Regeneration (1915)

Film Review

REGENERATION

Release Date: 13 September 1915

Studio: Fox Film Corporation

Director: Raoul Walsh

Stars: Rockcliffe Fellowes, Anna Q. Nilsson, John McCann, Harry McCoy, William Skeer, James Marcus, Maggie Weston, Carl Harbaugh

Writers: Raoul Walsh and Carl Harbough; adapted from book and play, My Mamie Rose (1903), by Owen Kildare

Cinematographer: Georges Benoit

Synopsis

Owen Weston (McCann), 10 yrs old, is orphaned by the death of his mother. The neighbors, Jim (Marcus) and Maggie (Weston) McCoy take him. Owen is miserable in the filthy Weston apartment. They fight frequently, Jim gets drunk, both knock Owen about. Owen runs away and lives on his own. By 17 yrs old, Owen (McCoy) has become a neighborhood tough. He has a handicapped friend, Hughy, who Owen defends from a neighborhood bully. By 25 years old, Owen (Fellowes) has become a hardened leader of the local gang.

District Attorney Ames (Harbaugh) has a genteel dinner at the home of Marie Deering (Nilsson) and her wealthy acquaintances. Ames brings a group of women, including Marie, to a disreputable dance hall to observe the life of the gangsters he intends to put in jail. Some of the rough men start to push Ames around. Owen stops them, attracting the attention of Marie.

Her visit to the lower class neighborhood stimulates Marie to join a Settlement House. She works for the betterment of the local people. Many of the men of the neighborhood sit around the reading room pretending to read, in order to talk with the pretty young worker. Hughy (uncredited), Owen’s friend, assists in her work.

One of the House’s activities is a yearly outing; they organize a picnic cruise. The local gang members go along. One of the gangsters throws a match onto a coil of rope, and a fire breaks out. The picnickers flee the burning ship. Many men jump into the water. Rescue crews come rapidly, and all the children are saved, but some of the adults are killed.

Marie is stressed by the conditions endured by the women and children in the neighborhood. Mr and Mrs O’Flaherty fight frequently. During one fight, a frightened Mrs O’Flaherty flees her drunken husband and leaves her baby behind. Marie is concerned for the safety of the child; Hughy suggests that Owen can get the baby. They persuade Owen to secure the child. He punches the belligerent father and takes the baby. He is delighted by the child as he carries him to his mother.

His better nature taking over, Owen leaves the gang and becomes the pupil of Marie who teaches him to read and write. They are attracted to each other, and Owen brings her flowers. D.A . Ames tries to induce Marie to give up her work, but she refuses. Ames tells Owen that he will never change and cannot expect to have Marie. One afternoon, Skinny, the new leader of the gang, stabs a policeman and flees into the Settlement House. Owen, who owes Skinny a favor, hides him. Skinny is discovered, and the settlement workers think that Owen has fallen into his old ways.

Owen sends Skinny a message via Hughy, saying they are even and telling him to stay away. Skinny chokes Hughy and throws him, senseless, under the stairs. Marie comes to the gang’s hangout looking for Owen. Skinny lures her upstairs and attacks her. Owen comes after Marie and is fighting the gang when Hughy arrives with the police and a general melee erupts. Owen rushes upstairs to find Marie who is hiding in a closet. Owen and Skinny fight. Skinny shoots at Owen and wounds Marie.

Owen carries Marie to the Settlement House. With her dying breath, she tells him that vengeance belongs to God. Owen obeys her wishes. In the street, Hughy, who has not made any vows, shots the fleeing Skinny.

Later, Owen and Hughy stand by Marie’s grave. Owen says that he owes his regeneration to her, his Mamie Rose.

Discussion

This early silent feature is one of the best films of its time. The screenplay is realistic and cohesive and lacks the improbable, absurdly overblown events that were often included in the plot lines of contemporary films. Melodramatic incidents are present, but these events are appropriate to the story, interesting to the audience, and do not extend beyond the limits of the possible. The acting is reasonably naturalistic, gestures and facial expressions are mostly restrained, in comparison to much of the film acting at the time. The film, well received by critics and audiences, had notable success.

