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People who think that all silents are sticky with Victorian melodrama will be surprised by the sustained pace, the bracing realism, and the soft-pedaling of the sentimental elements of this startlingly fresh film. The 28-year old Raoul Walsh had already written and produced a dozen films when he directed this. Although the narrative rambles a bit, Walsh's dynamic use of film grammar - closeups, dollies in and out, cross-cutting between scenes, sharp editing - makes REGENERATION look more modern than many silent films made ten years later. Walsh shows his creativity when he uses the circling movements of dancers to foreshadow public panic in an impressively staged sequence of a fire [although it has little plot function]. Titles are used sparingly throughout, and even they are terse and direct. The performances are also surprisingly natural, from square-jawed Rockcliffe Fellowes [who looks something like Robert Stack] to Anna Q. Nilsson, who gives a delicate, sympathetic performance as the good girl/settlement worker. Within the outline of a traditional melodrama, Walsh forthrightly portrays the underside of contemporary society, keeps the sentiment light, and provides an ending that is not without surprises either.
Rather than repeat what others have written, I'd like to comment on how
this film managed to get into circulation.
The only known print of the film was found in the basement of a building in Montana in 1976. Preserved (and not too soon given the deterioration seen in the middle of the film), it was part of a series of films shown during the New York Film Festival representing titles which had recently (1978) been saved. I remember seeing all of them; they included Lillom (recently issued on DVD in the Murnau/Borzage box and worth seeing), and The Letter (with Jeanne Eagles, which blew everyone away).
It is a miracle that films still turn up in such a manner even this late in the game. Most films from this time period have long ago turned into flammable dust (they started to deteriorate as early as the thirties), and it is particularly fortunate that "Regeneration" is now among the living. Despite its crudities, it feels like a documentary of the seedier elements of New York, and it still works its magic; it has matured very well. Given that we can see how the streets of New York really looked almost 100 years ago, the film may play better than it did back then. Most of the people in this film are not actors, they are real people, and that is what we reacted to when we saw this back in the seventies.
Additionally, the film is a real window into the transitional period when the one-reeler had turned into a longer, more ambitious feature. As a first feature for Walsh, this film is really extraordinary when we consider that the tools of film-making were still crude (the comments on the editing of the film are correct. However, the abruptness plays better on the big screen). Even more, the film also reminds us that the numerous features made between 1914 and 1920 included some real gems that are gone forever, and cannot be re-evaluated. How many really good actors and directors are known in name only because their work has disappeared?
I consider this one of the finest examples of an early silent feature, and one of the landmark films of the silent era. It is an illustration of how the director of that time found his or her way, made mistakes and had chances to improve. It shows how filmmakers were taking the vocabulary used by Griffith and some European filmmakers to expand the techniques of storytelling to hold an audience's interest for an hour's worth of entertainment.
A must-see if you are interested in silent films.
Raoul Walsh had just come off _The Birth of a Nation_ both as one of
Griffith's assistant directors and as an actor (most prominently as John
Wilkes Booth), when he made this film. In his autobiography, Walsh credits
Griffith with "teaching" him not only about much of the art of fiction
filmmaking, but also about production management technics that aided him in
taking full advantage of many of New York City's most pictorial exterior
The locations play an important role in adding to the naturalism of an otherwise highly melodramatic plot with the high society young woman turned heroine social worker (much overplayed by a major star of the 1910s, Anna Q Nilsson) and the regeneration of the one-time Lower Manhatan gang leader.
The wonder of this film is the performance of the male "star", Rockliffe Fellowes, who played in over a dozen nearly unremembered films until he died in 1950. His performance is so subtly varied and electrically alive that one is reminded of Brando in his early 1950s films. An interesting sidenote about his performance: The movieola film editing machine -- that magnified the small 35mm frame to about 4 inches by 6 inches as it ran the film stock through the viewer at the proper projection speed -- was not invented until much later. In 1915, editors had to hold the footage up to the light to see each frame and/or use a magnifying glass; but they could not also run the film at speed at the same time. Hence, many of the subtlest nuances that cross the hero's face could not be clearly seen and judged in editing: _Regeneration's_ editor often cuts away before the movement has settled, or cuts into a close or medium shot of the hero after the nuance has already begun.
Watching the film on a large screen today, one is aware how powerful present-day editing technics are at capturing all such movements in the hands of a skilled editor. In _Regeneration_ there is a distinct feeling of rough editing at the moments we leave or cut to the hero at the "wrong" instant. By the way, the original title was NOT _The Regeneration_, but _Regeneration_ alone. From which we can surmise that Walsh was looking to create a work with universal meaning.
In cinema, 1915 is best known as the year of DW Griffith's epic Birth
of a Nation. While I won't play down the talents and achievements of
Griffith, his debut feature was merely a culmination of his prior
achievements, a milestone in cinema culture but adding nothing to
cinematic language. Regeneration however, a largely overlooked film
(although it has its champions), was perhaps truly the most important
picture of that year.
Raoul Walsh, previously an assistant to Griffith, and already having a handful of short features to his name, made his full-length debut with this romantic gangster fable. The picture opens fairly conventionally for the time, Walsh displaying an incredibly firm grasp of film form for such a young director. The opening shot establishes the mood - the recently bereaved protagonist sitting alone in a bare room, a curtain billowing forlornly behind him, after which we cut away to the hearse bearing his mother in the street outside. However, we then see the lad go to the window and look down. In the very next shot, the camera is looking down at the hearse, exactly as he would see it. Bam! The point-of-view shot is born.
