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Silent Magic: The Films of Charley Bowers and Herbert Brenon

The Extraordinary World of Charley Bowers gathers and restores what remains of an elusive and very clever film pioneer, and Herbert Brenon’s Peter Pan casts a spell of silent magic.

The Extraordinary World of Charley Bowers
Charley Bowers
Flicker Alley
9 Jul 2019
Herbert Brenon
Peter Pan
Kino Lorber
9 Jul 2019

The Extraordinary World
of Charley Bowers

The Extraordinary World of Charley Bowers gathers and restores what remains of an elusive pioneer, a filmmaker-comedian who thought of himself as an inventor and animator. After he died forgotten in 1946, his work remained in eclipse until a handful of items turned up in the Belgian Cinematik in the 1960s, for Bowers was especially popular among the Surrealists. In 2004, Image Films released the first DVD attempt at a definitive collection, Charley Bowers: The Rediscovery of an American Genius.

Now, Serge Bromberg of France’s Lobster Films, in association with Blackhawk Films, has pooled the best material from a wide array of archives for this new restoration of 17 films. Disc 1 opens with two examples of the kinds of hand-drawn animations that occupied Bowers before he founded his own production company in 1926 with Harold L. Muller, who acted as director or co-director and photographer for the rest of Bowers’ career.

The Extra-Quick Lunch (1917) comes from the popular Mutt and Jeff series of animated cartoons on which Bowers worked for ten years. At this time, movie cartoons derived mostly from comic strips without being as visually sophisticated, for the animators often eschewed shaded backgrounds in favor of stark line drawings that hang in a white limbo. We can argue that this quality encouraged surreal transformation, a world of flux where things change into other things by the movement of lines. Because this example concerns a restaurant where the food, especially soups, are transferred from kitchen to table by tubes or funnels, the film forecasts how Bowers will go wild with this concept in his 1926 film, He Done His Best.

The other work of hand-drawn animation is A.W.O.L. (1918), a public service announcement aimed at servicemen awaiting discharge at the end of WWI. The allegory warns them, with speech balloons, not to go riding with “Miss Joy” lest they face the music with Judge Gloom. An opening credit announces “Cartoons by Bowers” as a sign of the artist’s assertion of creativity.

The five 1926 two-reelers mark a personal creative explosion, often literalized. Bowers plays a consistent persona of a go-getting young inventor with a curly cowlick. His can-do attitude channels a little Harold Lloyd while his phlegmatic nature borrows from Buster Keaton. In the French prints, which these mostly are, he’s fittingly called Bricolo, a combination of Charlot (Charlie Chaplin) and “bricolage”, the inventor’s art of assembling many things into a new thing. These films showcase moments of stop-motion animation, often involving animals or strange critters, that leave us wondering if Bowers was familiar with the work of Ladislas Starevich or Willis O’Brien. He may or may not have been, but was definitely doing his own thing.


(Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Egged On finds the hero constructing an elaborate Rube Goldberg invention to create indestructible eggs, and the animation comes into play in a truly surreal scene where dozens of tiny Model Ts hatch out of eggs and swarm all over the space. This isn’t the point of the movie; it’s just the kind of oddball whimsy Bowers throws in.

The story ends in colossal explosion, while He Done His Best opens with one in a restaurant after our “scab” hero triggers a strike when he’s mistakenly hired as a dishwasher after trying to propose marriage to the owner’s daughter. Our lovestruck chap builds a new eatery with automated kitchen, and most of the film demonstrates the idea with special effects. As his “one-man band” invention promises to abolish unions, we may wonder if Bowers the inventor-animator-filmmaker had any experience with the subject or was merely indulging topical satire. At any rate, things don’t work out for his little hero economically or romantically, which might be another comment on exploitation or another personal injection.

Again driven by dreams of romance out of his league, the hero of Fatal Footsteps falls victim to the Charleston dance craze and invents mechanized shoes that work as the modern American equivalent of the fairy tale of the red shoes that dance you to death. As another of Bowers’ whimsical details, we get a dancing goldfish just for the heck of it.

