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On the Bowery (September 1956)

30th Academy Awards Retrospective

On the Bowery, nominated for Best Documentary Feature

Lionel Rogosin’s visual diary of New York’s skid row in the mid-1950s was one of three documentaries nominated at the 30th Academy Awards. The other two were Torero (1956), about the Mexican bullfighter Luis Procuna, and Albert Schweitzer (1957), about guess-who.

Albert Schweitzer took home the Oscar. I haven’t seen it yet but I have to imagine it captured the hearts and minds of more Academy voters because it was “inspiring” while this is the opposite.

Rogosin clearly took some inspiration from Robert Flaherty, who made documentaries like Nanook of the North (1922) and Louisiana Story (1948), which were documents of real people and the environments in which they lived, but which were also partially staged and directed by Flaherty to create narratives and dialogue.

On the Bowery follows a man named Ray Salyer, who was born in Kentucky, raised in North Carolina, served in combat in World War II, and who drifted and worked manual labor after the war. He was about 40 when this film was shot, and he’s ruggedly handsome in the mold of an actor like Dana Andrews (who was also a Southerner who struggled with alcoholism), but he’s clearly at a crossroads of his life. In one scene he drinks a bottle of 7-Up and smokes a cigarette and talks with another man about his profound desire not to drink.

His desire and his reality are at odds, and the film’s procession of faces tells a story of his possible future. Old men, toothless men, shirtless men, stewbums falling asleep on bar stools, park benches, and the Bowery sidewalks. (Salyer was apparently offered a Hollywood contract based on his appearance onscreen here, but he drifted further into alcoholism and died in 1963.) The other main “character” is Gorman Hendricks, an older man and former newspaper reporter who died in 1956.

This is a beautiful document of a lower Manhattan that is mostly gone now (like the elevated subway tracks), although you can still see buildings that exist today. It unsentimentally records a time and place, and the cycle of addiction and destitution that exists in it.

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