In film history books the year 1915 practically goes hand-in-hand with The Birth of the Nation—not surprising, considering its mega-blockbuster status. But it was also a banner year for many amazingly sophisticated, ground-breaking films, from scandalous dramas like The Cheat to period pieces like The Coward to realistic crime films like Regeneration. The latter was famed director Raoul Walsh’s first feature-length film, and today it’s also considered the first feature-length gangster film. It has those touches of sentiment so common at the time, but also has a surprisingly unflinching portrayal of the grittier side of city life. Somehow, it makes me think of an Edwardian Valentine’s Day postcard plucked gingerly out of a mud puddle.
Walsh, known today for classics like The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and White Heat (1949), was adept at capturing different facets of life because, arguably, he had really lived. As a teen he left home and sailed on a cargo schooner before learning cattle wrangling in Mexico and Texas. He became so talented at roping horses that he helped train them for the U.S. Cavalry. He lived in a frontier mining town in Montana, was employed by an undertaker for a time, and was even taught by a country doctor how to do some basic surgeries. He certainly embodied the restless, adventurous spirit many young Americans had at the time.
Regeneration (also called The Regeneration) was the result of an apprenticeship under D.W. Griffith–for Walsh would end up working for the most influential director in the U.S. After breaking into the industry as a cowboy actor for Westerns, in 1914 he became one of Griffith’s assistant directors and would also play the important role of John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation. After directing a number of shorts he set out to create his first feature, for Fox Films. Based on the play My Mamie Rose depicting life in the rough neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side, it wasn’t going to be your typical melodrama or romance. Motion Picture News reported: “Scenes will be made in Chatham Square, in Chinatown, along the Bowery, and in the famous block of the ‘Three Deuces,’ the most densely crowded tenement in the world.”
The story follows 10-year-old Owen, newly orphaned and living in a miserable tenement. He’s taken in by an abusive couple from across the hall, which is more of a curse than a blessing. As he grows up in these squalid surroundings, he falls in with a rough crowd “where the prizes of existence go to the man who has the most daring in defying the law, and the quickest fist in defending his own rights.” By his mid-twenties, Owen’s become a confident and shrewdly-observant gang leader (and is played by the square-jawed Rockliffe Fellowes, a manly name if there ever was one).
While relaxing at a cheap night club full of sketchy characters, Owen sees Marie Deering, the gentle, sheltered daughter of a wealthy family. Marie had expressed an innocent interest in seeing real gangsters–“They must be awfully interesting people”–and their friend the district attorney took the Deerings to the club. The visit goes awry when the D.A. (predictably) starts getting roughed up by thugs, but Owen sees Marie’s distress and comes to the D.A.’s rescue.
Both Owen and Marie then experience their own awakenings. Owen finds himself drawn to the lovely young woman, which plants the first seeds of a desire to change his lifestyle. Marie’s brief visit to the poverty-stricken neighborhood leaves a deep impression on her and she resolves to dedicate herself to charity. She begins working in a settlement house, a type of reform institution that provided welfare and education and encouraged different classes to work together. Her patient, dedicated work brings her “true happiness,” and Owen finds himself wanting to become worthy of her love.
Regeneration is the kind of early film that you’d like to show a friend and then have them guess what year it was made. Chances are they’d pick a date several years past 1915. Cinema wasted no time evolving, and its most talented directors seemed to have an intuitive grasp of the medium. Walsh uses several effective camera pans, such as one surprisingly modern-looking shot where the moving camera zooms in on a young Owen’s face. He also had a keen eye for adding meaningful details like the religious picture on the wall of young Owen’s flat, pointing to having good moral instruction from his mother and a hint of why he can be redeemed in the future.
The scenes depicting poverty might be the grittiest I’ve seen in a film of this vintage, especially the tenement scenes in the beginning. The plaster walls are cracked and water stained, the floors are filthy, occupants are dressed in threadbare rags–today such a building would be condemned in a shot. When the neighbor lady fetches Owen she swipes his late mother’s broom, apparently not being able to afford one herself. Imagine being a barefoot child having to walk those dank, dirty hallways everyday.
