Cast & Crew
On Skid Row in the Bowery district of New York City, men ravaged by poverty and alcoholism wander the streets in search of their next drink. Railroad worker Ray Salyer arrives with a full month's pay in his pockets and, at a neighborhood bar, befriends Gorman Hendricks, a wily, charming drunkard. The two men join others in drinking beer and muscatel all day, while others in the bar argue belligerently. When Ray runs out of money, Gorman counsels him on how to look for day work the next morning, but they still need a place to stay for the night. Gorman suggests pawning some of Ray's clothes, and as they look through the suitcase, Gorman spots a valuable watch, but Ray insists on keeping it. They pawn a pair of pants for a few coins, which they soon spend on alcohol. With no money left for a hotel, Ray passes out on the street, after which Gorman steals his suitcase and uses it as collateral for a room. In the morning, the streets are strewn with other sleeping men. Ray awakens and manages to find a day's labor. Meanwhile, Gorman returns to the bar and socializes with other drunks, all of whom trade grandiose plans for work and retirement. While one old sailor forages scrap metal and cardboard to resell, Gorman visits the recreation center where men play dominoes. Later, he bumps into Ray on the street, and asks him to join him in the bar, but when Ray refuses, saying he wants to get cleaned up, Gorman points him to the Christian mission. There, Rev. George R. Bolton, a former Bowery denizen who has since found God, preaches about salvation to the rows of men, most of whom are there for the free food and lodging. Ray partakes of the dinner and bathing facilities, but when he learns he must sleep on the floor and vow not to drink, he leaves the mission and returns to the bar. Later, upon learning that Gorman used to be a surgeon, Ray proclaims that he cares for only one thing, liquor. When a woman approaches Ray for a drink, Ray pushes Gorman away in favor of his new friend, but later that night, he slaps the woman and wanders into an alley. There, he is mugged and left on the street. In the morning, while some of the men revive Ray in time to avoid being arrested for vagrancy, Gorman pawns the rest of Ray's suitcase. Gorman then finds Ray, who refuses his offer of a drink and admits that he has hit rock bottom. Ray tells Gorman that he wants only to return to Chicago and make one last effort to get sober. Gorman offers to share some money he is about to receive, but Ray does not believe the old man and so walks away. Gorman soon follows him, however, and gives him some of his money. Ray, not knowing the money is from the sale of his own possessions, gratefully accepts and promises to "pass the favor on." Later, Gorman joins his old friends and boasts about his generosity toward Ray. When he crows about Ray's bright future, however, another man declares that "he'll be back."
Greg Zilboorg Jr.
On the Bowery
Especially in its own time, when documentaries were generally feel-good travelogues or nature studies, On the Bowery was controversial, even shocking, in its depiction of New York City's Lower East Side and its derelict residents. Inspired by American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty, a pioneer in "docufiction," and the Italian neo-realism movement including Vittorio De Sica's 1948 The Bicycle Thief, Rogosin wanted to seize upon a subject that would make a similarly strong statement. He settled on the men on the Bowery and their lives that had been ravaged by alcohol and homelessness. Resigning from his family business, Beaunit Mills, he spent his own money - an estimated $60,000 - to make the film.
Rogosin submerged himself in Bowery life for months before filming began, becoming thoroughly familiar with the area and its residents. He began shooting on his own with a hidden camera, then hired a commercial crew, but was unsatisfied with the results. After writer Mark Sufrin and cinematographer Dick Bagley agreed to work with Rogosin, filming began in earnest in July 1955. At first working without a script, the collaborators decided that a simple story outline based on the lives of the men they had met would serve their purposes better than random documentary filming. Shooting continued on a grueling day-and-night schedule through October. Rogosin then worked with editors Helen Levitt and Carl Lerner in assembling the film, with Lerner proving particularly helpful in achieving Rogosin's vision and teaching him the art of film editing.
