“He is Aladdin and the camera is his lamp.” — James R. Quirk
In the 1950 Surrealist Almanac, André Breton listed for each year the films that had made the greatest impression on him. For 1937, he cited It’s a Bird, by the American comedian and animator Charley Bowers.1 Breton, who in the 1923 Surrealist Manifesto wrote of his hope that the imagination might be on the point of reasserting itself, “in the absence of any control exercised by reason,” and who declared that “only the marvelous is beautiful,” probably felt like a piker beside Bowers. It’s a Bird, the only sound film in which Bowers appeared, follows pure dream logic; as Breton wrote: “the mind of the man that dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him. The agonizing question of possibility is no longer pertinent.”
On a radio program devoted to “tall stories” (many Bowers films throw some small sop to reason), Charley recounts how his job at a junkyard forced him to find ways to dispose of old car parts. Learning of a rare “metal-eating bird,” he sets off by tricycle, accompanied by a band of bewhiskered German musicians — having heard that only music can lure the bird from its underground nest — and winds up in Africa, where with the help of a worm that wears a bowler hat and talks like a movie tough-guy, he captures the insatiable metal-eater, though not before it devours the band’s trombone. The main point of the movie is an extended sequence of the bird, which looks like a goofy pterodactyl, happily munching and gulping down fenders, engine parts and wheels. It then lays an egg, from which hatches a black blob that, before our eyes, unfurls unto a full-sized flivver.
In the realm of the bizarre, of the inexplicably, mind-bogglingly weird, Charley Bowers had no peer. Little can be said with certainty about him, except that he had a thing about birds. (“Alas! I believe in the virtue of birds,” Joseph Delteil wrote in a passage quoted in the Surrealist Manifesto, “And a feather is all it takes to make me die laughing.”) He was even more obsessed with eggs, but they don’t always hatch into birds. In Bowers Land, live cats grow out of pussy willow bushes, goldfish do the Charleston, mice pack pistols and wear plaid pants, and perky droplets of petroleum sing and dance. Because his films combined live action with the highly sophisticated “Bowers Process” of stop-motion animation, there were no limits on Charley’s imagination, which was as fertile and unchecked as the monstrously grafted plants he nurtures in Now You Tell One (1926). He was ahead of his time not only in his virtuosity as an animator but in his fascination with the unstable intersection between nature and technology. Automobiles hatch out of eggs. A pea plant grows from a sprout, flowers, and produces a can of peas. In A Wild Roomer (1927), Charley constructs a giant, revolutionary machine with functions including “shave, toaster, stove polish, manicure, pacifier, egg shampoo, make bed, dump garbage,” and so on. But we don’t see the machine perform any useful household functions; instead we watch two robotic hands wearing white gloves construct a stuffed doll that comes to life when a heart is sewn into its chest. The machine then dresses the doll, which has acquired a mobile cartoon face and a keen sense of modesty, and feeds her a banana, peel and all. Then things get a little strange: a walnut morphs into a squirrel, which produces from an embroidered handbag several more nuts, a full-sized comb, a pair of sewing scissors, a nutcracker, and other items. The scene ends with the doll mounting the squirrel’s back and riding into the machine from whence she came. The agonizing question of possibility? No longer pertinent.
Always a marginal figure, Charley Bowers was entirely forgotten until the 1970s, when Raymond Borde, the director of the Cinemathèque de Toulouse, was buying old films from itinerant gypsy performers and carnival owners who had used them to open their acts. In one can he found a reel marked only “Bricolo.” He thought the performer looked a little like Buster Keaton, but no one he consulted could identify him. Finally he stumbled across an ad from which he learned that Bricolo (a name suggesting bricolage, something cobbled together out of odds and ends) was the French nickname for Charley Bowers, and through a Canadian archivist who had heard of him, began to piece together the man’s story.
Bowers in real life was as much of a fabulist as his screen character, who impresses even the members of the Liars’ Club in Now You Tell One. Isadore Klein, an animator who worked for Bowers in the teens and twenties, recalled him 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.