Walsh’s desire for authenticity famously extended to the film’s extras, livened up by various down-and-out New York locals eager to receive a day’s pay. Gangsters were played by real gangsters from the Bowery and Hell’s Kitchen, and some of the women were prostitutes. Several local characters are shown in brief shots, such as a large-bellied store owner and an elderly man with a deformed nose.
The underworld scenes clash with the shots of the Deerings in their genteel home, with their elegant dinner table and impeccable clothes, setting up the viewer for the uncomfortable nightclub scenes to follow. I did like how Walsh showed the gentlemanly D.A. retaining his dignity as best he could–this, too, was a kind of realism.
But alongside the realism, there’s also poetry. Children and kittens are recurring symbols of purity and goodness, showing glimmers of hope even in the squalid tenements. An early blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of a tenement hallway shows one small boy standing by a window, his face lit by a ray of sunlight. We fully understand a drunk’s malevolent nature when he’s shown almost falling on a baby playing on a staircase. Walsh must’ve had a soft spot for children, for during the sequence showing a tragic boat sinking the film decides to reassure us: “All the kiddies were saved.”
The symbolism is also prophetic in the scene introducing Marie, who’s shown being awakened by a dog barking at a cat hiding behind some window bars. In an intense climactic sequence (using the type of cross-cutting Walsh certainly observed from Griffith), Marie’s threatened with assault by a gangster and takes refuge in a closet, much like Lucy would several years later in Broken Blossoms. (Viewers might also be reminded of The Shining in the shot where Owen breaks down a door.)
Regeneration triumphed at the box office and had much critical acclaim, especially in regards to its real-world settings. Motion Picture News wrote one of the many approving reviews: “Life of the lower East Side is depicted with a weird mixture of realism and the choicest humor. There are any number of laughs in the picture, but through it all runs the underlying touch of pathos, so elusive to the picture director.”
A milestone gangster film, Regeneration survives in excellent quality (save a few scenes with nitrate rot) and gives us a detailed look at the culture of neighborhoods long changed, in times long gone by, from its dreary tenements to its lively working-class nightclubs. It’s more of a redemption story than your usual straightforward gangster flick, including both the grittier side of life and a bit of sentiment and hope. And in that sense, I’d say Walsh was being truly fearless.
Extra tidbit: The excursion on the paddleboat was based on the real life General Slocum disaster of 1904. While it adds little to the plot, maybe Walsh felt some excitement was needed. It does show Owen in a good light, too. While filming the scene, some spectators on shore grew alarmed and thought a real tragedy was taking place.
Splendid article! 😀 “Somehow, it makes me think of an Edwardian Valentine’s Day postcard plucked gingerly out of a mud puddle.” That’s a brilliant analogy.
Good points about Walsh’s directing genius and attention to telling detail. You know the one image that comes to mind first whenever I think of this film? That chair with half a back in the young Owen scene. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s like a symbol of Owen’s life in some way?
On the paddleboat scene, I remember thinking the first time I saw the film that, though certainly dramatic, it felt somewhat out of place.
If you can say without venturing into spoiler territory, what did you think of the (in some ways rather strange) ending scene?
So many meaningful details in this film. The chair’s in a prominent spot, it could symbolize Owen’s loss of his mother, or having to find a way to fill that emptiness in his life, that sort of thing perhaps? You never know, great directors were aware of every detail onscreen.
The scene toward the very end, using the double exposure effect? Probably the most Edwardian moment of the whole film. Not that I don’t like scenes like that!
Yes, but I guess it was primarily the slightly earlier scene with the double exposure of the verse I was thinking of—a very mystical moment. Does it physically exist or is it only a virtual illustration of her words? The fact that she gestures toward it might indicate the former (?) And by the way, that cut to the closeup of the flowers immediately after—just brilliant.
This is my favorite film from 1915. So much of the technique feels striking and modern. It amuses me how much grimier 1910s movies could be compared to what Hollywood put out in the following decade.
Very true, they didn’t show the grime, dirty floors and rags to quite the extent the silent era did. I’m guessing the excitement of realism (as opposed to what you could do on the stage) was a factor, as well as adding authenticity and dramatic punch to a story.