The film covers three days in the life of Ray Salyer, playing himself as a part-time railroad worker who wanders onto the Bowery for a drunken spree and finds himself descending into the hellish life of a homeless alcoholic on skid row. The men (and a few women) drink, argue, play dominoes, listen to a sermon at the Bowery mission and sleep in flophouses or on the sidewalk. The film asks the question: Can Salyer, a weathered but still robust war veteran, return to a life of work and sobriety, or is he doomed to a shadowy half-life on the Bowery? In real life, Salyer was offered a Hollywood contract but chose to remain where he was, remarking that "There's nothing else in life but the booze." He disappeared and wasn't heard from again. Gorman Hendricks, another Bowery man who had been befriended by Rogosin and played a major role in the film, died of cirrhosis of the liver shortly after it was completed. Rogosin paid for Hendricks' burial and dedicated the film to him.
On the Bowery was not well-received by most mainstream reviewers of the day, with criticism aimed at the lack of a formal plot, the realistically rough cinematography and performances of the non-actors. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "sordid and pitiful." But the movie's reputation grew after it received the Grand Prize for documentary at the Venice Film Festival, a British Academy Award as Best Documentary Feature and an Oscar® nomination in the same category. It was later selected as one of the "Ten Best Movies Between 1950-59" by Richard Griffith of the Museum of Modern Art Film Library.
The film, which opened at the 55th Street Playhouse in New York City, had difficulty in finding audiences, but it established Rogosin as one of the founding fathers in the development of independent film in America and became an influence on many independent filmmakers worldwide. More contemporary critics have recognized its power. Basil Wright wrote in Sight and Sound that, "In the bars and on the sidewalks, the camera leans sympathetically across table or grating towards these men and women who have passed the point of no return, and have reached a hideous sort of happiness achieved at best by gin and whiskey, and at worst by a shared squeeze from a can of metal polish... Rogosin insists that we must love them; he seems to say, with Dostoyevsky, 'the sense of their own degradation is as essential to those reckless unbridled natures as the sense of their own generosity.' "
New York native Rogosin (1924-2000) had experienced fascism firsthand as a soldier during World War II and vowed to make films that would attack it. After establishing himself with On the Bowery, he created Come Back, Africa (1959), a strong indictment of apartheid, by secretly documenting the life of a South African migrant worker in Johannesburg. His other feature documentaries included Black Roots (1970), Black Fantasy (1972) and Woodcutters of the Deep South (1973). Rogosin once said that, prior to making On the Bowery, he had not watched a commercial American movie for many years: "I was isolated at that time... you have to understand that above all, I've been inspired, motivated by life and not by films."
On the Bowery was restored in 2006 from the original negatives by the Cineteca di Bologna and the laboratory L'Immagine Ritrovato, in cooperation with Rogosin Heritage, Inc. In 2008 it was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." It has attracted further attention from theatrical screenings in recent years in New York and Los Angeles, and was released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2012.
by Roger Fristoe
On the Bowery
On the Bowery - ON THE BOWERY - Lionel Rogosin's Groundbreaking 1956 Independent Documentary on DVD & Blu-Ray
In the 1950s many New York- based filmmakers talked about finding a more truthful path to cinematic virtuosity, but it was Rogosin who showed everyone the way. His On the Bowery takes us to a place where nobody wants to end up: skid row. Five minutes into the movie we're convinced that everything we see must be absolutely real, unrehearsed and unscripted. A few minutes later we realize that director Rogosin has somehow drawn performances from un-directable subjects, in a place where a camera crew would not possibly be tolerated -- the awful streets and miserable bars of The Bowery. This is one story about alcoholism not told in the Ken Burns documentary Prohibition.
Today we have "homeless people", who were perhaps always with us but rendered invisible by the media. On the Bowery deals with the pathetic denizens of a couple of really vile city blocks in lower Manhattan. Chronic, advanced alcoholics mill about on the sidewalks. They live in filthy clothes and survive from drink to drink, scrounging the money as they go along. Some of them apparently receive money from the outside, but we see others making "squeeze" from poisonous Sterno cooking fuel. If they have thirty cents they can sleep in a flophouse, and if they don't they collapse on the sidewalk. Many of these guys just get so wiped out that they fall down as soon as they exit the bars.
