Raoul Walsh remains one of the most influential directors of the gangster film genre and he was already practicing his craft back in 1915. This is a film about the then-hot topic of poverty cycles and the redemption of career criminals. Walsh filmed on location to ensure that his picture had the proper amount of grit.
A shocking number of supposedly well informed film critics and historians seem to believe that the adult western, the subtle comedy and the gritty gangster film were all invented after the coming of sound. Nothing could be further from the truth. All three types of movies were not only known in the 1910s, they were quite popular. Today, we are going to be reviewing one of the key gangster pictures of the decade.
Raoul Walsh was a versatile director but many of his most famous films are gangster/gangland pictures. The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra and White Heat are all beloved classics of the tough-talking variety but Walsh’s skill with criminal subjects was present from the very start of his career.
Walsh had been directing since 1913 but Regeneration really told audiences and critics that he had arrived as an important filmmaker. Walsh worked for Fox and much of his early work has decayed (Fox also let Theda Bara’s entire career rot, curse their eyes). We are very fortunate that Regeneration has survived.
Regeneration also fits into the then-popular social film genre. In 1915, the realization that the First World War would change the world forever had not quite sunk in for American audiences and they enjoyed films that assured them that social problems could be solved with a little know-how and a lot of hard work.
So, with all of this in mind, let’s take a look at Regeneration.
The story opens with ten-year-old Owen (John McCann) mourning the death of his mother in a filthy tenement room. He is taken in by the neighbors but it is clear that they just want him as a free servant. There’s no love and lot of abuse. Owen escapes, preferring to sleep on the streets. By the time he reaches his teen years, Owen has realized that he can get what he wants with his fists. While he’s tough, there’s still a good heart under the muscle. One of his first acts of violence is to defend a disabled boy who is being picked on.
By the age of twenty-five Owen (now played by Rockliffe Fellowes) has ascended to the top of the social heap of the slum: he is the leader of his own gang. There’s still an idealist under there if you look hard enough but who is going to bother to look?
We now turn our attention to Ames (Carl Harbaugh), a reforming district attorney who has vowed to sweep out crime, etc. etc. etc. Ames is a frequent caller at the house of Marie Deering (Anna Q. Nilsson, best remembered today as one of the “waxworks” in Sunset Boulevard). Marie is a socialite and generally a very silly young thing. She thinks that gangsters must be terribly fascinating and decides that she simply must see one.
Now taking a group of people in evening clothes slumming to gawk at the poors like they are animals in a zoo seems like a spectacularly bad idea but Ames is a few pecans short of a fruitcake and so he agrees to take everyone on a tour of the slums. They end up on Owen’s turf and it is then that our group of swells realize that they made a mistake. The gangsters and ne’er-do-wells of the local beer hall do not take kindly to being ogled and it looks like they might take their feelings out on Ames. Owen is ready to watch the fun until Marie catches his eye and silently implores him to help. Owen saves Ames and the group of slummers beat a hasty retreat.
On the way out, Marie hears a bespectacled reformer calling for charitable hospitals and schools in the slums. Marie realizes that she has found her calling and immediately begins to dedicate all her time to volunteering at the local mission. She teaches the locals to read, sends aid to hungry mothers and generally makes herself useful. All the while, Owen is watching, unwilling to commit to his own regeneration, though he is extremely attracted to Marie.
The rest of the film concerns the tug-of-war between Owen’s innate goodness and the criminal life that has been his only means of survival for most of his life. Further complicating matters is Skinny (William Sheer), Owen’s second-in-command and a real rotten egg. He represents the opposite pole from Marie; he means to keep Owen in the underworld simply because he can’t stand the idea of goodness. Marie, meanwhile, is starting to return Owen’s affections, which strengthens her resolve to pull him out of the gutter.
While some of the actors overdo it (particularly the cartoonish Sheer, complete with eyepatch), Anna Q. Nilsson brings her usual restraint and grace to the role. It really is a shame that she is only known as one of the Sunset Boulevard waxworks because she was one of the finest leading ladies of the silent era. Before Ingrid Bergman, before Greta Garbo, Nilsson was showing audiences what a Swedish leading lady could do. She always brings dignity and good humor to her roles, infusing her characters with humanity even if the script does not give her much to work with.
