This is a wonderful
set of DVDs. It allows you to not only see some intelligent and very
imaginative animation but also to study Bowers style and the way it changes
over time. Presented in chronological order (with the exception of
two early cartoons that are included at the beginning of the second disc,)
these shorts are filled with fantastic inventions, and wildly creative,
surrealistic animation. The best of them are classics, while even
the more mediocre efforts fun to watch.
Not a lot is known about Charley Bowers. It is rumored that he
ran off (or was kidnapped) and joined the circus at a very young age and
became a tightrope walker. He eventually found his way into animation,
and directed and animated a large number of Mutt and Jeff cartoons
based on the popular animation strip. Having cut his teeth on cel
animation, Bowers proceeded to stop-motion animation. Most of his
movies are filmed in "The Bowers Process," a method of animation that allowed
live actor to interact, albeit in a limited fashion, with the animated
objects. This process he invented, coupled with his wild imagination,
allowed Bowers to create these wonderful shorts that are still amazing
to look at today.
Most of these shorts are live action two reel comedies with at least
some stop-motion animation. The last four shorts are all stop-motion
pieces with no actors.
The set contains the following films, all of which have superior image
Egged On (1926): After being
hit on the head with an egg, Charlie decides that anyone who can create
an unbreakable egg will make a fortune. He designs, gets funding,
and builds a contraption that will turn a regular egg into one made of
rubber. He calls his investors in to see his invention, but poor
Charlie has run out of eggs and has to scramble to find some more.
At first glance, this is a fairly straightforward slapstick short with
a lot of broken eggs. But it on closer inspection, there are a lot
of unusual gags that involve props. Putting the rubber egg through
the wringer and then opening it to see the yoke and white was almost like
a magician's trick. The highlight of this short is a great stop-motion
scene where a basket of eggs all hatch into miniature cars. This
is a wonderfully irreverent film. Grade: A
He Done His Best(1926): Charlie
wants to marry his girlfriend, but has to ask her father's permission first.
The father owns a restaurant, and thinks that Charlie is asking for a job
and puts him to work washing dishes in the kitchen. Things go from
bad to worse when the rest of the staff find out that Charlie isn't a member
of the Kitchen Mechanics Union. Not wanting to work with a scab,
they all quit. That leaves poor Charlie to man the entire restaurant
by himself. To ease his burden, he invents a machine that allows
one person to handle all the duties, from waiter to chef.
Charley is still trying to find a character. The personality of
his 'inventor' changes a little with this film. Some Chaplin inspired
pathos at the end. Grade: A
Charlie is an inventor at a rooming
house. His grandfather has left his entire fortune to Charley on
the condition that he perfects his invention within 48 hours. If
he doesn't have a working model in that time; his uncle inherits all the
money. Of course, the uncle sets out to sabotage Charley's efforts.
Again, this movie has some impressive stop motion animation in it.
I really enjoyed the machine in action, especially when it created a rag
doll. This short was fun, but you can tell that Charley is still
having trouble getting the feel of making two-reelers. The film started
out with things disappearing from the boarding house mysteriously.
That entire plot is ignored after the first minute or two. I'm not
sure if it was padding or if it was footage from an earlier aborted film.
Fatal Footsteps (1926): There
is a dance contest, with $10,000 going to the winner. Charlie is
a farm hand who has his sight on the prize. He invents some spring-loaded
dancing shoes, but the farmer is the president of an anti-dancing league
who disapproves of such frivolity.
This short didn't work as well as the others. Charley spends a
good amount of the film practicing his dance moves, which is humorous at
the beginning, but quickly gets old. He's still working on
getting a personality for his inventor. While in other shorts Charley
inventions were the means win a girl's hand, here he is oblivious to the
farmer's daughters advances, even when she dances around his bed dressed
as a Spanish princess. The invention in this movie was not the main
focus, the crazy dancing was. Bowers was trying something different
in this outing, and it didn't fully work. Though the story arc was slightly
more developed in this film, the action wasn't as humorous. The animated
section was the shortest of any of his films. Grade: B
You Tell One (1926): "The Citizens United Against Ambiguity"
have formed a liars club. Every year various chapters compete for
the liar of the year award. One member is very doubtful of
his branch's chances of success until he sees Charlie trying to kill himself.
Bringing him back to the club, Charley relates how he had invented a chemical
that would allow him to graft any two plants together, and make them both
grow at an amazing rate. He made an eggplant which yields a hardboiled
egg and salt when cut open, and can grow a fully decorated Christmas tree.