In the early twenties he began developing his stop-motion “Bowers Process,” and starred in his first live-action films in 1926. He made twelve short films for R-C Pictures, and eight more for Educational Pictures in 1928. He was not a sufficiently gifted performer to carry films on his own — the special effects are the real star — but he combined a winning quality of jumping-up-and-down enthusiasm with natural underdog pathos. He had the looks of a silent comedian: small and puny, not so much dressed as lost in huge overalls; his long, bony, slightly wizened face made up white as a mime’s. Bowers’s films impressed critics, who invariably described them as “baffling” or “mystifying,” as well as “novel” and “ingenious.” James R. Quirk of Photoplay wrote, “Every short feature bearing his name proves the camera is a monumental liar.” They were made in the image of their creator.
Of the twenty live-action films he starred in, only half are known to survive. Of these, the indisputable masterpiece is There It Is2 (1928). It’s an appropriately deadpan title for the most richly surreal, frenetically eye-popping, utterly deranged Bowers film, in which the mysterious Fuzz-Faced Phantom wreaks havoc in the Frisbee mansion. The alarmed owners wire Scotland Yard — which, with thumping literalness, is a fenced-in yard in the Highlands full of kilted Scotsmen marching around playing bagpipes. Charley, whose kilt fits him no better than his usual overalls, is selected for the job, and brings along his assistant MacGregor, a bug of indeterminate species who wears a kilt, travels in a matchbox, and often seems smarter than his master. The Fuzz-Faced Phantom is a little man in a nightshirt, bald as an egg, with round spectacles perched above a chaotic explosion of beard. He is the most inexplicable of poltergeists, popping in and out of the room bearing a different household item on each trip — a broom, a flower-pot, a hat-rack, a block of ice — or wearing a funny hat, or boxing gloves, or zipping through on roller skates, or pulling a red wagon right through the wall, always with the same bustling impassivity.
Meanwhile, the cook cracks an egg and a full-grown chicken comes out; a pair of trousers dances atop a dresser; the sea in a maritime painting starts to heave and pours water down the wall; a cat comes out of the cuckoo clock, eats the bird, and then pops out again, slyly meowing “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” It’s . . . oh, hell, it’s impossible to describe. While Bowers’s films tend to be deliberately paced, this one is nonstop, rapid-fire action. The Fuzz-Faced Phantom seems to enter before he has had time to exit; gags pop so frequently there’s no time to notice them all, you just keep saying, “What was that?!” The ending makes a few feeble stabs at explaining it all: first the family who formerly lived in the mansion turn up, saying they have forgotten “Grandpa,” but before that has had time to sink in, it’s revealed that the place is an asylum and everyone is a patient — except the cute girl, who is a nurse.3 But wait a minute . . . no, why bother. In a Bowers’s film, the notion of the world as one big insane asylum has a certain plausibility.
But is any of this really funny? Bowers, who came along towards the end of the silent era, was instantly recognizable as a movie comedian, yet did little that could strictly be called humor. His films don’t really have “gags,” in the sense of the carefully constructed laugh-getters that other comics used. He rarely used slapstick or standard comedy plots built around mistaken identity, embarrassing situations, romantic rivalry or jealousy, drunkenness, or the need to “make good.” For all this he substituted marvels, lunacy, the sheer force of the unexpected. And one does laugh at his films; what’s more, one recognizes a strain present to a greater or lesser degree in all silent comedy: surrealism, non-sequitur, and the art of the “sight gag,” something that simply looks funny, like the Fuzz-Faced Phantom or a metal-eating bird. Silent comedy inhabited a spectrum from normality to outlandish fantasy; from logic to absurdity. Charley Bowers could not have succeeded if other comedians hadn’t prepared audiences to expect strange sights. The presentation of marvels goes all the way back to the trick films of Méliès and such early fantasies as Princess Nicotine, the Smoke Fairy and The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend. Bowers inhabited, indeed he marked out, the extreme end of the weirdness spectrum.