As the leading man Rockliffe Fellowes is frustratingly inconsistent. One minute he’s knocking it out of the park with his young Marlon Brando vibe and then the next minute he bulges his eyes and ruins the effect. If it’s any consolation, he was considerably more subtle in 1929 when he played one of the murder suspects in The Charlatan.
Raoul Walsh, meanwhile, is committed to grit and he doesn’t compromise. Regeneration feels authentic and there are no obvious sets to distract from this authenticity. Casual violence, alcoholism and drug abuse are all presented as a reality of the slums. Walsh went on location and made the most of the local color, though I must say his fixation with inserting shots of people with bad teeth and disfiguring ailments starts to feel voyeuristic after a while. “Hey, check out this guy’s huge tumor!” It’s lurid and not in a good way.
However, Walsh does show considerable flair at this point in his career. Moody lighting was all the rage in the 1910s and he employs it liberally, along with bold imagery and the generous use of close-ups. The quality of motion picture direction was all over the place during this period, with some directors looking extremely modern and others still stuck in the “people pay to see the whole actor so show them head to toe” mindset. Walsh is on the cutting edge for 1915 and the result is an extremely watchable picture for modern audiences.
The script follows the conventional pattern for social films during this era but it is quite well-written for its genre. Owen’s slow path to regeneration is one step forward, two steps back but he and Marie remain committed to the struggle. His emotional catharsis occurs when Marie discovers that he has hidden Skinny and an accomplice from the police inside the mission. Ames is present for the revelation and crows that Owen has lost his chance at winning Marie’s love. In fact, Marie is more determined than ever to save him but Owen storms out. However, instead of returning to Skinny and the gang, he goes to the local priest and is reassured that a relapse is not a permanent mark against his character.
This scene is well-acted on all counts (Fellowes manages to minimize his eye bulging) and knits together all the disparate story elements to set the scene for the finale of the picture. We know that Owen has unfinished business with both Skinny and Marie but whether he will embrace peace or violence has yet to be revealed.
And now for a major flaw in the picture. While the film is technically impressive and the acting is generally very good (particularly from Nilsson), the characters failed to engage me on a deep level. I must emphasize that this is not due to the age of the picture as emotional engagement was easily attained by Alice Guy, Maurice Tourneur and Cecil B. DeMille during this year and earlier. While the childhood scenes are genuinely harrowing, the adult cast never quite reaches the same depths except in the emotional climax mentioned above.
(Spoilers for this paragraph) That being said, I do think that the death of Nilsson’s character was handled extremely well. She frivolously entered the slums but then grew to love and respect its inhabitants, however, she never quite realized how dangerous the place was. That realization comes too late (oh, the tragic irony!) when she stumbles into the gangsters’ lair and comes face to face with Skinny. Dying in the crossfire of a gang war is sad but her death is not treated as a punishment for Owen’s sins. It is also not a catalyst for his regeneration as it is clear that his own moral failure in hiding his old cronies has deeply scarred him and sent him on the path to true redemption. Marie’s death is a tragedy but she is not treated like a woman in a refrigerator; she is treated as a fully-formed character who met a heartbreaking end. That’s pretty rare for women in movies today. (“They killed his wife and kidnapped his daughter and now they’re gonna pay!” is the plot for 80% of all modern action movies, shows and video games.) Owen does attempt revenge but he can’t go through with it and Skinny ends up conveniently shot by a supporting character.
Is Regeneration worth seeing? Yes, it’s an important piece of film history and Raoul Walsh fans will want to see his distinct style at this early date. However, there is a detachment in the film that I just could not overcome.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
Regeneration is available on DVD from Flicker Alley. The release features an excellent score from Philip Carli and also includes Young Romance, another 1915 feature that is notable as the only surviving film of Edith Taliaferro. (This disc is identical to the now out-of-print Image release.)