The Amazing Charley Bowers

Four short films by Charley Bowers, 1926–1928

Presented at SFSFF 2015
Live Musical Accompaniment by Serge Bromberg

Essay by Sean Axmaker

A WILD ROOMER, USA, 1926  Charley, a brilliant inventor, has forty-eight hours to make a convincing demonstration of his newest machine in order to collect an inheritance from his father. NOW YOU TELL ONE, USA, 1926 The liars’ club meets to vote on who can tell the most unbelievable story. Along comes Charley, the brilliant inventor of a universal grafting process, whose story takes the cake. MANY A SLIP, USA, 1927 Charley decides to invent an anti-skid banana peel. THERE IT IS, USA, 1928 Charley is a detective from Scotland Yard sent to America to solve the mystery of a haunted house.
Print Source Lobster Films

Sometime in the mid-1960s, French film archivist and historian Raymond Borde of the Toulouse Cinémathèque stumbled across three silent shorts that showcased a talent he had never heard of before. There were no credits on the films, merely the name “Bricolo” on the canisters, and they featured elaborate and imaginative stop-motion sequences unlike anything he had seen in American slapstick comedy. These were films that “take on a disorderly life of their own, obeying nothing but the logic of a dream,” wrote Borde in his 1967 article “Le mystère Bricolo,” which announced the discovery and called upon fellow archivists and historians to share any information they had. But no one recognized Bricolo, whose straight-faced curiosity recalled Buster Keaton and childlike innocence suggested Harry Langdon. Borde finally cracked the mystery while reading through a film directory from 1928 and seeing an ad promoting the films of Bricolo, a.k.a. Charley Bowers.

Who is Charley Bowers and why isn’t he better known? Cartoonist, animator, director, and, for a brief period, silent movie comic, Bowers created some of the most imaginative, idiosyncratic, and surreal short comedies of the 1920s. His French screen moniker Bricolo is an inspired shorthand for a filmmaker who applied the art of bricolage to slapstick surrealism, cobbling together animated wonders from gears and gizmos, household objects, and junkyard bric-a-brac, and creating funny Frankenstein marriages of the biological and mechanical. Yet he received little critical attention at the time. His most admiring notice came from French surrealist André Breton who saw his sound debut seven years after its release and wrote: “In 1937, It’s a Bird took us away, for the first time, our eyes opened to the dull sensory distinction of reality and legend, to the heart of the black star.” By then Bowers was in poor health and supporting himself as a cartoonist and illustrator, while periodically working as an animator on films like Pete Roleum and his Cousins (1937), an industrial short made for the oil industry by director Joseph Losey. He died in 1946 at the age of fifty-seven, all but forgotten by Hollywood.

More than forty years after his rediscovery, Bowers remains an enigma with a biography wrapped in myth and tall tales. What is known of his early years is largely conjecture, informed by fanciful studio press releases and Bowers’s even less reliable accounts. According to these anecdotes, he’s the son of a countess, learned to walk a tightrope at the age of five, was kidnapped by circus gypsies at six, and worked variously as a bronco buster, jockey, cowboy, horse trainer, and circus acrobat before an injury grounded him. What can be confirmed (thanks in large part to research by film scholar and historian Rob King) is that he worked as a newspaper cartoonist, which led to a career as an animator on early cartoon series such as The Katzenjammer Kids and Bringing Up Father. In 1916 he was put in charge of the Mutt and Jeff series and wrote, produced, and directed more than two hundred cartoons between 1916 and 1926.

Sometime in the 1920s he began experimenting with puppet animation and stop-motion techniques and, in 1926, he left Mutt and Jeff and began a partnership with cinematographer Harold L. Muller. There’s even less information (reliable or not) available on Muller, a British émigré who had been, according to his entry in the Motion Picture Studio Directory (1923–1924), experimenting with early color film and synchronized sound technologies before teaming up with Bowers. Together they created eighteen live-action shorts with what we can only guess is enviable creative freedom. Bowers is generally assumed to be the creative force with Muller as director of photography and quite likely technical supervisor, but Muller is variously credited as director, writer, and producer throughout their collaboration. Bowers was also the star and he transformed himself into a silent comic without the training that shaped the great performers. It’s no surprise that he lacks the physical polish and comic timing of his contemporaries but he’s perfectly appealing as a plucky, energetic hero willing to try anything in the name of scientific inquiry. And while he received top billing in these films, they were really a showcase for his animated creations.

Bowers sold himself as an inventor as much as filmmaker and silent comic—in the 1930 U.S. Census report, after nearly two decades in the movie business, he listed his official occupation as inventor—and proclaimed himself the creator of the exclusive “Bowers Process.” The official-sounding term aside, it’s merely a catchy brand name for a combination of stop-motion animation and optical techniques used to marry effects with live-action footage. Call it cinematic ballyhoo, a handy gimmick to convince audiences that his films rely on some exclusive technology, but Bowers had the chops to pull off the illusion. Walt Disney combined actors and hand-drawn animation in the fanciful Alice shorts, but no one was bringing physical objects to life and unleashing them in the material world the way Bowers did.

Like Buster Keaton’s films, Bowers’s films share a fascination with machines and technology. But where Keaton took an engineer’s delight in the operations and mechanical possibilities of steam engines and paddle boats, Bowers applied the limitless imagination of a cartoonist and the tools of stop-motion animation to push the conceptual possibilities of his devices beyond the limitations of physics and into the realm of fantasy. Bowers liked to play inventors on-screen as well, the visionary creator whipping up the impossible out of elaborate machines and miracle concoctions. In 1926’s Egged On, a basket of his experimental “unbreakable” eggs hatch into miniature Tin Lizzies and putter over to their mommy Ford like chicks to a mother hen, and he grows full-sized felines from a pussy willow branch in Now You Tell One. Objects don’t simply come to life, they transform and mutate and evolve into visual puns and cartoonish impossibilities. His crazy contraptions have been compared to Rube Goldberg. But where Goldberg created absurdly elaborate constructions to accomplish mundane tasks, Bowers imagines the impossible and sets about making it possible, whether it’s a machine to take care of household chores in A Wild Roomer or isolating the “slippery” germ during his search for the no-slip banana peel in Many a Slip. He’s the inventor as magician and fabulist, and in There It Is, playing a Scotland Yard detective investigating a haunted house, he’s the logician faced with anarchy and chaos.
A number of his early cartoons have been saved (you can find some of his Mutt and Jeff cartoons on YouTube) but only about half the live-action films he created have been found (mostly in Europe), rescued, and preserved. As an independent making shorts both for FBO, which merged with Keith-Albee-Orpheum to form RKO and neglected its silent film library in the transition to sound, and Educational Pictures, which went bust and was sold off its assets in the late 1930s, Bowers had no studio to protect his legacy and no champions to promote his cause, at least until Borde stumbled across that can of old prints and identified the artist as a subject for further study. That study continues.

—Sean Axmaker