By Matt Smith
Though I’ve always been a fan of animation, from very early experiments and shorts to modern television series and feature films, I’m quick to admit my lack of knowledge of the medium throughout its history. Recently I’ve been watching a ton of animated material at the behest of my friend Alston, who is studying animation at SCAD in Atlanta, and who really is an invaluable resource for me when it comes to filling me in on what I should be watching. As is often the case in cinephilia, we rely on our friends to introduce us to new and undiscovered obsessions. Case in point: Charley Bowers, a silent-era comedian and absurdist who started out as an animator and then went on to a popular career in filmmaking, often mingling animated and live-action materials in his pictures. Still, he is relatively undiscovered, and only a handful of his films have survived wholly intact, and even then some severely damaged by their film stock and the decay of time. I’ve seen only three of his shorts, but they are nothing less than amazing works of art – they should be required viewing for anyone even remotely interested in film.
There’s not much on the Web about Bowers himself, but I’ll try to lay out the basics. He began his career as an animator on a series of shorts based on the Mutt and Jeff comic strip. The adaptation of popular comic strips into animated films was practiced fairly often in early cinema, with not just the Mutt and Jeff films, but also works based on lesser strips like Krazy Kat. One of the surviving films (only about 15 of his films are known to survive in any form), Mutt and Jeff: On Strike features live-action sequences with the comic strip’s creator, Bud Fisher. The Mutt and Jeff strip is widely acknowledged as the first daily comic, with ongoing storylines and recurring characters.
Anyway, the short, which is typical of much early hand-drawn animation, has no sound, and mimics the strips from which they were often drawn by using speech and thought bubbles as opposed to intertitles. Mutt and Jeff: On Strike sees the protagonists, Mutt and Jeff, go on strike from the comic strip, boycotting Fisher and attempting to animate themselves after they learn that Fisher is living large on their success. Hijinks ensue, surely, but what is truly remarkable about the piece is the finished product of Mutt and Jeff’s animated effort, which is brilliant in its translation of the real short’s visual style (and humor) to a more amateur mode of thought – not quite fleshed out, somewhat crude in its aesthetic, and almost totally lacking in creative conjuring of laughs. That the boys quickly return to Fisher after the short bombs (and that Fisher welcomes them back because he was without his cash cow) is just a great ending.
An earlier short, AWOL, finds its humor in the days reminiscent of “Over There” – the Great War. Made in 1918, the film is a surreal trip with a soldier who leaves his unit because they’re just sticking around for no reason in Europe, and he wants to get on with his life and have a good time. He goes AWOL and meets a girl and they go joy riding, until his money runs out, and she leaves him for another “poor Dub” she can use and abuse. There are gags-a-plenty, using some pretty impressive animation, notably a scene in which the joyriders get out of a run-in with the law (they’re fined $25) and get caught on a pasture, surrounded by cows and other livestock, and which results in the death of a bull, which falls over and has its spirit materialize from its body and fly off into the heavens. Silly, sure, but at the heart it still remains a parable about desertion, duty, and honor. The end of the short sees the soldier in jail, and the rest of his unit on their way back home.
These examples of very early popular animation are remarkable for their creativity and the absurd aspects of their storytelling, leaping from one syllogism to another in a way that wouldn’t be recreated until the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of shorts nearly fifteen years later. This surreal touch and the overt silliness of it translates really well into the live action shorts Bowers would make in the coming decades. In these silent comedies, animation, stop-motion and live slapstick were all married into bizarre scenarios and Monty Python-like gags.
In actuality, the first Bowers short I saw was 1928’s There It Is (directed by Harold Muller), which follows the exploits of Charley MacNeesha, a detective from Scotland Yard who travels to New York with his stop-motion animated cockroach pal MacGregor to investigate the horrors of the “Fuzz-Faced Phantom” – a specter haunting a family in their new house that causes all kinds of unnatural events to occur, including chickens hatching from eggs, and pants dancing without anyone wearing them. The Python connection is apropos when taking in the visual absurdity of set pieces like Scotland Yard itself, which sees a lot of men dressed in traditional Scottish clothing mulling about in a small fenced in area while lorded over by someone giving out assignments. In the Bowers universe, Scotland Yard is something to be interpreted literally, and in doing so we are confronted with the inadequate nature of language to describe almost anything.
I don’t have much more to say about these shorts other than they are must-sees for anyone who is a fan of animation, silent comedy, or is just interested in an often neglected talent from the very early days of filmmaking. Charley Bowers deserves to be discovered by the masses, and is more than capable of holding his own in the company of like-minded comedian Harold Lloyd (Chaplin aside, my favorite silent comedian). Check out the shorts I’ve linked to below and see for yourself.