There is a story of sorts. A fairly young fellow (30? 35?) named Ray (Ray Salyer) arrives with a suitcase and some cash from a railroad job. He's soon chiseled and fleeced by Gorman (Gorman Hendricks), an elderly, sharp operator who befriends Ray, secretly steals his possessions and then arranges to play the hero by giving some of the cash back to him, as a gift. Ray finds a day's work unloading a truck, and almost joins a church mission that promises a clean room and food for a few weeks for those willing to cut out the booze. Ray instead goes on an even worse bender, and narrowly avoids being picked up in a police sweep.
What makes On the Bowery so special? First, the excellent cinematography is on a quality level with high-grade ethnographic still photography. There is no grainy footage and none of the catch-as-catch-can handheld work that became the standard five years later, with the advent of sync-sound 16mm cameras. Secondly, we can scarcely believe that Rogosin or anybody could get such candid, authentic, performances from these men. Some of the action on the streets may have been captured from hidden trucks but the scenes in the bars are phenomenal. Almost everyone we see is seriously inebriated. Many appear to have 'diminished capacities' and some may have been feeble-minded before they pickled themselves. Led by his two main characters, Rogosin has these rummies participating in absolutely convincing conversations, leaning on each other for handouts and drinking, always drinking. It's like a peek into a world you couldn't see unless you were a participant, which gives a clue as to director Rogosin's technique.
Many critics have commented on the film's parade of faces, which are both fascinating and frightening. We are confronted with scores of brutalized faces in every minute of film. Some have clearly been beaten bloody. Plenty sport untreated injuries, perhaps suffered when under the influence. They're all so close up and authentically human. Each must have a story yet we wonder how many can carry on a real conversation. The denizens of the Bowery seem like strange inhabitants of an existential asylum, living in plain sight but ignored (or mythologized) by society.
On the Bowery is one of the few non-narrative films that generates the same interest as a good drama. Gorman claims that he's broke but retreats every night to a semi-permanent "flop" he can call his own; he uses his congenial manner to steal but is human enough to still want to be liked. His good story about once being a doctor is so good, we almost believe it. In contrast Ray seems a sensible guy but is definitely addicted to the bottle. It's as if he just doesn't see any point to life beyond his next drink.
Milestone has previously given us an entry into masterpieces by great independent filmmakers: Kent McKenzie (The Exiles ) and Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep). These documentarians are all drawn to reveal aspects of the urban underclass in America. Rogosin's reputation is very much alive and the evidence presented in the The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 1 can only enhance it. The first Blu-ray disc contains On The Bowery, which can be watched with an introduction by Martin Scorsese. The Perfect Team, a making-of docu by Rogosin's son Michael, answers many of the questions left open by the film itself. After experiencing WW2 Lionel Rogosin determined to use a camera to change society. He wanted to film in the Bowery but found that the only way he could was to spend months with the locals until he gained their friendship and trust. He and his cameraman were hard drinkers as well, and his two main actors were recruited from the street. Gorman Hendricks was on his last legs. He stayed sober (and alive) just long enough to finish the film. Rogosin believed that Kentucky man Ray Salyer had a future as an actor and claims that Ray had offers from Hollywood. We see Salyer appear on TV, cleaned up and in a suit, asserting that he likes to drink the way some men like to fish or play golf. His eventual response to the attention was to hop a freight train out of town, and disappear forever.
The first disc also contains a newer piece by Michael Rogosin called A Walk Through the Bowery, a 1972 docu (Bowery Men's Shelter), a 1933 newsreel (Street of Forgotten Men) and an On The Bowery trailer.
Disc two turns contains films just as powerful. With the experience of On the Bowery under his belt Rogosin turned toward the bigger themes of war and inhumanity that were his original motivation. 1964's Good Times, Wonderful Times belies its title to make a direct assault on complacent attitudes toward war -- its causes, its effects, its importance. Rogosin invents a docu scripting strategy that was soon abused by others: ironic contrast. His framing device is an English cocktail party. We hear a non-stop litany of trivial talk and small-minded observations. The central speakers are a gaggle of male admirers that congregate around a couple of "outgoing" young women that tease them with mild provocative talk. Some of the men are ex-soldiers. These party scenes are very convincing. Various pointed statements come out -- that war builds character, that war is a natural thing, that it controls the world population like floods or disease. Quite regularly Rogosin cuts to film footage culled from film archives around the world: England, Japan, the Soviet Union.
