I Sing the Bowery Electric
“Where do you think bums come from?” he asked with the fervor of a tent show healer. “Do you think down in the Bowery two bums hump and make a bunch of little bums? Do you think the sidewalk just opens up and a bum grows like a weed out of the cracks? No, bums were once normal people — garage mechanics, housewives, lawyers, secretaries, doctors, bricklayers — and through a set of circumstances, all involving alcohol, they ended up in the Bowery, completely removed from the life they once knew. No one gets there because they planned to.”
Ah, the Bowery: such a word, such a place. Or street, actually. It’s had limited exposure in the movies: George Raft played supposed Brooklyn Bridge jumper Steve Brodie in Raoul Walsh’s The Bowery (1933); there’s the Bela Lugosi horror film The Bowery at Midnight (1942); Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall headed the Bowery Boys comedy series throughout the 1940s and 50s; while Martin Scorsese touched on the real 19th century Bowery Boys in Gangs of New York (2002). And then there’s Lionel Rogosin’s landmark On the Bowery (1956), a work in which the filmmaker undertakes a vivid portrait of what one of its inhabitants calls “the saddest and maddest street in the world,” a unique time capsule that was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. It’s now on Blu-ray and DVD from Milestone Films.
Passionate film folk are prone to hyperbole, so I was not altogether surprised when someone from Milestone emailed me, “I think you’ll find watching On the Bowery in Blu-ray almost a religious experience.” Yes, there was something very odd about it, the twisted irony of seeing this picture made from the gut on Skid Row for peanuts, now ablaze on my HDTV (the disc’s image is razor sharp) viewed in a house beyond the reach and imagination of the weathered souls hobbling on the screen. Far from having a spiritual epiphany, for a moment I felt like Marie Antionette.
Milestone’s Blu-ray includes a weighty documentary by Rogosin’s son, Michael, about the making of his father’s film and its sweeping impact. (Cinephiles take note: Lionel was the founder of the legendary Bleecker Street Cinema.) Bursting with information, Michael’s The Perfect Team: The Making of On the Bowery provides a lot more info than I should pass on here. Suffice it to say, it alerts us to a socially aware artist who served in World War II, observed the McCarthy witch hunts, realized the severity of the Korean War, and recognized political turmoil in South Africa; all while America, in the midst of its tremendous post-War economic boon, nonetheless had its Bowery and tenderloin districts in other cities, where men and women, diseased with poverty, alcoholism and insanity, roamed the streets in threadbare clothing, bumming change from strangers and feeding their addictions in rundown gin mills, the polar opposite of the white picket fence fantasy television was dishing out in bullshit like Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver.
In the disc’s interview clips, Lionel (who died in 2000) explains how he spent several months watching Bowery life and gained the trust of some of its people before taking his camera to the saloons, dilapidated hotels and the Bowery Mission. Never having made a film before, he drank with them, and managed to keep his head. Rather than shoot a straight objective representation, Rogosin took a cue from De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and the school of Italian neorealism, balancing authenticity with scripted and improvised storylines carried out by everyday people and non-actors in key roles. Closer to home, On the Bowery also has ties to Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive (1953), which took a similar approach documenting a boy’s adventures in New York’s Coney Island. This technique flew in the face of Hollywood, which had been manufacturing glossy, misleading depictions of lower Manhattan ever since Bogart roamed the prefabricated slums of Dead End (1937).
The cinéma vérité combination of scripted storyline (as slight as it is) with reality forms a roughhewn beauty. Interwoven with the ‘plot’ about a man’s brief stopover at the Bowery, Rogosin doesn’t flinch from the unscripted barroom arguments, drunken manipulation, the back alley distillation and consumption of Sterno, and the day-to-day that, for some, begins with being hoisted out of the gutter after a night’s sleep. The predominantly male population has, for the most part, abandoned all hope of regular employment, opting instead to hang out, waiting for someone to shake down for a drink or loose change for a night in a fleabag. Outside of being tortured in a prison camp, this must be humanity’s lowest ebb, and it fits with the nation’s uptight conservative leanings that Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce and New York Times critic Bosley Crowther attacked On the Bowery simply for exhibiting a seamy side of America they would’ve preferred to have swept under the rug. Calling the film “a dismal exposition to be charging people money to see,” Crowther ended his review by awarding thumbs up to the Walt Disney cartoon it played with. At the very least, Bosley was dependably myopic.
Subtitled “The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 1” (volume two will presumably spotlight his 1960 feature, Come Back, Africa), the two-disc set also offers Martin Scorsese’s introduction to On the Bowery; a short newsreel about the Bowery made in 1933; a ten minute documentary, Bowery Men’s Shelter (1972) directed by Rody Streeter and Tony Ganz; Lionel Rogosin’s Good Times, Wonderful Times (1964), a potent feature-length meditation on war atrocities juxtaposed with scenes from an upper crust cocktail party, augmented by a making-of documentary by Michael Rogosin; and Lionel Rogosin’s twenty-five minute Out (1957), concerning refugees of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It’s an exceptional introduction to his work, and a testament to the inverse beauty of On the Bowery.
Here’s the trailer: