Thursday, September 2, 2010

Short Film: Wild Oysters (USA, 1941)

Charles R. Bowers is a name mostly forgotten in his native homeland, the USA, seldom found in any tract on the history of US American live-action or cartoon comedy shorts of the silent era and early talkies. In France, on the other hand, he always enjoyed a (very, very) limited amount of recognition, if only because he was championed by Surrealists such as the painter André Breton. As of recent, Bowers has slowly begun gaining belayed recognition as an inventive if forgotten “before his time” filmmaker; his known surviving films can now even purchased as an extremely expensive DVD collection from 2004 and can also be found on diverse other compilations.
Born Jun. 6, 1887, in Cresco, Iowa, Bowers claimed to have spent two years in a circus when kidnapped by one as a child; this—along with such other alleged temporary jobs as bronco busting and performing vaudeville—would, perhaps, explain the nimble acrobatic abilities he occasionally displays in some of his few surviving live films done for R-C Pictures and Educational Pictures.
Called by some "a poor man's Buster Keaton", the inferred insult is unjust: aside from the fact that Keaton had a totally different screen presence and was less coarsely slapstick, Keaton's films, while notable better produced and poetic, never featured such outrageous surrealism as seen in the outtakes of the short silent There It Is found here. (Due to its "cultural, aesthetic, or historical significance", There It Is was named to the National Film Registry by the Librarian of Congress in 2004.
)Prior to his one-of-a-kind slapstick shorts combining live action and stop-motion animation, Bowers also made an untold number of animation films while he was in charge of the Mutt & Jeff animated shorts for Barré Studios, where Bowers’ creative book-keeping eventually resulted in the studio’s closure. The excellent website Bright Lights Film Journal suggests that “Bowers's own personality—his loose relationship with truth, and the cruelty evident in some of his practical jokes—may have helped sabotage his film career, as they did his earlier career as an animator.” (Full BLFJ article on Bowers here.)
In any event, by the early 30s, Bowers was pretty much out of the film business, living in Wayne, New Jersey as a newspaper cartoonist for The Newark News (amongst others) and, allegedly, writer/illustrator of children’s books. Prior to becoming seriously ill in 1941, he did only three more films, all stop-motion. On Nov 26, 1946, Charles R. Bowers died in Paterson, New Jersey, where he was laid to rest in the city’s Cedar Lawn Cemetery.

Of the Bowers films found on the web, the best to be found in its complete form is his last, Wild Oysters (1941). Like many of his films, it is hard to really say that Wild Oysters is funny. It is technically amazing and visually astounding, but the laughs are few and light and mostly of a mean streak. But for all its faults as a less-than-amusing “comic short”, even today, 69 years after it was made, Wild Oysters is a visual mind blower.

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