There is, for a start, his egg fixation. They appear in almost all of his films and are the central focus in several, including Egged On (1926) and Say Ah-h (1928). In the former, Charley decides there is a fortune to be made in rendering egg-shells unbreakable. He played an inventor in most of his films, and what we’d now call a geek — a technically brilliant guy lacking in social skills. Crazed with inspiration, he races around in an awkward, gallumphing run. His eccentric, oblivious behavior and his radical innovations arouse hostility from his neighbors, and many of his films have down-beat endings in which he neither succeeds nor gets the girl. Egged On is typical. By the time he has perfected his invention, his room is eyebrow-deep in crumpled failures, which bury his landlady when she comes to demand the rent. He seeks investors, but since his method of convincing them of the need for his invention is to break eggs on their desks, hands, and heads, it’s not surprising that he’s given the bum’s rush each time. Finally he receives support from the International Egg Shippers Association (deliciously rendered in the film’s French intertitles as the Syndicat Générale des Expéditeurs d’Oeufs.) “Borrowing” the parts he needs — a cartwheel, a bicycle chain, a birdcage, door hinges, a beard — he constructs a Rube Goldberg machine in a barn, which somehow transforms the eggshells into a substance like rubber that stretches and won’t break.
Problems arise when he needs a basket of eggs for the demonstration. He coaxes one hen into laying twenty-five eggs, after which she rolls over on her back with her feet in the air. (Charley, or someone on his staff, was an expert chicken wrangler. At least I hope so.) But he breaks those eggs, so he steals some from another farm. After incubating under the hood of his Model T Ford, they hatch into a flock of tiny Model T’s, which emerge from the shells as crumpled, clawing metal chicks, inflate into miniature automobiles, and roll down the running board like products of the Ford factory. Then they all gather under the belly of their “mother,” which plops down on top of them like a brooding hen. Model T humor was ubiquitous in silent comedy, and Bowers amplified a prevalent strain of pathetic fallacy relating to Tin Lizzies. Having discovered what proximity to a car can do for eggs, it’s no surprise that the egg Charley finally tests in his machine, laid by a hen with a fondness for pecking dynamite, blows everyone to kingdom come.
In the even odder Say Ah-h, only the second half of which survives, Charley works on an ostrich farm, and has a boss who loudly demands eggs for breakfast. For reasons never explained, Charley feeds his ostrich Cleo cement, causing her to lay eggs of solid concrete. Then he grinds up a broom, an old cushion, and some clothes for her feed, and she lays an egg that hatches into an ostrich of sorts: its body is a cushion, its legs broomsticks, its tail a feather duster, its neck a sleeve. After a light snack of rubber tires and a stove, the bird puts on a gramophone record and dances along, before laying two eggs that hatch into miniature junk-ostriches, which repeat the dance as a vaudevillian double act. Inquiring too deeply into Bowers’s obsession with eggs is probably as fruitless as asking which came first, but something about the little featureless ovals within which a gooey liquid assembles itself into a living bird sent his imagination reeling.
In other films he turned his attention to plant life. In Now You Tell One he pioneers a process by which he can graft anything onto anything else, and aids a family battling an invasion of mice (some armed) by producing pussy-willow branches from which cats sprout — tails first, heads last. In He Done His Best (1926), he builds an entirely automated restaurant that concocts food on a conveyor belt and shoots it onto tables via pneumatic tubes. In Many a Slip (1927), Charley tackles a problem of vital interest to silent clowns: the slipperiness of banana peels. Someone offers him a fortune if he can develop a non-skid banana skin (has he considered how many slapstick comedians this would throw out of work?) and so he sets to work with methodical zeal.4 Hiding out in his basement workshop, he constructs a spidery, multi-armed machine that dunks peels in experimental solutions, and tests the treated peels himself, trudging stoically up a step-ladder and sliding to the bottom. Tired of that, he starts planting them for others to slip on, popping out of trap-doors with a fishing rod. A montage of pratfalls follows, until he achieves a peel with good traction. To do so, he isolates the germ responsible for making peels slippery, a woozy little critter that slithers around under the microscope like a drunk on an ice rink. In a repetition of the twist in There It Is, the man who offered him the prize turns out to be an escaped lunatic.
