In the early 1980s I attended the Ottawa Animation Festival, where I saw a handful of silent shorts that blew me away. These ingenious films blended meticulous stop-motion work with live-action slapstick. The man who made and starred in them was Charley Bowers. I knew of him as the producer and director of Mutt and Jeff cartoons in the late teens and early 1920s, but I had no idea that he later appeared on-camera and masterminded such unique comedy films. I was so eager to spread the word about him that I obtained footage from the late Louise Beaudet at the Cinemathèque Quebecoise and ran highlights on Entertainment Tonight. He has been discovered and rediscovered several times in the intervening years, but he’s still not a household name, even among silent film aficionados.
Now, Serge Bromberg and Lobster Films have produced a splendid two-disc Blu-ray set for Flicker Alley called The Extraordinary World of Charley Bowers. It contains 17 shorts in all and it is a must-see for anyone even mildly interested in silent comedy and animation. Bowers is a cross between Buster Keaton and Rube Goldberg. Or as Photoplay magazine editor James R. Quirk put it, “In the world’s most individualistic industry, he is Aladdin and the camera is his lamp. He is a Jack of all trades and a master of one. He can act. He can direct. He can write. He can conceive the most glorious idiocy. He is a master of camera wizardry.”
One need only watch a single Bowers short from the 1920s to become a follower, if not a proselytizer. In Egged On he animates a swarm of miniature Model T cars that hatch from a batch of eggs. In A Wild Roomer he builds a gigantic mobile machine that can perform all sorts of household tasks. In Now You Tell One we see fully grown cats emanating from the buds of a pussy-willow plant. I could cite many more examples but these moments are better seen than described. (Like many other silent comedies, they also include unfortunate black stereotypes.)
Bromberg has diligently tracked down these shorts from archives and collectors around the world and digitally restored—and in some cases, rescued—them. Two of the shorts are missing their first reel, and one of them was copied just before nitrate deterioration obliterated it completely. I can only imagine the time and effort that went into making these films look as good as they do. The program opens with two conventionally animated shorts (including a Mutt and Jeff) and ends with an industrial film from 1940 touting the wonders of the oil industry. There is a brief documentary from 2003 about the rediscovery of Charley Bowers and a slide show of production stills including some enticing behind-the-scenes shots. Nuff said.
While I’m at it, let me plug another worthy DVD/Blu-ray collection of beautifully restored silent animation from the indefatigable Tommy José Stathes. The latest in his Cartoon Roots series, Bobby Bumps and Fido spotlights the work of cartoonist-turned-animator Earl Hurd. One look at the trailer (which you can find HERE) should be enough to convince you that these seldom-seen shorts have been unjustly neglected. Hurd’s clever work anticipated some of the ideas that bore fruit in Max Fleischer and Otto Mesmer’s cartoons, but Bobby Bumps can hold his own against any animated personality of the silent era. My pal Jerry Beck has written a more thorough review of this disc, which I encourage you to read HERE.