Charley goes out to the country to sell his invention door to door.
At every stop something goes wrong and he makes no sales. But he
runs into an attractive young woman whose house is overrun with really
tough mice. Always willing to help a woman in distress, Charlie decides
to try to grow something that will be able to take on the army of mice.
This was a great short. The story held together well, and there
were more jokes than his earlier shorts. It was well paced, and just
hung together very well. The Keatonesque gag at the end was one of
the best jokes that Charley came up with.
Bowers also returned to putting the emphasis on the odd inventions,
wisely realizing that his strength lay in his imagination. Grade:
Many a Slip (1927): Charlie
is a crazy inventor who isolates the germ that causes banana peels to be
slippery. He realizes that if he can kill this germ, he will have
invented the no-slip peel, a great boon to mankind. He treats many
peels with all sorts of formulas. After each treatment, he puts the
peel in a place where someone is sure to step and it and watches.
Another great film. There was a running gag of everything being
labeled "Patent Applied for." First it is on his inventions, then
on such mundane things as pillows and stairs. The animation starts
taking a smaller role, with the animated slippery germ being fairly short.
Doing (1927): Charley wants to marry his girlfriend, but
her father will only allow her to marry a police officer. So he goes
down to the station and joins, but he ends up causing as much trouble as
Charlie is not an inventor in this film, and the short lacks the creative
spark that his other films had. He is trying out another type of character,
this time a resourceful though unobservant average Joe.
Bowers has been putting more jokes and gags in these later films.
This one has a great "I Want You" poster as a recruiting aid for the police
force: "Join the Police Force and See the City!" In this film
it seems as if he was trying to make a more mainstream comedy. The
surreal aspect is almost totally absent, a very brief stop-motion scene
with boxing cats being the only bizarre feature in this film.
There is a little emulsion damage in the beginning of this movie.
The image is soft and lacking detail. The contrast is less than the
other shows on this disc, but it soon clears up. Grade:
Grill Room Express (1917):
The second disc starts off with some of the cel animated cartoons that
Bowers did before he went to live action comedies. This is a series
of gags in a diner, a typical cartoon from the period, with very simple
backgrounds and slightly jerky motion. The artwork is very good.
(1918): This cartoon takes place in Europe after WWI.
Some soldiers are gripping that they haven't been sent home since the armistice
has been signed. One goes out joy riding with a woman and ends up
getting in trouble. It is more of a morality play than a comedy,
though there are some funny bits. The simple figures are realistic
looking. Grade: B
Say Ah-H! (1928): Charley
gets an ostrich egg for the boss' breakfast, but no one can seem to open
it. It turns out to be solid all the way through because Charley
has been feeding the birds cement. After being chastised, he feeds
the ostrich some ground up farm tools. It lays an egg from which
a very strange (animated) bird hatches.
It looks like Charley was still trying to find a role he could fit into.
This is a very different character for Bowers. Here his motions are
slower, and he has pasty makeup on. His look and acting is very reminiscent
of Harry Langdon. The animation of the bird was excellent, as usual
for Bowers, and it was nice to see his return to surrealist comedy.
The wooden bird that takes up a good portion of the film was satisfyingly
One unusual thing about this piece is that there was no piano score
present. It was totally silent. There is also a title card
at the beginning of the film saying "Part Two." I'm not sure what
happened to part one, or it Bowers was even connected to the first chapter.
There are a couple of instances in this short that have significant
emulsion degradation. It was so bad I'm surprised they were able
to get the film through a projector. It is too bad that this film
had such decomposition since the preserved footage was excellent.
It's a Bird (1930): The only
talking movie that Charley Bowers stared in. Charley is a "breaker
and loser" at a junkyard. He has to break up the old cars and then
lose the pieces. He hides the parts in moving vans and in the trunks
of cars, but he has a hard time getting rid of all of them. Then
he hears of an animal that could help him out: A metal eating bird.
So Charley he sets out to capture one of these rare animals.
This is one of the best shorts on this DVD, easily my favorite.
The plot had good internal consistency, and was very well paced.
The capture of the metal eating bird was funny, as was the bit with Charley
'losing' the junk parts. But the highlight of this short is the amazing
animation. In one bit, a regular sized chicken egg hatches, and a
full sized car is released. There is good synchronization of the
bird's mouth movement and its speech. If this hadn't been lost for
years, it would be considered a classic today. Ironically, this was
the last live action work Charley Bowers would do. Grade A+
Believe it or Don't (1935):
This short is made entirely of stop-motion animation, as the rest of the
film in this set are. This piece consists of several short gag pieces
strung together; peanuts perform in a peanut circus, a car hatch out of
an egg, a drunken lobster plays the xylophone.
