The Eye-Popping Oeuvre of Charley Bowers

Charley Bowers ain’t even half as widely known as Ray Harryhausen, Georges Méliès, Winsor McCay, Buster Keaton, Jan Švankmajer, Ladislaw Starewicz or Willis O’Brien, but damn it, he should be! WACK-A-DOODLE-DOOOO:

It’s a Bird, featuring Charley Bowers and a scrapyard metal-eating, proto-Seussian “Metal Bird.” Directed by Harold L. Muller. (Thanks to longtime Coilhouse friend Mark P. for the heads up on this one!)

Once championed by the likes of Andre Breton, quite possibly an early inspiration to the likes of Theodor Seuss Geisel and Chuck Jones, this gonzo animator and comedian had fallen into obscurity by the time of his death in the mid 40s. Bowers’ work didn’t resurface until decades later, when a French film archivist sleuthed him out. Via

Raymond Borde of the Toulouse Cinemateque began the search after discovering a collection of rusty canisters simply labeled “Bricolo.” After discovering that Bricolo was the name given to an American comic named Charley Bowers, Borde began to scour the world archives for Bowers films. As usually the case in film preservation, Bowers films were located throughout the world in the archives of France, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia and only one film found in Bowers’ own native country of the United States. Eleven of Bowers’s twenty shorts are still considered lost films.

Bowers’s original claim to fame was as the animator and producer of hundreds of “Mutt and Jeff” animated films from 1915 until the early twenties. In the mid-20s, Bowers switched from pure animation to a hybrid mixture of live action and animation… comedy shorts starring himself as an obsessive inventor of gadgets, gizmos, contraptions, and crazy machines. Bowers continued with these shorts until after his first talkie short — “It’s a Bird” from 1930 (much admired by surrealists like Andre Breton). After “It’s a Bird,” Bowers dropped off the map, heading to New Jersey, working in advertising and industrial shorts, and drawing cartoons for local New Jersey newspapers. He reemerged in the late thirties as the animator for a short subject about oil for the New York World’s Fair (the film was also the first film produced by Joseph Losey). But after a few other animations in the early forties, Bowers contracted a debilitating illness and died in obscurity in 1946.

Fairly recently, Image Entertainment produced a lavish two-disc collection The Complete Charley Bowers: The Rediscovery of An American Comic Genius, which includes nearly all of his surviving films. They’re a frisky mixture of live-action slapstick, stop motion, uncanny SFX, talking cockroaches, Rube Goldberg shenanigans, and more.

In Now You Tell One, possibly Bower’s most over-the-top and mind-boggling film, a “gentlemen’s Liar’s Club” known as The Citizens United Against Ambiguity gathers for a storytelling contest. Wonky stop-motion animated cats and mice battle for dominance; bizarre botanical grafts yield impossible fruits; elephants and donkeys appear to stampede the Capitol building.

In Bowers’ world, a maternal Model T Ford hatches dozens of baby cars; a rapacious ostrich gobbles up inorganic matter and dances to a phonograph; a mad inventor labors to invent the world’s first “no-slip banana peel”; a sentient, white-gloved robotic creature runs amuck in what one reviewer refers to as an extraordinary “comical-bizarro poetic representation of the industrial age.”

The man’s talents as an actor/comedian may not have been on par with his idols Keaton and Chaplin, but his imagination certainly was. This is gloriously demented stuff deserving of far more cinematic acclaim.

5 Responses to “The Eye-Popping Oeuvre of Charley Bowers”

  1. Steve C Says:

    Oh boy, oh wow! I’ve never quite understood it, but somewhy or other, as a kid we had a tape that was a collection of weird old cartoons. It had some weird ass Bosko and Honey bits – and it had this. I loved it in all it’s weirdness. Watching that car grow was always so awesome to me. I watched the shit out of it. Thanks!

  2. missamelia Says:

    that video literally made me gasp. gorgeous! thanks, once again, for the heads up.

  3. Alice Says:

    Wow…it IS funny how Dr. Suess-like that bird looks in the first shot.

    Totally not the highlight of the short, but I love the make-up men in these old (usually silent films) wore! Whether they’re playing Beau Brummel or an eccentric inventor, there it is–the dark lipstick and eyeliner that makes everyone look just a little bit like Klaus Nomi.


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  5. Jerem Morrow Says:

    Muchly enjoyed!