‘From Mae West to Punk: The Bowery on Film’ Is a Don’t-Miss Series


In 1897, three years after its founding, the Edison Studios immortalized a Lower East Side vaudeville routine called the “Bowery Waltz”: A stiff-legged man seizes a booze-woozy woman, and, wrenching her about, has a go at a ballroom dance. They spin with elegant sloppiness, making it through just two counts of one-two-three before the man flings her forward for a disastrous flourish. She breaks free and stands there like a sleepwalker, the night crashing down on her. She collapses when he approaches again, slumping her cheek to his shoulder, snoozing away.

He dances on.

The film is just 30 seconds long, crafted for peeping at. But it suggests much about the public idea of the Bowery, right at the tail end of its Gay ’90s notoriety. Here was a hotbed of lively vice, of horny louts and plastered women, of the riotousness of sin, of folks who can’t make it home or maybe don’t have a home to get to. It’s also elusive: Is this an established couple? A man taking advantage? A pimp and his whore?

Four years after that, the Edison company unleashed “Kansas Saloon Smashers,” a burlesque in which Carrie Nation and her battle-axes tear through a tavern like Godzilla through Tokyo. Together these shorts stand as evidence that the first things our visual mass-media culture sold to its audience were comic licentiousness — and the impulse to clean such filth up.

You can see “Bowery Waltz” (and “A Tough Dance,” a 1902 treatment of a similar performance) before a screening of Raoul Walsh’s 1915 Regeneration at Anthology Film Archive’s sharply programmed survey of the Bowery on film. “Kansas Saloon Smashers” is not part of the retro (give it a Google), but its comic and crusading spirit hangs over many of the Anthology’s selections, most explicitly Walsh’s wild 1933 comedy The Bowery, in which Wallace Beery’s frog-throated Chuck Connors cannily invites Nation and her temperance scolds to smash up the saloon he’s just lost in a bet to Steve Brodie (George Raft), the neighborhood tough best known in real life for having survived a leap off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1896.

Walsh’s The Bowery is a grand, junky, clamorous riot, set in what it calls “the Liveliest Mile on the Face of the Globe,” and it’s certain to offend you, just as the real Bowery of the late 19th century would have: The first shot after the credits is of the exterior of a bar called Nigger Joe’s, and we’re later invited to laugh at insert shots of the employees of a Chinese laundry trapped on the upper story of a burning building while Connors’s and Brodie’s competing fire departments brawl at each other. But that street fight is a miracle of comic overkill, as are the lacy-fanny burlesque numbers, the exploding cigars, and Beery’s blarney street-talk. “Get yer mind off the skoits!” he barks at the pubescent urchin he’s raising. A bit of priceless rough stuff from Raft’s Brodie touches that “Bowery Waltz”: “I wouldn’t hit a girl like you,” he says, wooing a dame after socking her. “I thought you was the other kind.”

Walsh’s crime weeper Regeneration turns on the kind of girl Brodie wouldn’t hit. Title cards praise the “gentle spirit” of Anna Q. Nilsson’s Marie Deering, and the character dutifully sets herself to Christian charity, to making the Bowery right, but without all that Carrie Nation sternness and slapstick. Walsh’s first feature, Regeneration is one of those how-criminals-get-made social-problem pictures, with a redemptive arc and a tragic ending that are nowhere as exciting as its fisticuffs — or, the true draw in many of Anthology’s selections, the location shooting: Relish these storefronts, cobblestones, and streetcars. (Walsh revisits Regeneration‘s setpiece fight in The Bowery, which suspends the raucousness for a dead-serious and plenty tense knuckle-to-knuckle dust-up, one that more closely resembles actual men actually wailing on each other than anything you’ll see in the multiplexes devoted to such scenarios.)

Films about the drunks of Lower Manhattan grew increasingly sober after The Bowery and the always delightful She Done Him Wrong, also from ’33 and co-starring Beery’s pa, Noah. (Suitor: “The men of my country go wild for women with yellow hair.” Mae West: “I’m glad you told me. I want to keep straight on my geography.”) But the hangover from the Depression, and the neighborhood’s slide into a skid row, inspired pioneering works of humanist vérité entertainment, replete with long-gone street life and the faces worn down by it.

The gutter jewel is Lionel Rogosin’s stark, celebrated documentary On the Bowery, from 1956. Covering three days in the lives of the down-and-out, Rogosin’s subjects pilfer and pray, holler at each other in the Round House bar, and heap to sleep on the sidewalk when they can’t muster two bits for a flop. One mug hits it off with a woman having hard times herself; after helping her chase away a predatory drunk, he tries to drag her to his hotel room himself, shoving her in the face in the process. Suddenly the laughs of The Bowery choke in your throat. Busted noses and all, Rogosin’s subjects carry on as if the cameras aren’t there, which can be distracting, but these defeated folks are playing themselves in the place where they’ve been soiled, honoring their own battles against drink and despair, and the film’s troubling beauty trumps concerns about its occasional staginess. It’s a raw masterpiece.

Less masterful yet still eager to honor skid row’s harsh reality: “Goodbye My Lady Love,” a 1959 episode of The Naked City, the cop-and-crime show that aspired to the tough drama of Kazan, the clear-eyed fluidity of Rossellini, and whatever it is that Dick Wolf’s been trying to achieve with Law & Order. This one, concerning New York’s last horse thief, offers priceless glimpses of Bowery bums, another visit to the Round House, and too many scenes of actors monologuing drunkenness right into the camera.

On the Bowery visits the Bowery Mission. The charity of the “gentle spirited” is also the subject of the 1941 short “This Is the Bowery,” which insists that the needy don’t have to endure a spiel about Jesus to secure soup and a bed — instead, they’re treated to a minister’s buck-up speech and some cuddle time with a Great Dane. It’s bonkers. If you can catch just one of the Anthology’s programs this week, the shorts night might be it — outside a pair of choice Looney Tunes, you won’t be seeing this stuff on the big screen again anytime soon.

The series is rounded out by recent documentaries charting the history of the neighborhood itself, including Scott Elliott’s enlightening Slumming It: Myth and Culture on the Bowery (2002), Mandy Stein’s Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB (2009), and Jen Senko and Fiore DeRosa’s outraged The Vanishing City (2009), which covers the latest tragedy to hit this and so many other New York neighborhoods: Rather than a distinctive strip alive with history, it’s becoming another development site for the fabulously wealthy, a place distinguishable from the rest of Manhattan by street names and memory instead of its own character. It’s encouraging that the Bowery’s crusaders of today want people just to be able to live — not instruct them on how to.