The ending with the death of the heroine comes from the original story. This cold ending would probably have been altered in a film made at a later date. Melancholic endings were more common in the teens than in the twenties, a Hollywood film-making era dominated by romanticism.

The film is based on a play, Regeneration (1908), adapted by playwright Owen Kildare (1864-1911) from his autobiographical novel, My Mamie Rose (1903). Kildare, born in a New York tenement and orphaned at an early age, was a newspaper boy at 7yrs and a member of a street gang as a teenager. Illiterate at age 30, he met a teacher, Marie Rose Deering, who tutored him. She died, of natural causes, shortly before their marriage. The play and the film substituted and/or added melodramatic incidents to the actual, if somewhat more prosaic, events of Kildare’s life story.

The social organization of gangsters in New York City during the late 19th century and the first two decades of the twentieth century differed significantly from the more familiar, large organizations of gangsters typical of the twenties and thirties. Prohibition did not exist before 1919 and neither did the class of gangster associated with the prohibition era. The gangsters of Regeneration represent the pre-prohibition types. Arrival of European immigrants from 1870-1920 ushered in a period of gang activity in the slums where the immigrants lived. Crime resulted from the crowding of people in filthy tenements. The city lacked viable social services and the NYCPD was not effective in maintaining order. Gangs brought disorder and terror to the streets. The gangs were usually organized into small specialized groups that narrowly identified with particular neighborhoods and carried on territorial disputes between themselves. Large organized gangs did not exist. A gangster fighting with other gangsters over local rights, as seen in the film, was typical of the era.

The spectacular fire on the pleasure cruise was based on an actual 1904 incident in the East River of New York City. A church group chartered a side-wheel passenger steamboat, Gen’l Slocum, for a picnic cruise. The ship caught fire, possibly from oily rags ignited by a discarded cigarette, and sank. Of the more than 1300 passengers, composed mostly of women and children, an estimated 1000 were killed. The victims died on board from fire and smoke or jumped overboard and drowned. The bulky clothing worn at the time impeded even those who knew how to swim. Owen Kildare was not involved in this incident, but it makes an exciting addition to the film.

Raoul Walsh, a film director for 50 years, started his career in the earliest period of feature films. After nearly 20 years directing silent films, he made a successful transition to sound and continued his career for another 30 years. He retired in 1964. Walsh concentrated on action and adventure films that featured lusty, fighting men. Not a stylist, his interest was in strong stories, virile actors, and faced-paced action.

Walsh came to films through his interest in western cattle work, including riding and roping. As a young man he had been on a trail drive from Mexico to Texas. He broke horses for the U. S. Cavalry. In San Antonio, Texas he handled a horse during a stage performance of The Clansman (1905). He pointed to this experience as a determining factor in his career choice. By 1912, he was enacting cowboys in one-reel films and was hired by famed director D.W. Griffith as an actor and horse wrangler. During the filming of The Birth of a Nation (1915), Griffith’s version of The Clansman, Griffith promoted Walsh to assistant director. Walsh also had an uncredited role in the film, he played John Wilkes Booth.

In 1915, producer William Fox hired Walsh for Fox Studios and, although Walsh had never directed a feature on his own, Fox assigned him to direct Regeneration. Writing in Variety, the reviewer of Regeneration praised the film and wrote that after viewing the completed film, William Fox must have realized that he had assigned the right man, for Walsh had turned out a feature that would make a lot of money for the studio.

References

1000 Lives May Be Lost in Burning of the Excursion Boat General Slocum. The New York Times. June 16, 1904

Tales of Terror Told By Survivors: Eye-Witness Stories of Swift and Awful Panic. The New York Times. June 16, 1904

Regeneration. by Fred. Variety Film Review. September 24, 1915

Raoul Walsh, 93, Dead; Early Director of Movies. by Peter B Flint. The New York Times. January 3, 1981

History of Street Gangs in the United States. by Jas. C. Howell and John P. Moore. Bureau of Justice Assistance, United States, Department of Justice. May 2010

Read our articles about these Raoul Walsh films: The Thief of Bagdad (1924), a silent adventure fantasy starring Douglas Fairbanks and Battle Cry (1955), a war film featuring the type of vigorous action for which Walsh is known.