“Charles Raymond Bowers (Iowa 1887 – New Jersey 1946) was an American cartoonist and playwright of the Twenties”.
Less famous than his contemporaries Chaplin and Keaton, even nowadays little is known on the character of Charley Bowers, a man who had an extremely adventurous life. This figure has recently been re-discovered arousing a great deal of interest.
It was Raymond Borde, co-founder of the Cinematheque de Toulouse, who rediscovered him in the Seventies when he bought some of Bowers’s shorts from some gipsy artists, films which at first Borde himself did not attribute to the American comedian. As a matter of fact, the name on the reels and the credits was “Bricolo”, nickname given by the French critic of the time.
His year of birth is not sure (although the census reports it as being 1877). He was the son of a French countess and an Irish doctor, and at the of six learned to be a tightrope walker from a tramp circus performer (a legend reports him kidnapped by a circus crew the following year). Other sources say that at some point he escaped from home, then went back and was forced to the most various jobs: horse trainer, jockey, rodeo cowboy. Only after being injured (or at least, this is what he says) he became a cartoonist for newspapers comic stripes. He then moved to work at Bud Fisher Films Corp., where he took charge of the Mutt and Jeff cartoon series (popular are the Simpsons are today). As he had to deal with writing, directing and producing the series, he founded his own studio in 1916, assisted by a staff of animators.
In 1924 he started to realise his first burlesque films with the “Bowers Process”, a method which allows him to use the stop-motion technique to mixe animation and live action.
Between 1926 and 1927 he directed, produced and acted in twelve two-reel shorts for R. C. Picture Corporation, followed by six more in 1928 for Educational Pictures. Some titles:Egged on, He done his best, Wild roomer, Now you tell one (1926), Many a slip (1927), Say Ah-h! (1928). The only sound film in which Bowers appeared was It’s a bird, dated 1930, a work which in 1937 caught André Breton’s attention for its surreal elements.. About this movie he wrote “the mind of the man that dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him. The agonizing question of possibility is no longer pertinent”.
His films aim entirely at the visual aspect, the special effects created are scarcely adaptable to the talkie era of cinema. As a matter of fact, Bowers turns to other projects, realises promotional films and makes a last short in 1940, entitled Wild Oysters. His departure from the scene is as smoky as the start of his career, and for several years no trace of him can be found, not even in the census records. It seems he continued to work as a newspapers’ cartoonist and, although in the last years of his life he was no longer able to write, and was therefore forced to teach his wife how do it in his place.He fell ill in 1041 and died five years later.
He produced about one hundred animation and live action films, but barely fifteen have survived and have been restored and released by Lobster Film, in France.
His cinema can be categorised as being surrealist and burlesque; what catches the eye is the presence of the unexpected in the form of imaginary animals, or even real ones but out of context: rag-made ostriches that dance fox trot, a metal eating bird that lays and egg that hatches into a self-assembling full-size car, cats that grow from a plant, elephants that enter the Capitol. Bowers’ special effect have no match at the time: it is not a comicality set up on the main character’s skills for ridicule and his gags, but on his “creations”. The character usually impersonates a proto-nerd scientist, with a marked inventiveness. He is very similar (physically especially) to those of Chaplin and Keaton, but definitely less developed, recognisable and characterising, probably because Bowers’ primary interest were in fact animation parts. His peculiar, unlucky and goofy person is called Bricolo, nickname that recalls bricolage, for his special ability to “create from assembling”. What he creates are hybrid animals, products and/or ingenious though fundamentally “useless” machineries. They are wonderful but too “poetic” to be real machines. Machines that make eggshells unbreakable, that attend to all the needs of a restaurant’s kitchen and service or that substitute the functions of a roommate. All these inventions obviously never obtained the yearned-for success: they were never truly appreciated, for Bricolo probably neither possessed the necessary skills to propose them properly.