Our current era is often called 'TV's Golden Age.' This is said so often it's almost a cliché, and, like most clichés, it's true.
Still in their first run are Breaking Bad (barely), Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Homeland, and in the not-too-distant past we also had The Sopranos, and yes, I'll throw in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Great shows all, and feel free to include whatever you think I've unfairly overlooked.
In many cases, new episodes of such shows are anticipated by the viewing public more avidly than upcoming theatrical films. All too often, let's also state, the quality of the better breed of TV shows surpasses what's on the 'big screen.'
One could easily argue in fact - and I'm doing so right now- that this current age of TV represents most of what the Golden Age of Movies and Hollywood had: great writing, great acting, and an emphasis on fast production turnaround. Let's remember that Casablanca was shot in about three weeks, and lots of other classic films in a similar timeframe. That's how they did it old school.
But I would further argue something I don't think anyone else has, that the uncredited forefather of our Golden TV Age is...Alfred Hitchcock. (You probably guessed that from the picture, huh.)
The first TV stations appeared in the US in the early 1950s, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents was already on the airwaves by the fall of 1955. In other words, Hitchcock saw the potential of TV right off the bat. He was the only great filmmaker of his age to see this potential. Often dismissed in his heyday as a merely 'commercial' director and a shameless self-promoter, it's true he was not shy about boosting his career, so one might be tempted to consider his TV show as nothing more than a vehicle created to cash in on his reputation and fame. While no doubt it was to some extent, Hitchcock actually took a strong hand in the production of the show that bore his name. He directed over a dozen episodes, and he set the general tone of what the series would be about saying "...it will be crime as practiced by ordinary people, like the fellow next door."
This formula should sound awfully familiar to fans of Breaking Bad and Walter White. Indeed, dark story lines and macabre humour are a big part of many of our current Golden Age shows, just as they were on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Beyond the story and thematic aspects however, Hitchcock saw another huge potential upside to TV.
It was cheap.
Again, even as far back as the 1950s, Hitchcock deeply resented that stars like Cary Grant got paid more than he did. He felt the director (read central creative force) behind a film should be paid the most and have total control. Today, while there are a few big directors, the power in the movie industry has shifted almost wholly toward the stars and the megaconglomerate studios. In TV however, the central creative force or forces - namely the writers - are in charge. TV is just cheap enough for the money guys to let this happen, and the result is, well...TV can sometimes actually be good.
Except for an 'honorary' award, Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar, which tells you how much of a joke the Oscars have always been. But it just might be true that, thirty years after his death, he's owed an honorary Emmy too.
I was lucky enough to be able to shoot at this year's Queen's Plate, sort of like the Canadian version of the Kentucky Derby. This horse actually seemed to gleam. I think the camera caught that.
If you don't know, this short feature from 1956 was written and directed by Lionel Rogosin, and chronicles three days in the lives of several chronic drunks/bums living in the Bowery district of Manhattan, what you might call the original 'skid row'. It's sometimes called a 'docudrama' though it's much closer to being something like a 'dramatized documentary'. To be put it another way, all the people and locations are real and everyone plays themselves, but there is a loose sort of story. Because the 'actors' are playing themselves I don't think it's accurate to call the film 'neo-realist' either, although it's often lumped in with that school.
So how did they shoot it? After a lot of research I was only able to learn that the cinematographer Richard Bagley used an Arriflex and shot in 35mm - and that doesn't tell us much. Bagley had previously shot the documentary The Quiet One, and from On the Bowery I'd say he should pretty much be considered some kind of forgotten genius. He died only a few years after this film was made, and apparently the hardcore alcoholics featured in the film were amazed to see that Bagley drank even more than they did, which may explain why he never did much. Imagine over an hour's worth of the greatest street photography you've ever seen that was somehow shot with a big clunky 35mm motion picture camera on dark streets and in dim bars, and you'll have an idea what this film looks like. In the end, I really can't even imagine how Bagley and the rest of the (very tiny) crew pulled it off.
As to the content, there's no comparable film. Rogosin spent six months hanging out with his subjects to understand their world and earn their trust. He succeeded so well at the second goal that the movie has a mesmerizing fly-on-the-wall, hidden camera feel to it, though a hidden camera was never used. The skid row incarnation of the Bowery itself eventually disappeared when the nearby 'El' tracks were removed just months after filming, so the film serves as an irreplaceable record of a lost bit of history, and of course, lost lives.
To add to the toll: the old man pictured in the accompanying stills, Gorman Hendricks, died of liver failure just weeks after filming. And as for the 'star', a railroad worker and former soldier named Ray Salyer, no one knows what happened to him. Right after On the Bowery was released he was actually offered a $40,000 contract by RKO Pictures. You can see in the image at the very bottom of the post he really looked like a movie star. But he turned down the contract to continue drinking. Then he simply disappeared.
If you ever get the chance to see On the Bowery, jump at it. If you value documentary filmmaking, you should also consider just buying a copy.
Images courtesy of Milestone Films.