The footage is in mostly excellent condition, and when it isn't we're very aware that we're seeing 'rescued film' that somebody didn't want shown. Much of it is wholly unfamiliar, unseen in any war docus I've yet encountered. Rogosin starts with some disturbing scenes of Hiroshima bomb victims, including graphic shots clearly edited from of other docus. A cocktail party discussion about "who permits wars to take place?" is followed by segments devoted to the utter worship granted Adolf Hitler by the German citizenry. Admiring throngs throw flowers in his path; men are inspired and women enraptured, as if in the presence of a god. The atrocity footage that follows includes Russian footage of children murdered by German troops and some very disturbing, unfamiliar concentration camp footage. Film rescued from deterioration records a Ghetto packed with starving, horrifyingly emaciated people. Little kids caught gathering food on the outside are forced to dump it on the ground before re-entering the barbed wire. Other sequences advance the horror into the 1960s, including some Civil Rights violence and Ban The Bomb rallies. The news film ends on the then brand-new voice of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech -- before it became a default item in every socially conscious documentary. Good Times, Wonderful Times was widely shown when new and reportedly influenced students who would soon be protesting the Vietnam War, or resisting the draft. In 1964, our access to news of ongoing strife in Africa, Asia and South America was very limited, and the raw truth of Rogosin's film would certainly have served as a wake-up call.
Backing up GTWT is Rogosin's making of docu, Man's Peril which goes into the technical and philosophical reasoning behind his approach. Humanitarian Bertrand Russell was involved in the filmmaking process as well. Also included is another war-related Rogosin film, Out, which is about refugees from Hungary that fled into Austria in the wake of the revolution of 1956.
Both main features are in excellent shape, with On the Bowery exceptionally sharp and detailed in HD Blu-ray. Seen in close-up, some of those battered faces look like maps of the scarred and cratered moon. The B&W image quality on this disc is unsurpassed.
Lionel Rogosin's films may not attempt the intellectual complexity of later docus by people like Emile de Antonio, Chris Marker, Patricio Guzmán or Alain Resnais, but he succeeds beautifully in connecting with his audience. On the Bowery will make you feel differently about terminal alcoholics. Good Times, Wonderful Times will greatly lower your tolerance for the excuses of pampered materialists, who claim to be apolitical but in reality couldn't care less about the world beyond their personal comfort zones.
For more information about On the Bowery, visit Milestone Film.
by Glenn Erickson
On the Bowery - ON THE BOWERY - Lionel Rogosin's Groundbreaking 1956 Independent Documentary on DVD & Blu-Ray
Although an onscreen credit lists Lionel Rogosin Productions as the copyright holder, the film is not included in the Copyright Catalog. According to a April 15, 1957 Time article, director Rogosin, a former textile magnate who was making his first film, began shooting On the Bowery in 1955 and shot 100,000 feet of film over eighteen months. The Time article reported the film's cost as $60,000. Although an article in Saturday Review (of Literature) in April 1957 reported that some shots had been obtained with hidden cameras, much of the film, including its central storyline about Ray Salyer's attempt to become sober, is clearly scripted. Reviews refer to Salyer and Gorman Hendricks as "actors," though they were actual denizens of the Bowery.
The opening credits end with the written statement: "To Gorman Hendricks." After production of On the Bowery was completed, Hendricks died of illness related to alcoholism. After the picture's release, according to the Time article, Salyer was offered an acting contract but turned it down with the statement "There's nothing else in life but the booze." The film opened in New York on March 18, 1957, and on June 14, 1957, Hollywood Reporter noted that Film Representations, Inc. had acquired distribution rights to the picture throughout America. On the Bowery won the 1956 British Film Academy award for Best Documentary, was nominated in 1957 for an Academy Award for Best Documentary and was named one of the best films of the 1950s by the film library of the Museum of Modern Art.