To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.
Skipping madly ahead of the lingering shadow of World War I, the 1920s was a time of optimism, invention, art, and ever-increasing speed. With its marvelous “modern conveniences” and improvements in nearly every aspect of living, it must’ve seemed like a veritable golden age of innovation.
Its atmosphere was also infused with whimsy and wonder. Many people had grown up with “fairy plays” and circuses, and comic strips dabbled in absurdity and surrealism. Puns and tall-tale style jokes were popular, and comedy films needn’t be logical as long as they were amusing.
Only in this atmosphere could someone like Charley Bowers thrive–an animator (and former head of the Mutt & Jeff cartoon studio) whose oddball visions found a perfect home in cutting-edge stop motion animation. A figure only moderately known in his day and then completely forgotten until his rediscovery in the 1960s, Charley appeared in a series of live action “Whirlwind Comedies” enlivened by stop motion–which he dubbed his “Bowers Process.” My personal favorite of the surviving “novelties” is the ever-wondrous and quirky Egged On (1926).
The short features Charley as an inventor (his favorite type of role). After accidentally getting egged, Charley’s inspired to create a machine to make fragile eggshells rubbery, eliminating that pesky breakage. Afire with enthusiasm, his obsessive focus on designing the machine excludes pretty much everything else.
His completed invention, a loopy Rube Goldeberg-esque machine that takes up half a barn, is made of eclectic items “borrowed” from relatives and neighbors (he even swiped an old man’s beard). Using a complicated mish-mash of chutes, pulleys, wheels and sprayers, it successfully makes egg shells as rubbery as bouncing balls.
Such an invention sounds perfect for the International Egg Shippers Association (who else, of course!), which agrees to have Charley demonstrate his new machine for them. Naturally, his stash of eggs keep breaking, forcing him to come up with creative ways to, err, “borrow” more–such as hiding a basket of eggs under the hood of his automobile.
With much surrealism, the heated-up eggs hatch into baby Model Ts. And thus begins one of my favorite sequences in all of silent comedy. As a work of stop motion art, it’s well worth some study:
Darn wonderful–think of the time they must’ve taken to prepare for it, figuring out which direction each individual baby car would go, who got to gingerly wade in and move them without touching the other ones, and, how long Charley would have to sit there. I’m guessing it was a long time.
We also see the baby autos huddle under the “mother” Model T, à la chicks running to their hen. You can watch the full sequence here, or watch it below (start the video at 17:45). You’re going to want to mute it, by the way–the soundtrack on this YouTube video is atrocious garbage:
It’s the animated details that seem simple that must’ve presented unique challenges. For instance, we see the many mini Model Ts drop off of the running board onto the floor. I’m guessing they would have to fasten each model to the edge of the running board for one shot (tilting it down), perhaps suspend it from the board on a wire for the next shot, and fasten it by the front bumper to the floor for the next, to give the illusion of “dropping” (maybe they skipped the middle step for some of the models). If you watched the full sequence, notice how (in the first half) the last Model T zipping away moves less jerkily than the others. Maybe they accomplished the swarm with fewer movements, possibly so Charley wouldn’t have to sit there for days, then put more detail into those little touches. (And how’d they make the Model Ts roll down his back? String? Pins?)
All of this trouble seems worth it when Charley finally gets to demonstrate his machine, to apparent resounding success. Ah, but there’s one more surrealist touch in store, in the form of a chicken that had to lay an egg in a box of dynamite…!
When I watch Egged On and other Bowers shorts, I reflect on what an interesting time the 1920s was–a time of hand-drawn plows and corner stores, and a time of hot jazz and cities thronged with automobiles. A time of new discoveries, uncovered by energetic people with a unique blend of imagination and pragmatism. They might be from a farm in Iowa or a tenement in NYC–with the right idea, they could still “make good.” Or at least, they could enthusiastically give it their all, no doubt to some folks’ perplexity.
For me, Bowers comedies–with all their bizarre flavors–are unique representatives of that pre-plastic age, a world brimming with possibility. They might not always make sense, they might show an odd obsession with eggs, but they always leave an impression. To the optimists of the 1920s, the sky was the limit. And it was certainly the limit to inventive, eccentric artists like Charley Bowers.
For more about Mr. Bowers, check out my article The Quirky Charm of Charley Bowers–partly a reference for the info in this post.