Charley Bowers: The Rediscovery of an American Comic Genius
Martin’s Grade: A
One of the biggest surprises I’ve had in recent years was when I watched this two-disc set listed above. I had never heard of Charley Bowers and although I’ve read a lot of books about movie comedies, I’ve never seen this guy mentioned. Much of it is because most of his films no longer exist—a common problem with older films due to the decomposition of nitrate film stock. Old nitrate film has a tendency to do BAD things—such as turn to dust, slime or even explode! Not surprisingly, this is why the industry switched to non-volatile film as well as digital. Plus, a HUGE percentage of films before the 1960s simply no longer exist because of this volatility. Fortunately, somehow a small number of the films Bowers made have somehow survived and are included in this set.
Bowers was a cartoonist, director and film comic. His trademarks were the use of stop-motion as well as VERY strange and surreal plots. His films are much crazier than his contemporaries—perhaps too strange for the 1920s and 30s. However, when seen today, his short films look better than others of the day and you might wonder why he isn’t more famous.
My favorite of the 16 films in this set is Now You Tell One, though there are several other wonderful shorts. The film begins with a meeting of the Liars Club. Each member tells an insanely impossible story to see who the greatest liar is among them. However, none of the stories come close to matching one that Charley relates—and he swears it is true! It seems he’s invented an insane potion that can do all sorts of magical things. In one case, a woman’s home is infested with mice—and Charley’s potion causes a cat plant to sprout real, live cats! And, one of the cats brandishes a gun! The crazy potion does a lot of other weird things and using stop-motion, nearly anything seems possible with his invention!
In He Done His Best, Charley is hired to work in a restaurant as a dish washer. However, when the rest of the employees find out he’s not in the union, they all walk off the job. Poor Charley, however, is not to be stopped and he then tries to do EVERYTHING himself. And, like he did in so many of his films, it includes some crazy Rube Goldberg-style inventions!
Another exceptional film is Egged On. Charley, always the inventor, has come up with a way to make eggs with rubberized shells so they won’t break during transport. However, through a mistake, he later creates a number of eggs that, when hatched, have little cars inside and they speed about his home! It’s very weird but works because the stop-motion is much more fluid than contemporary stop-motion (such as by the famed Willis O’Brien who animated King Kong in 1933).
The set also has some later films by Bowers—ones that he directed but which do not feature him as an actor. Some of these look more like industrial films and while they aren’t particularly funny, they are memorable and very well made.
If you check Amazon, you’ll unfortunately find that the set is quite expensive since it was released long ago and there just aren’t that many copies about. However, it is currently available through Netflix and you just have to see the films to believe them! Let me know what you think—I assume you’ll be as impressed as I was.
Article by Lead Entertainment Writer & Film Critic, Martin Hafer