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Now You Tell One

That's an elephant, trailing another elephant into the U.S. Capitol

Now You Tell One

1926. Produced by Charles J. Bowers. Directed by Charles J. Bowers and Harold L. Muller. Starring Charles J. Bowers.


At the San Francisco Film Festival yesterday, I had the chance to see two rediscovered shorts by an animator named Charles J. Bowers. They are Now You Tell One and Egged-On, both from 1926 or 1927, both surviving only in versions with French intertitles (someone found them at a Gypsy flea market, apparently).

Bowers turns up in histories of animation for producing first the "Hans and Fritz" series (based on the Katzenjammer Kids comic strip), and then the "Mutt and Jeff" cartoons. In addition, he apparently made a series of comic shorts in the late 1920s starring himself as a sort of Buster Keaton character with baggy pants, an earnest attitude, and a penchant for fantastic inventions that don't quite work out.

These films fit right into the tradition of animator/impresarios appearing on-screen beside with their own creations. Bowers works a little differently from Winsor McCay, Max Fleischer, and Walt Lantz, who actually filmed themselves putting pen to paper and drawing the animated creatures (Gertie the Dinosaur, Koko the Clown, and Pete the Pup, respectively) who then came to life and started causing mischief . Bowers's animations are mostly live-action, combining stop-motion, models, and still photographs (in Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1989-1928, Donald Crafton refers to the "Bowers Process"). Bowers appears in his films not as an "artist," but as an "inventor." His creations do not exactly "come to life," as do Gertie, et. al., but he has still called them into being—both within the diegesis and without, which is to say, both as character and as filmmaker—and they still "misbehave" and foil his plans.

In Now You Tell One the members of the Liar's Club get together for their annual tall tale contest. One man tells a story about Mussolini, the U.S. Capitol building, and a herd of elephants, and we do indeed see elephants parading up the capitol steps. Another man claims he can fold himself up and store himself inside his hat, and we see him do so. There are more contestants, more astonishing sights, and then one member introduces Bowers. Bowers tells a long story, which represents the bulk of the picture, about inventing a universal grafting potion that engenders all sorts of useful natural wonders. A bunch of bananas sprouts out of a pumpkin. An eggplant grows before our eyes and proves when cut open to contain a real hard-boiled egg and a salt-shaker. Bowers plants a small sprig in the ground between his feet; it grows into shoelaces which thread themselves through the eyelets in his boots like some sort of fast-growing vine and then snip themselves off and tie themselves in bows. Finally, called upon to help a pretty girl whose house has been overrun by mice (one of whom totes a six-gun!), Bowers comes up with a plant that produces thousands of live cats.

It's significant here that all these camera tricks are framed as "lies." They illustrate events and phenomena that the story acknowledges with great relish are impossible. Yet we have seen them happen! Because Bowers uses no drawn animation, just manipulated objects and photographs, it all looks quite realistic: The magical eggplant appears every bit as concrete as do the members of the Liar's Club, who are played by actors. If we can believe anything we see in a movie, we have to believe that a man has stuffed himself into his own hat and that elephants have invaded the capitol.

In Bowers, camera tricks here take us into a sort of narrative middle-ground. They represent that realm that lies beyond physical reality but still within cinematic possibility. This is a puzzling and delightful place to be. Some movies, most classical narrative ones, try to keep this area as small as possible, or at least to disguise when they've crossed into it (though in fact, every time a chair breaks when it hits a man's head or a crying woman appears with her mascara intact, that's where we are). But many movies in what we might call the "surrealistic" tradition, including most of the ones mentioned on this List, take us into this gap knowingly and gleefully. They give us a good look around the unstable territory, and come up with gimmicks designed to exploit every conundrum and point up every paradox.

By the way, the official name of the Liar's Club in Now You Tell One is "Citizens United Against Ambiguity." What an awful thought!

(4/28/1997)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein