Charley Bowers: Surrealist Extraordinaire

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Today is the birthday of Charley Bowers (1877-1946).

Bowers is rare among the silent comedians for possibly being more well known and appreciated NOW then he was during the silent era. This is because of a 2004 DVD release of most of his surviving films, which had somehow managed to remain preserved for close to 80 years, turning up in France. Their current popularity rests on their uniqueness. Bowers (originally a cartoonist) incorporated lots of animation into his comedies. Highly surreal, they probably struck contemporary audiences as offbeat and weird, and no doubt would do the same amongst today’s mainstream audiences. But film buffs love Bowers, and enthusiastic reviews and word of mouth have succeeded in spreading his work amongst an underground of aficionados. Just anecdotally: I, never having heard of Bowers, discovered him when I found the DVD set in my local library. Not too long ago, I saw the same DVD set at a friend’s house. The friend is not even a silent film person per se, more of an animation buff, but he found the films irresistible enough to want to own it.

An Iowa native, Bowers had begun performing as a youth in circuses, then became a cartoonist and  worked his way into animation by 1916, eventually becoming the boss of the entire Mutt and Jeff series for the Pathe Bros. and Bud Fisher Corp. From 1926 through 1928 he made his experimental mixed live-action/ animation comedies for R-C Pictures and Educational, usually playing a nebbishy little inventor. For one example of his sensibility: in Egged On (1926), Bowers plays an inventor seeking to come up with unbreakable eggs. At one point he has lost them; they turn up in the hood of his car. When they hatch, they are baby Model Ts.

After this initial spate, Bowers made a scattered few other films, then seems to have gone into illustrating children’s books.

I barely mentioned Bowers in Chain of Fools, mostly because it is a trunkline history of the art form, and Bowers in his day was at best an obscure branch of the story. But my pal Steve Massa has quite a bit on Bowers (or as much as possible, because much isn’t known) in his new book Lame Brains and Lunatics, which I reccomend just as highly. And then for putting Bowers in context please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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