Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Here's the Preposition - On the Bowery At the Roxie In the Mission

In January, I saw the psuedodocumentary On the Bowery at the Roxie. The 35 MM print had been restored recently. It was proceeded by The Perfect Team which is a documentary about the making of On the Bowery.

On the Bowery; directed by Lionel Rogosin; (1957) - Official Website
The Perfect Team; documentary; directed by Michael Rogosin; (2009) - Official Website

On the Bowery used non-actors to portray three days on New York's Skid Row. The plot was fictitious but the people and setting were real. Ray Salyer (the name of the actor and character) is a down-on-his-luck railroad worker who hits the Bowery with a suitcase and a drinking problem. He falls in with Bowery mainstay Gorman Hendricks (also the name of the actor & character). Hendricks enables, even encourages, Salyer's drinking and promptly relieves the unconsciouis Salyer of his suitcase so he can hock the contents for a flop. With or without Hendricks, Salyer cannot seem to stay off the booze and he leaves town at the end of the film in even worse condition than when he arrived...just another piece of meat for the Bowery to chew up and spit out. Hendricks is nice enough to give Salyer some of money upon his departure. Unbeknownst to him the money came from selling off the contents of Salyer's suitcase but that's the hobo code of honor.

The film is amazing for the performances given by Salyer and Hendricks who really were down-on-their-luck denizens of the Bowery. Director Lionel Rogosin spent months in the Bowery gaining the confidence and trust of the people so he could shoot his film on location. Part scripted and part cinema vérité, On the Bowery could easily have fallen flat. Instead, Salyer and Hendricks propelled the film to a Best Documentary nomination at the 1958 Academy Awards.

Salyer was a weathered looking 40 year old at the time of the filming. He was offered legitimate acting roles after On the Bowery but couldn't give up the drink. He hopped a freight train and disappeared. His ultimate disposition remains a mystery. Gorman Hendricks who gives his shady character an amazing amount of sympathy, died before the film was released.

I noted the differences between the homeless then and now. First of all, everyone in the Bowery was white although I do seem to recall an Asian woman. They all seemed to be alcoholic but had enough to buy a drink or hustle a drink. No one seemed to be insane or hooked on heroin or crystal meth. No bar today would cater to the homeless today like On the Bowery. The homeless back then dressed better than today.

Lionel Rogosin's son Michael directed The Perfect Team. It features some interesting footage including a segment with Ray Salyer on The Today Show.

No comments: