Charles Raymond Bowers was born on June 6, 1889 in Cresco, Iowa. His parents were Dr. Charles E. Bowers and Mary I. Bowers, although a 1928 press book claimed that his mother was a French countess. At age six he learned to be a tightrope walker and worked as a circus performer from 1895-1898. Early sources claimed Bowers had no formal education and was kidnapped by the circus as a child, and that his father died from the shock. This, however, cannot be verified and was most likely invented by Bowers, who had a wild imagination and enjoyed telling tall tales. While growing up he held a variety of jobs, trying his hand at vaudeville, bronco busting, costume design, and theater set design, among other pursuits. He ended up becoming a cartoonist, his work appearing in The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Star.
In the 1910s Bowers became interested in animation. By 1916 he was working on a new animated series with the popular “Mutt and Jeff” characters. The series was a partnership between Bowers, Raoul Barre of Barre Studios, and Bud Fisher, the owner of Mutt and Jeff. The resulting animation studio was located in the Bronx. Bowers was soon in charge of the series, personally directing, writing, and often animating around 300 cartoon shorts for the next ten years (he had no onscreen credits). His career there was not entirely smooth however; around 1919 he was fired for apparently padding the books (although in time he stubbornly returned to directing the series), and when Barre retired from animation in 1919 there were rumors that Bowers was a contributor to a possible nervous breakdown.
In 1926, with the Mutt and Jeff animated series at an end, Bowers decided to try his hand at live-action shorts featuring stop-motion animation. He formed a partnership with Harold L. Muller, who acted as an assistant director, cameraman and technician for him, and turned out a series of comedy shorts with Bowers as the lead character. The films usually featured him as an inventor, whose bizarre inventions included a machine that makes eggs unbreakable and a formula to stop banana peels from being slippery. Surreal creatures often showed up in the films, such as an ostrich made of household items, oysters that leave their shells and move across the floor like caterpillars, and tiny Model T Fords hatched from eggs. The charming and meticulous stop-motion sequences sometimes featured Bowers himself sitting or standing by his “moving” creatures, which no doubt required much patience. Onscreen, Bowers had a persona that at times seemed modeled after Buster Keaton and at times Harry Langdon.
From 1926-27 Bowers made 12 two-reelers, such as Now You Tell One, Enough Is Plenty, The Vanishing Villain and The Wild Roomer. In 1928 he made an additional 6 two-reelers released through Educational Pictures, which included There It Is, perhaps his finest short. They received rave reviews from critics, although Bowers remained a minor figure in the comedy spectrum. In 1930 he made his first sound short, It’s a Bird, which was greatly admired by Surrealist artist Andre Breton.
What films Bowers worked on throughout the ‘30s is not clear. He drew cartoons for The Jersey Journal for eight years and well as commercial cartoons for products such as Pride of Newark Beer. He also wrote and illustrated books for children. He lived in New Jersey with his wife Winifred Leyton Bowers, who would assist him in his career toward the end of his life. This was his second marriage apparently, the first being to a women named Josephine which ended around 1920. Bowers did not have children in either marriage.
In 1939 Bowers created Pete-Roleum and His Cousins for the New York World’s Fair. The half-hour short, created to teach about the importance of oil in the American economy and accompanied by live narration, was created with dozens of rubber puppets. The last known film Bowers created was Wild Oysters (1940), released by the Fleischer Brothers. Not long after he was diagnosed with an unspecified illness. Unable to fulfill all his contracts on his own, he taught his wife to draw some of the work for him. He struggled with the illness for five years. On November 26, 1946, Bowers died in the St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson, New Jersey. He was 57.
Bowers’s work was virtually forgotten for decades, not even being mentioned in film histories. In the late 1960s Raymond Borde, director of the Cinematheque de Toulouse, acquired some silent films used by traveling fairs and found several rusting cans marked “Bricolo.” After much research Borde was able to identify “Bricolo” as the American comedian Charley Bowers. In time about half of Bowers’s silent shorts were discovered, and in 2004 they were given a DVD release. While he is still obscure today, Bowers is finally being remembered and his wonderful animation gains him new fans every year.
Klein, I. “Pioneer Animated Cartoon Producer Charles R. Bowers,” 1975. Retrieved from: http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/splog/index.php?s=bowers&submit=Search (That would be Michael Sporn Animation, mind you.)