In Now You Tell One, a family is overrun by uppity mice, including one who wields a pistol. In flashback, our hero tells of using his special grafting method to grow cats. He invents another huge machine and drives it through the streets in A Wild Roomer. The story is interrupted by a lengthy bit of show-off animation involving a rag doll and a squirrel; once again, Bowers throws in delightful bits of surrealism for their own sake.

Two 1927 films survive, Many a Slip and Nothing Doing. The former (now twice as long as in the 2004 collection) is about inventing a non-slip banana peel and the discovery of a weird stop-motion “germ” that causes slipperiness. This pipe-cleaner-type creature will reappear in There It Is. Nothing Doing is the first movie where Bowers abandons his inventor persona for a more naively babyish character reminiscent of Harold Langdon; the cynical humor about the police is also closer to Langdon.

By this time, we’re on Disc 2, where two of the three 1928 items are only partial survivals. The complete work is There It Is, omitted from the 2004 set. This short, drafted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2004, is a non-stop riot of insanity and sight gags in which Bowers plays a Scotland Yard detective literally from a yard in Scotland. We get to see him in kilts and bagpipe, and he’s got a little insect friend. This and the next two films have black servant stereotypes.

The two half-films are Say Ah-h! and Whoozit. The former returns to the idea of unbreakable eggs and features a bricolage-ostrich that eats everything — not unlike the metal-eating bird who will appear in Bowers’ 1930 talkie It’s a Bird. Whoozit, which can only be explained as a drug dream, includes the animated oyster seen in He Done His Best.

Then comes It’s a Bird, praised by André Breton for its surreal animation of tough worm and omnivorous bird. It reaches back to Egged On for a gag about a car hatching out of an egg. Just as Now You Tell One had been couched as a meeting of the Liars’ Club, this is hosted by radio personality Lowell Thomas as an entry in his Tall Story series. Now that we hear him speak, Bowers sounds rather like Keaton.

The last four items are stop-motion animations only. Believe It or Don’t (1935), a parody of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, gives us more cars hatching from eggs; Bowers was certainly obsessive. Perhaps he was frightened by an egg as a child. Two similar 1940 shorts concern a family of mice, A Sleepless Night and Wild Oysters. The former is missing its soundtrack. The latter, as the title tells us, brings back the oysters.

The 2004 collection contains Joseph Losey’s Pete Roleum and His Cousins (1939), a Technicolor promotional short commissioned by the oil industry for exhibition at the New York World’s Fair. This new collection features an alternative packaging of the same material, called Oil Can and Does (1940), from a 16mm Kodachrome print found in 2014.

Both versions should have been included because they’re radically different. They have completely different soundtracks (with different rhymes and different versions of heckling from the audience), they’re differently edited and each contains unique footage, as can be compared with the credits-free Pete Roleum version here on The Pete Roleum version even duplicates a gag from Believe It or Don’t about a drunken lamppost. Even at this tail end of Bowers’ career, when he was hired to animate the designs of others, Muller still serves as photographer.

Donald Sosin provides new scores for most of the silents, with Neil Brand or Antonio Coppola scoring a few. Repeated from the 2004 disc is a bonus tracing the history of Bowers’ rediscovery, and there’s a slideshow of production stills, including some from vanished films. The package was previously available as a 2015 French Blu-ray and is now released in Region 1. Sean Axmaker has written an appreciation for the booklet, which lists Bowers’ known comedies (including ten that are lost) and the source prints used in this set.

Herbert Brenon’s Peter Pan

This eye-catching wonder of 1924 derives from James M. Barrie’s play, which had become a classic since its 1904 debut. Its theme is the power of make-believe, as demonstrated by two of its most famous theatrical conceits, repeated here: the fact that Peter Pan is played by a woman, and that moment when Peter turns to the audience and asks everyone who believes in fairies to applaud in order to save Tinker Bell’s life.

