Friday, May 28, 2010

Charley Bowers: The Geek As Hero

Did any cartoon producer/director not named Gregory LaCava or Frank Tashlin even dabble successfully, even briefly, in live-action films?

Yes – and it was one guy, a cartoonist, illustrator and special effects designer named Charley Bowers, who ranks alongside such innovators as O'Brien, Emile Cohl, Lotte Reineger and Ladislaw Starewicz as a genius of animation, far ahead of his time.

By all accounts, Bowers' upbringing was as wild as his pictures. One urban legend has persisted that he was kidnapped by circus performers at age six and subsequently a pint-sized star of many a big top (not unlike the fabulous 1930's comedienne Lyda Roberti). Further stories claim that Bowers was an accomplished bronco buster, draftsman, designer of all kinds of elements - scenics, costumes, sets, effects - for theatrical presentations, as well as a seasoned vaudeville performer from a tender age.

Bowers moved into animation in the teens and produced hundreds of Mutt and Jeff cartoons for Bud Fisher Film Corporation and Pathe-Freres. He also created the illustrations for The Bowers Mother Goose Movie Book in 1923.

Like the aforementioned Reineger and Starewicz, Charley Bowers was an innovator of stop-motion animation techniques - but unlike them, he starred in his own series of two-reel comedies. The 18 "Whirlwind Comedies" produced by Bowers and collaborator Harold Muller in 1926-1928 (released by FBO and then by Educational "The Spice Of The Program" Pictures) were largely forgotten until the mid-1980's, when Louise Beaudet of the Cinemateque Francaise brought a short but astounding Bowers retrospective to the United States.

Check out the following clip from Say Ahhh! (1928). The unique live-action comedy + animation blend compares with the Fleischer Studio's Out Of The Inkwell/Inkwell Imps for invention and sheer audacity.

For a later, post-talkie example of The Bowers Touch, here's his 1935 film, Believe It Or Don't.

Believe It or Don't

Bowers’ screen characterization, either a genial and brilliant (but wacko) inventor or a brazen “tall tale teller”, is clearly secondary to his animation, but key to his vision. His most frequent characterization, perpetually pale and wan from too many consecutive days in the workshop devising gadgets, personifies the geek as hero. Here are clips from his 1930 film It's A Bird.

It’s also okay to use the word surrealism in describing Bowers' stop-motion universe – none other Andre Breton loved the way-out comedies of Bowers a.k.a. Bricolo.

Although the original 35mm nitrate negatives and prints for many of Bowers' silent short subjects perished in vault fires, the surviving films can be seen on the Image Entertainment 2-DVD retrospective, Charley Bowers, The Rediscovery Of An American Comic Genius.

On the DVD set with what's left of the Whirlwind Comedies is Bowers' last stop-motion masterpiece, Wild Oysters, originally released by Paramount Pictures as an entry in the Animated Antics series.

The title characters (oyster #1 enters at 5:19) are a fitting expression of Bowers' "Gumby On Hallucinogens" or "Willis O'Brien Meets David Lynch" universe.

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