Bowers is often compared to Keaton, who had his own brand of surrealism and a fondness for outlandish machinery. But the attempt by many critics to anoint Keaton an Absurdist is misguided; he was in fact a stubborn stickler for logic, with an analytical bent and an aversion to the “ridiculous.” He built Rube Goldberg machines that actually worked, and from the time he embarked on feature films he eschewed what he called “impossible” or “cartoon” gags. Charley Bowers by contrast was always an animator at heart. The infinite possibilities of the cartoonist’s line — springy and flexible, if a little jittery, in the Mutt and Jeffs — gave free reign to his peculiar fancies. Stop-motion puppet animation allowed similar freedom, but at a tremendous cost in labor. Joseph Losey, who directed Pete Roleum and His Cousins (a promotional film made to be shown in the Standard Oil Exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, and easily the most insane informercial ever created) described Bowers, who animated the film, as “a small, frail man, a tireless worker, and obviously a first-rate technician. I was struck by his tired, resigned expression, though he was relatively young. His work seemed like terrible endless labor.” (That Losey began his distinguished career with a short in which the wonders of gasoline, suntan lotion, rubbing alcohol, and DDT are represented by singing, dancing, googly-eyed drops of petroleum adds another level of weirdness to a film that is already well beyond the legal limits.)
Charley Bowers faded from sight in the 1930s; his decline is as murky as his rise. He made a few puppet animation films in 1940, featuring mice, cats, and dogs, all wearing plaid pants, and surprisingly snappish oysters. Despite cute touches like the mouse family’s sardine-tin beds, the tone of A Sleepless Night and Wild Oysters is rather sour and tetchy; the action often has a sadistic note, as when Pop Mouse immobilizes the dog and cat by pulling their tails through holes in the floor and knotting them, or when he gets his comeuppance from a vengeful, biting oyster. In A Sleepless Night, he selfishly replaces the cheese in his larder with a piece of soap so his wife won’t be able to nibble on it; when she tries, soap bubbles stream out of her mouth and ears. Bowers’s own personality — his loose relationship with truth, and the cruelty evident in some of his practical jokes — may have helped sabotage his film career, as they did his earlier career as an animator. He never appeared in a film after 1930, and in his later years returned to Wayne, New Jersey, where he went back to newspaper cartooning and reportedly wrote and illustrated children’s books. In 1941 he became seriously ill, and he died five years later.
The “terrible endless labor” that went into Bowers’s films is transformed on screen into joyfully haphazard bricolage: the thrill of inspiration and creative enthusiasm, without the tedious perspiration. It doesn’t matter what his aim is, he pursues it with the same inexorable monomania. In Fatal Footsteps (1926), all he wants is to win a Charleston contest. He practices obsessively, chalking elaborate diagrams on the floor, but his style looks less like the Charleston than like St. Vitus’ Dance. Just the sight of this earnest, awkward fellow hopping around in the manner of a Mexican jumping bean is good for a lot of laughs.
Turning to technology where nature has failed, he invents a pair of shoes stuffed with springs and gears that dance all by themselves, an image predating Fred Astaire’s “Shoes with Wings” number from The Barkleys of Broadway. And in a scene foreshadowing Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, Charley’s dour landlord, the head of a local society to stamp out immoral dancing, accidentally puts the shoes on, gets up on the table, and starts jigging uncontrollably. There’s some impressive eccentric dancing at the competition, but no one can beat Charley in his souped-up shoes. And for once he even gets the girl — the landlord’s fat daughter, who has nursed a crush on him all along. She looks something like a white whale with a Louise Brooks bob, but what starts out as a mean joke turns into a sweet romance. In this light-hearted film, everyone ends up dancing, from the groovy goldfish to the codgers of the anti-dancing league, all cutting loose “in the absence of any control exercised by reason.”
- It’s a Bird was released in 1930, but Breton did not see it until 1937. [↩]
- There It Is can be found on the DVD set More Treasures from American Film Archives. All other known material, barring a few recent discoveries, is contained on the Lobster Films set Charley Bowers: the Rediscovery of an American Comic Genius. [↩]
- She is played by Kathryn McGuire, Keaton’s leading lady in The Navigator and Sherlock Jr. The Fuzz-Faced Phantom is an actor named Buster Brodie — though just as I am convinced that Max Schreck really was undead, I’m certain Brodie was in fact a Fuzz-Faced Phantom. [↩]
- The version of Many a Slip available on DVD is only the second reel of a two-reel comedy. The full film has since been discovered; the first half explains why he takes up the project, and introduces his ghastly in-laws, as well as some of Charley’s other inventions, most of which work all too well. [↩]