Roxie's restored re-release showcase of On the Bowery drags its besodden subjects into the light
On the Bowery won great acclaim in Europe and an eventual Oscar nomination as Best Documentary. (It was also inducted into the National Film Registry in 2008.) Yet it was scarcely distributed here, and outright condemned in some quarters. Eisenhower America preferred the less seemly aspects of its domestic life be kept hidden from view. Bagley's shocking vistas of bruised, broken, passed-out "forgotten men" littering already decrepit city sidewalks at dawn — like extras in a Cold War sci-fi scare film about the Bomb — seemed not just an ugly truth but an unallowable one.
The New York Times and other commentators assailed the filmmakers for wallowing in gratuitous filth. At an otherwise triumphant Venice Festival premiere, socialite ambassador Clare Boothe Luce and publishing tycoon husband Henry snubbed Rogosin, the first Yank to win its Documentary Grand Prize. She reportedly encouraged the U.S. State Department to suppress Bowery's further exposure abroad — and was no doubt appalled when it became a runaway hit in certain Eastern Bloc nations.
Rogosin did make that South Africa film (1958's Come Back, Africa, another Venice sensation) as well as several other little-seen social-justice documentaries, before continual funding shortages forced his mid-1970s retirement from the medium.
On the Bowery's "stars" imitated the art that had replicated their lives. Having been told by a real physician that he wouldn't survive even one more binge, Gorman "Doc" Hendricks honored the crew's pleas and stayed sober as long as the film was being shot. Once it wrapped, he promptly relapsed and died, never seeing a frame of the end product.
Handsome, affable 42-year-old Ray Salyer helped Rogosin promote the movie, dignified and frank about his own alcoholism in a Today interview excerpted in The Perfect Team. That publicity attracted Hollywood acting offers, including a purported $40,000 contract Salyer refused. When the attention got to be too much, he simply "hopped on a freight train and nobody ever saw him again." Legend has it he later returned to the Bowery, dying there. A surviving nephew recalled his father (Ray's twin among a brutal Kentucky Methodist minister's 12 children) saying this wayward brother "returned permanently screwed up" from World War II military service. He was "still the charming, witty, engaging guy he had been, but with a deep sadness in his eyes. And he couldn't drink enough to make it go away."
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