This looked like a very low budget effort. Gone were the actors
and quality sets. It looks like this was filmed on a kitchen table
with cardboard sets, which it might very well have been. While I
viewed this I couldn't help wondering what Bowers had been doing during
the five years between his last short and this one. Bowers seemed
to be mining his own work a little with this movie. He has another
car-hatching-from-an-egg gag that was done better in Egged On and
It's a Bird. The other bits fell flat, and the quality of the
animation looked a little cruder.
The picture on this one was also worse than the other shorts.
It had less contrast, and there were some vertical scratches across the
frame. It is still watchable, but not to the standard set by the
other shorts on this DVD. Grade: C
Roleum and His Cousins (1938): This is an interesting
color short Bowers did for the oil industry. It is a look at petroleum
use in the past and present. Anthropomorphic oil drops are used to
illustrate all the uses of petroleum products. Not really funny,
but the dancing oil drops made the film decidedly unusual. Grade
Wild Oysters (1940): A short
released by Paramount. Some mice living in a house have to avoid the cat
while trying to get some milk. A more standard type of humor, but
it still has an edge. The oysters leaving their shells and attacking
the mouse was unusual and funny. Grade: B
A Sleepless Night (1940):
While his mother is out, a young mouse eats up all the cheese. To
hide this from his mother, he replaces the missing cheese with soap.
His mother doesn't realize a switch has been made, and eats the soap causing
bubbles to emerge whenever she speaks.
This looks very similar to Wild Oysters, though it's not a Paramount
film. The mice looked a little different, but seemed to be the same
family. It was obvious that this short originally had a soundtrack
to it, but it has apparently been lost since there is no soundtrack with
this film, not even a musical score. This wasn't as entertaining
as the previous short, though the soundtrack many have improved my opinion
of it. Grade: C+
All the shorts are presented with a two channel mono piano score.
Some of the shorts also had the option of a 5.1 soundtrack. This
surround sound mix consists of accordion music and should be avoided at
all costs. I was astounded that someone would go to the trouble to
mix an accordion in 5.1, but apparently they did. (I don't think
my sub was activated at all during the short time I listened to this track.
Accordions don't put out a lot of bass, last time I checked.) The
music just does not go with the images.
The piano score was very clean and went well with the films. The
music didn't seem to be composed for the shorts specifically, though I
could be wrong. I don't recall any added sound effects, but that
is not necessarily a bad thing. The talking pictures all sound clear,
though there is some pops and other minor audio imperfections. Nothing
that would be distracting though.
Although Bowers worked in America, most of these short were discovered
in Europe, and they all have French intertitles. These are translated
in optional English subtitles. The sound films all have the original
English audio track.
The video quality for this set is excellent. It does vary from
film to film, but overall I was very pleasantly surprised. In general,
the contrast was very good, and the picture clean and clear. There
was great detail and crispness. Most of the films had minor specks
of dirt and the occasional scratches, but these didn't distract from my
enjoyment of the films. Occasionally a short would have some footage
from a lesser print. A Wild Roomer used a secondary print that was
softer and had less contrast for a few minutes, for example, but this only
occured a couple of times. Considering that most of these movies
were made over 75 years ago, this DVD looks wonderful.
Looking for Charley Bowers:
A 15-minute featurette that discusses how the Bower films were rediscovered.
The extra starts with an interview with Raymond Borde, the person who found
the first films stored away by an old gypsy. He talks about how hard
it was to identify Bowers. Louise Beaudel from the Cinematheque Quebecoise
is interviewed as well. This is a very interesting bonus film.
It really illustrates how little is known about Charley Bowers.
Photo Gallery: A minute and
a half reel of production photos and stills from his films, including some
that are lost. The pictures are very clear and detailed. I usually
just glance at the photo galleries on DVDs, but I found myself pausing
the disc to get a better look at some of these.
Before viewing this collection, I had only seen an excerpt from one
Bowers film that was in poor condition. But the snippet for It's
a Bird that I saw made me yearn for more. This collection is
a wonderful addition to any collection of silent film or animation.
Bowers animation is very good for the period, and his surrealist style
is entertaining. The prints and transfers are excellent. A
wonderful set. DVDTalk Collector Series.