Belief is linked directly to power, for when Peter Pan (Betty Bronson) teaches the Darling children to fly, he instructs them to think lovely wonderful thoughts. True, he also remembers that a sprinkling of fairy dust is required, a detail added by Barrie to pacify parents. In all productions, that nursery flight is the make-or-break moment when the audience is either carried away or never will be.

We’ve been prepared by a whimsical set-up demonstrating that the world of the play isn’t the so-called real world, after a written prologue by Barrie explaining that we must see with the eyes of a child. The first character is Nana, a big St. Bernard who functions as nanny to the Darling brood: Wendy (Mary Brian), Michael (Philippe De Lacy) and John (Jack Murphy).

The titles explain that Mr. Darling (Cyril Chadwick) is such a “fidget” that the family can’t retain servants, so the dog has to do. This canine, also as in standard theatrical versions, is played by a man in a furry suit; in fact, George Ali is repeating his stage role and apparently played the crocodile as well. It’s the first fantastic piece of whimsy the audience must swallow, and a much sweeter potion it is than the medicine taken by little John and Mr. Darling, or the crocodile’s alarm clock.

Mr. Darling expresses no special surprise when Mrs. Darling (Esther Ralston) explains that she saw a boy looking in at the window (two flights up) and that she thinks it’s the same boy who visited a few days ago and whose shadow was torn off. She takes the sheer black shadow out of a drawer to show him, thus linking the story to a long perverse history of grim fairy tales about people who lose their shadows, identified with their souls.

All this interplay prepares us to accept the mundanity of Peter jumping in accompanied by the jealous and “common” Tinker Bell (Virginia Brown Faire). This depiction of Tinker Bell as an actual tiny person of billowing robes, as opposed to merely a bulb of light, is among the modifications made possible by cinema as we see her in close-up or in diminutive superimposition.

One of the curiosities of Bronson’s coquettish portrayal of the eternal boy, who refused to grow up because he didn’t want to be a man, is that is that she makes no attempt at boyishness, not even tomboyishness. From the beginning, Mary falls a little in love with Peter and wants him to kiss her (to Tinker Bell’s dismay), so the movie presents us with the image of two young women pretending to be children, and one of them playing a boy, that requires even more imagination to absorb than the man in the dog suit.

Fortunately, this 2K restoration of a beautiful tinted 35mm print (of the 1999 edition with a score by Philip C. Carli) makes no attempt to hide the wires by which the children fly, and that speaks directly to Peter’s instructions about lovely thoughts. You could see the wires if you look for them, just as you could see them in the classic TV staging of the Broadway musical with Mary Martin, but why would you look?

Looking for the wires isn’t a lovely thought, nor is it seeing with the eyes of a child. Here’s the true meaning of Barrie’s injunction to the audience and where imagination takes its power. Those who can only see the wires must be miserable old grown-ups indeed, unless they’re spoiled by the plastic perfections of modern effects that supply all imagination for you.

That said, Herbert Brenon’s lavish production is a festival of effects that were state of the art in 1924 and don’t look shabby now. Roy Pomeroy was responsible for many of these effects, such as the flying model ship.

This film constitutes one of the early successes of director of photography James Wong Howe and he takes advantage both in the artificial sets by Edward Smith and the outdoor shots at Santa Catalina, like the scenes of frolicking mermaids — openly erotic creatures to whom Peter is impervious. Howe was known for beautiful shadow work, and such highlights here include the quasi-erotic silhouettes of Wendy sewing on Peter’s shadow, followed by the high-angle shot of Peter dancing with his shadow, and the later violence of Peter’s shadow stabbing pirates.

Most of the action occurs in the child’s world of Never Never Land, as populated by Lost Boys, pirates, mermaids and “Redskins”. The Redskins are American Indians or Native Americans, specifically with Plains Indian feathered head-dresses, bows and arrows, and other stereotypical impedimenta beloved in the imagination of Barrie’s early 20th Century English children, for whom America was as exotic as a pirate island. Barrie understands that the only savages in the story aren’t Indians or pirates, but the Lost Boys, who take grim delight in swordplay and bloody knifings.

