Roxie's restored re-release showcase of On the Bowery drags its besodden subjects into the light
DOCUMENTARY CLASSIC This column space is usually devoted to pop culture detritus. But this week we'll bend the Trash definition to encompass human detritus, as in such timeless phrases as "Those people are nothing but trash." The occasion is the Roxie's restored re-release showcase of On the Bowery, a 1956 piece of early U.S. independent cinema that won major prizes. But it also struck many observers at the time as akin to literal trash: they wanted it dragged into some dark alley under cover of darkness, then quietly removed, lest polite society sift through the unflattering mess.
The 65-minute feature echoed Italian neorealism's influence, as it mixed documentary footage with dramatic elements using amateur actors basically playing themselves. It provided a filmmaking "school" for debuting director Lionel Rogosin, a son of well-off New York City Jewish textile manufacturers who, like many of his peers, felt the need to make work addressing social equity rather than just "enjoy life" after the Holocaust. He hit on film as his chosen medium, South Africa's apartheid system as desired subject — but as he knew nothing about filmmaking, taking on some smaller project first seemed apt.
Interviewed just before his turn-of-millennium death for 2009's The Perfect Team: The Making of On the Bowery, which the Roxie is also showing, Rogosin recalls approaching this endeavor (initially planned as a short) with characteristic immersive fervency.
Having decided to focus on New York's Skid Row district — the onetime flourishing heart of Manhattan whose slow degeneration began when an overground rail built in the 1870s bypassed stopping there — he spent a full six months befriending and bar-crawling with "Bowery bums," occasionally slinking back to his Village apartment. (To neighbors' consternation, sometimes these new pals would come uptown to pound on his door at 4 a.m., shaking the rich guy down for gin money.)
In the saloons and flops he found his cast, even his crew: cinematographer Richard Bagley, who shot 1948's Oscar-nominated The Quiet One (another neorealist semidocumentary, about a Harlem juvenile delinquent), was found carousing thereabouts. (He died of cirrhosis in 1961 at 41. That was six years later and four years younger than Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe James Agee, who'd written The Quiet One and drank himself to death before he could write Bowery.)
Bagley understood what Rogosin meant in wanting the film to look like Rembrandt's portraits of 17th-century Amsterdam's poor and diseased — black and white On the Bowery has stunning passages of nothing but faces ruined by hooch and hardship, soulful in their grotesquerie. (Probably many were beyond registering being filmed.) The slim story, dialogue improvised within a barely scripted structure, centers on itinerant railroad worker Ray. Drifting into town between jobs, this uncomplicated rural Southerner has the ill fortune to get buddied up by the older Gorman, a.k.a. Doc (he claims to have blown a legit surgeon's career), who spies a soft touch. Umpteen glasses later, Ray is left unconscious at the curb, his battered suitcase stolen by Doc to buy a few hours' privacy in one flophouse's chicken wire "room."
Ray awakens the next day sobered but not sore, determined to stay dry long enough to clean up, get some work, and get outta here. Knowing his weakness for the sauce, he recognizes Bowery life as a pit he might easily vanish in. But after an abortive night at a depressing church mission, he answers the siren call of Doc's mooching hospitality and gets in worse straits than ever. There's both surprising redemption and a stone-cold reality check at the end of this woozy-view slice of gutter life.
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."
ON THE BOWERY
Jan 14–20, $5–$9.75
3117 16th St., SF