Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lost Films of Charley Bowers

Charley Bowers, a comedian and animator, produced 19 wildly inventive two-reel live-action comedy films at end of the silent era. All but nine of those comedies are lost. The nine surviving comedies, collected in the two-disc set "Charley Bowers: The Rediscovery of an American Comic Genius," have received considerable attention from silent film comedy fans. But what about the missing comedies?

While doing research at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, I came across pressbooks for a number of Bowers comedies. This material includes story details for two lost Bowers comedies, Hop Off and Goofy Birds.

In Hop Off, Bowers makes his living as the proprietor of a flea circus. The fleas perform a variety of acts, including juggling, balancing and tumbling. At one point, they use a man's bald head as a skating rink. A separate episode of the film involves Bowers stumbling upon a fluid that is able to transform things back to their natural state. He uses the fluid on a cigar, a plate of hash, a couple of sausages and, finally, on himself. The pressbook articles fail to note the outcome of the transformations, but I can imagine the cigar growing out into a tobacco plant and the sausages expanding into a full-sized pig. I assume that Bower, himself, shrunk down to a small boy or a baby. This astoundingly potent fluid is comparable to a miraculous grafting mixture that Bowers utilizes in Now You Tell One, which is one of the more outstanding comedies in the Bowers DVD collection.

In Goofy Birds, Bowers is a hunter who travels to Africa to capture the rare Umbrella Bird, whose unique umbrella-like tail can be used as propeller, a sunshade, or as means of defense. The bird is more intelligent than Bowers and he is able to resist the hunter's efforts to capture him. A highlight of the film, according to the pressbook, is a scene in which the Umbrella Bird pursues an animated worm. This comedy further proves that Bowers had an obsession with birds. Other freakishly constructed birds turn up in Bower's Say Ah-h! and It's a Bird. The bird in Say Ah-h! also has household items as body parts. The bird, an ostrich, has a feather duster as a tail and broomsticks as legs. Egged On, There It Is and Believe It or Don't, while not including an Umbrella Bird or an ostrich with broomstick legs, make elaborate use of bird's eggs.

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