Producer-director Brenon made a pre-release statement, quoted in historian Kat Ellinger’s commentary, saying “If…a pirate or an Indian enters the story, it must be the child’s idea of a pirate or an Indian. The adult conception of either would be as much out of place as the child’s pirate on the decks of a real ship or the child’s Indian in a real forest.” Today, our consciousness of political correctness may interfere with our imaginations more than the wires, although we don’t have so much issues with stereotyped pirates because they haven’t a strong union.

The Indian princess called Tiger Lily is played by Anna May Wong (no relation to James Wong Howe), a pioneering Chinese-American star who here radiates an indomitable tomboyish strength that we might as well call girl power. Whenever she’s on screen, she seizes our attention; alas, her role isn’t nearly big enough and she disappears quickly.

The other major star is Ernest Torrence as Captain Hook, florid and barnstorming and absurd and nearly admirable. Another of the film’s departures from the otherwise faithfully filmed theatrical vision is that Hook isn’t portrayed by the same actor as Mr. Darling, thereby going from childish “fidget” to castrated pirate. In combination with Peter seeing Wendy as a substitute mother, the Hook/Darling thing would render the nascent Freudianism too complicated. Or with all the shadow selves, maybe it’s more Jungian.

Since Brenon and writer Willis Goldbeck hewed so closely to Barrie, who personally selected Bronson to play Peter, we have a reasonably revealing psychodrama about how “growing up” and “staying a boy” means avoiding sexuality, and how all the boys want Wendy to be their mother while the females covet Peter’s oblivious attentions. He will always fly from their grasp or any attempt to domesticate him. Kisses are called “thimbles”, which sounds like a lisp, and the film is full of thimbles of displaced affection and energy. All the story’s females want something more from the males around them but can’t get it. The only males are boys and infantilized men.

The ending is a classic of emotional ambiguity. The wish fulfillment is that all the Lost Boys are adopted as Darling siblings. The bittersweet disappointment is that Peter rejects the vision while longing for it. “Her mouth is full of thimbles” he says of Mrs. Darling, for most of the title cards are lifted straight out of Barrie. Peter flies away to live in the trees with Tinker Bell and play his pan pipe, “and so it will go on as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”

Ellinger’s commentary focuses on the property’s personal and biographical readings for Barrie, who seems to have avoided marital obligations (though he was married) in favor of seeking emotional refuge among and in the world of children, perhaps partly to redeem his own troubled childhood. He didn’t have faith that Peter Pan, whose name refers to a sexual demigod while being himself sexless, would resonate with audiences, but this creation eclipsed his other works at the dawn of a century that would continually re-invent and prolong childhood, from the crusade against child labor to an increasingly degree-based job market and the delay of marriage.

When this film came out 20 years after the play was first staged, the result was a Christmas blockbuster for Paramount. Frederick C. Szebin’s liner notes claim the opening weekend pulled in two million dollars, a staggering sum in 1924. You might think such critical and commercial hits would be easy to hold onto, but silent films were considered useless after talkies came in, and easily deteriorated to boot. A print was discovered in the 1950s that served as the main source for this edition. This Blu-ray comes with archival audio interviews with Ralston. The film was selected for the National Film Registry in 2000.

Brenon was an important director of the silent era, many of whose films are lost. The next year, he reunited with Goldbeck, Bronson and Ralston for another Barrie fantasy, A Kiss for Cinderella, which isn’t lost. It would be lovely to see it on Blu-ray sometime.

Devotees of silent cinema already know that such films have a magic about them, so it’s a special treat to find films about magic itself, films whose wizards demonstrated special effects possible only on film and returned viewers to the wonders of childhood. Such are the pleasures on display in two new Blu-rays: Flicker Alley’s The Extraordinary World of Charley Bowers and Kino Lorber’s Peter Pan. Old film image by Prawny (Pixabay License / Pixabay)