#335) On the Bowery (1956)

OTB 5

#335) On the Bowery (1956)

Directed by Lionel Rogosin

Written by Mark Sufrin

Class of 2008

Here’s a modern trailer

The Plot: Lionel Rogosin blurs the line between reality and fiction in this docudrama about New York’s troubled Bowery, using real residents as his cast of characters. Ray Sayler arrives in the Bowery looking for work, and meets up with longtime resident Gorman Hendricks. Ray becomes even more down on his luck when his suitcase is stolen while he is passed out from drinking, never learning that Gorman sold the suitcase to make extra money. Ray’s time in the Bowery is filled with an endless cycle of drinking, a short supply of employment, and a constant struggle for survival.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film an “unrelenting…wrenching portrait”, and quotes Bosley Crowther’s original New York Times review: “a dismal exposition to be charging people money to see.” Is that really the review you want to connect with a film’s entry into a national archive?

But Does It Really?: Once you get used to the “drama” part, “On the Bowery” is an interesting watch. I know very little about the Bowery, and this film was an eye-opener. The “scripted” parts help make the “unscripted” parts palatable, but ultimately knowing that these are real people with real struggles makes it all quite painful to watch. “On the Bowery” is a capsule of a long-forgotten American life, told in a unique, enticing format. A definite yes to the NFR inclusion of “On the Bowery” and filmmaker Lionel Rogosin.

Everybody Gets One: Son of philanthropist Israel Rogosin, Lionel served in the navy during WWII, and afterwards traveled to Eastern Europe, Israel, and Africa. Affected by the plight of the underprivileged, and having no interest in taking over his father’s textile industry, Rogosin taught himself filmmaking, with the goal of creating socially conscious docudramas. Before tackling his dream project about Apartheid in Africa, Rogosin decided to practice by making a film about the nearby Bowery. That story again: a filmmaker’s test movie made it into the NFR.

Wow, That Was Already Dated When the Film Came Out: The el-train tracks that literally overshadowed the Bowery were demolished shortly after filming of “On the Bowery”.

Take a Shot: The Reverend George Bolton actually says “on the Bowery” during his sermon. Did his speech influence the title or vice versa?

Seriously, Oscars?: After struggling to find distribution, “On the Bowery” made its theatrical debut in 1957. Despite its limited release and dour subject matter, the film managed an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, losing to the more agreeable “Albert Schweitzer” by fellow NFR filmmaker Jerome Hill . “On the Bowery” was, however, the first American film to win the Venice Film Festival Documentary prize.

Other notes

  • Named after the Dutch word for farm (“bouwerij”), Bowery Lane was one of early New York City’s busiest thoroughfares. By the late 1800’s, the neighborhood had become overrun with flophouses, dive bars, and prostitutes. Many a song and short story has been written about the Bowery of the early 20th century, none of them good.
  • Both Ray and Gorman were non-professional actors that Rogosin convinced to star in the film. Surprisingly, both are natural performers. Ray even has your typical leading man look, though maybe that’s just because he’s the only person in this movie that doesn’t look like a catcher’s mitt come to life.
  • I will admit that this movie’s staged aspects are not as jarring as I thought. Clearly these men were given a lot of leeway in terms of their dialogue. Heck, it’s better than most improv performances I’ve been to (low bar, I know).
  • Ray does not want his watch to be sold. Do you have any idea what Christopher Walken went through to get that watch to him?
  • The famous Bowery Mission is featured in one scene, and it sounds like something straight out of “Guys and Dolls”. Where’s Stubby Kaye?
  • Not a lot of women in the Bowery. Is that a fair representation, or did no women feel like participating in the movie?
  • Drinks are only 15 cents, roughly $1.40 today. WHY ARE WE SO BAD AT INFLATION!?
  • I assume once the drinking really gets going the subtitles just say, “[????]”.
  • It was worth reminding myself during this viewing that mental institutions were still commonplace in the ‘50s. When we think of the homeless today, we automatically think of the mentally unstable, but everyone in this film more or less has their wits about them. Of course if I think too long about our abolition of mental institutions and the long-term effects it has had on mental health in the country…oh no I’m getting lightheaded. Where’s the paper bag?
  • Tangentially related to this movie: a “Bowery Boys” movie has yet to make the NFR.

Legacy

  • After completion of “On the Bowery”, Lionel Rogosin felt confident enough to make his dream project: 1960’s anti-apartheid “Come Back, Africa”.
  • Following “Africa”, Rogosin spent most of the ‘60s making socially relevant films and operating the Bleecker Street Cinema, which he transformed into a home for independent filmmakers. By the ‘70s, Rogosin faced increased difficulty finding financial backing for his movies, and sold the Bleecker. He spent the last two decades of his life as a writer in England (Europe appreciated his work far more than America ever did).
  • Tragically, many associated with “Bowery” – including cinematographer Dick Bagley and actors Ray Salyer and Gorman Hendricks – succumbed to alcoholism and passed away within a few years of the film’s completion. Hendricks actually passed a few weeks before the film’s premiere.
  • Many filmmakers have cited “On the Bowery” as an influence, including John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese. Watching this film, you can definitely see the influence Rogosin had on these two.
  • The Bowery started to clean up in the 1970s as New York City made a concentrated effort to improve its image. As with most other major U.S. cities throughout the ensuing decades, the Bowery has been a victim of gentrification. Lousy hipsters.

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