Documentary Movie Review: On the Bowery (1957) #atozchallenge

Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter O that I have previously reviewed include:

Title: On the Bowery
Release Date:  March 18, 1957
Director: Lionel Rogosin
Production Company: Rogosin Films

The Bowery is one of the oldest streets in New York City, it’s name coming from the Dutch word for “farm” since it originally lead out of town to the more rural areas of Manhattan. In the early 1800s the Bowery was New York’s theater and entertainment district before Broadway.  But by the end of the 19th century, the street and the surrounding area fell into dereliction and became home to itinerants and the poorest of the poor.  Only in the last few decades has the area been cleaned up by gentrification, but that has also come at the cost of affordable housing and services for the poor.

On the Bowery is set in the 1950s, when the street was predominantly populated by men who came their to drink, sleep in flophouses, and maybe find work long enough to pay for more to drink.  This is “docufiction” rather than a true documentary, as filmmaker Lionel Rogosin shaped the actual narrative, but had actual “Bowery bums” play as themselves and create their own dialogue.  The film depicts a few days in the lives of Ray Salyer, a younger itinerant new to the Bowery, and his relationship with the older Gorman Hendricks, a long time resident of the area.  Hendricks actually died of cirrhosis of the liver before the film was even released, giving an indication of how true to life he was to his character.

Despite the fictional aspect of On the Bowery, it feels very honest and a sympathetic portrayal of poverty and substance abuse.  It’s almost more shocking to watch this film now knowing it was made in the 1950s because of the squeaky-clean image of that decade.  The stories told in On the Bowery are all-too-relevant to us today.  I think of Mass and Cass, the tent city in Boston where people with opioid addictions have gathered in recent years, and their stories can be very similar to Ray and Gorman’s.

Rating: ***1/2