s been fed (bringing a whole new meaning to “you are what you eat”) the reward is the response it earns from a miserable customer who breaks out laughing when he sees the bird dancing to a record.
These are the moments when Bowers sparkle – silly, innocent, sometimes superfluous, like the ending to “Fatal Footsteps” (1926). The dance contest is over. He’s won the girl. For all intents and purposes, the short is over yet Bowers keeps going to include a stop motion bit with a fish trying to learn the Charleston, like his character did. Take that moment out and the short still makes sense but it’s because of those moments that Bower is due his day. Flicker Alley got the title right: Bowers’ world is extraordinary, and hopefully this Blu-Ray will lead more people to discover it.
The Extraordinary World of Charley Bowers is available now on Blu-Ray from Flicker Alley.