The point-of-view shot is not merely a convenient alternative angle for storytelling. It places the audience into the position of the character. It's something unique to cinema you can't recreate that in the theatre. The only real equivalent is in novels, when the narrative is told from a character's perspective. Walsh here gives cinema that ability, and moves the audience from the position of spectator to that of participant. It's particularly apt too for Regeneration, as it was adapted from an autobiography. Walsh remains consistent to the story's roots by primarily showing the points of view of the protagonist, Owen.
Another great thing about Regeneration is its use of dolly shots that is, moving the camera in or out, towards or away from the action. This wasn't an innovation as such, the dolly having been invented by Giovanni Pastrone for his 1914 epic Cabiria, but the dolly shots in that picture are largely uninspired, at best creating smooth transitions between different length shots. Walsh however really explores the possibilities of the technique. First he uses it to home in on the young Owen in the scene where his adoptive parents argue over the dinner table. Again this is a move which draws us into the character's world, as if we are being pulled forward and forced to look. Much later, in the scene where Anna Q. Nilsson bursts into the gangster's den, the camera itself rushes forward, reaching the centre of the shot at the same pace she does. In effect, the camera movement mimics hers and gives the audience a little taste of her sense of urgency.
Needless to say, there is a lot more to Regeneration than these pioneering camera techniques. Walsh's handling of the dynamic moments is particularly adept, with a climactic ride-to-the-rescue worthy of Griffith, and some particularly realistic fight scenes. But he was just as capable of great tenderness as he was of great action, and the picture is shot through with the sense of melancholy romanticism that is typical of Walsh. And let's not forget the fine naturalistic acting on display, although stars Rockliffe Fellowes and Anna Q. Nilsson would soon fade into obscurity.
By way of a disclaimer, I should point out that Regeneration may not literally be the first motion picture to use point-of-view shots. There was, after all, a wealth of experimentation in the early days of cinema, and many films are obscure or lost. It is shortly after this though that the technique seems to enter mainstream usage. For example, Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat, made several months after Regeneration, features point-of-view shots, whereas DeMille's Carmen, made about the same time as Regeneration, does not. Tag Gallagher, in his superb essay on Walsh for Senses of Cinema, makes similar claims. Whatever the case, Walsh certainly excelled in a new kind of cinema, one which placed the audience inside the story, and this principle would shape much of Walsh's work throughout his fifty-year career.
Raoul Walsh, aged 28, has already done it all : he's been a Cow-boy, an
actor, and Griffith's assistant for BIRTH OF A NATION, in witch he also
played Lincoln's murderer. That's certainly why his very first movies,
as this "Regeneration", are already so mastered and so mature. The
story of the movie is quite simple : it tells us the life of a gang
leader : Owen, from his unhappy childhood to his "regeneration", thanks
to Mary, a young lady, who believed in his kindness, and allows him a
second chance. But beyond this classical story, this movie is both a
brilliant example of Griffith's omnipotent influence on early American
cinema and also a totally original and new form of cinema, for it
invents the codes of the Gangster's movie and of the "Film Noir" for
the years to come.
As in a Griffith's feature, the ideas of the movie are developed thanks to an original use of the editing. For instance, at the beginning of the movie, Walsh superposes a frame of Owen adult, drinking a beer, with one of the same character as a child, eating an ice cream in the exact same position. This editing has of course a narrative function it reminds us that Owen is the same character of the beginning of the movie, only few years after but it also presents him, whereas he could appears as a dangerous criminal, as the same innocent victim that he was younger. This king of narrative and yet symbolist use of the editing is both a homage to Griffith and an introduction to Walsh'own style and thematic.
Griffith's influence is also very strong in the movie's will to be spectacular. When Walsh wants to show how Owen tries to change in the contact of Mary, he creates for instance a gigantic fire on a boat, where Owen risks his life saving children. Of course, we're not really in the bigger than life world of INTOLERANCE or of BIRTH OF A NATION, but still, it's the same spectacular idea of the cinema that Walsh and Griffith share. In 1915, Raoul Walsh is certainly still in the shadow of Griffith, but "Regeneration" is a lot more than a copy of Griffith's cinema, and can be fully appreciates without its relation to its style.
The movie is particularly realistic and has nothing to see with Griffith traditional romanticism. It's the adaptation of an ex-criminal autobiography, and Walsh is really good in showing sordid and realistic details, especially in the description of Owen's terrible childhood. The movie is surprisingly strong, violent and realistic for its age. But Walsh also adds to this realistically point of view, a sort or mythification of his Gangster's character, who almost become an icon, witch we'll find again in the all American Cinema to come, from Hawks 's SCARFACE, to Scorsese's movies. Fiction is already torn between realism and myth, and a large part of Walsh's Cinema will develops this thematic, as in his absolute masterpiece : THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON.
The realism of the movie even goes with the myth, for it's mostly in the realistically description of a gangster's everyday life that the "Film Noir" will takes its future codes. Owen and his gang spend most of their time doing nothing : they walk on the docks, in the streets or drinks in clubs, but we almost never see them in action. Or when we do, we see them doing good things, for action time is in the movie regeneration time. Morality is in Walsh'Cinema a rhythm question. Inaction and immobility stuck to the Gangster's life, whereas action and movements is associated to honesty and to the opportunity to grab a good life.
That's how « Regeneration » always seems to be torn between external (Griffith/Walsh) and internal (realism/myth) conflicts, that are the extension of Owen's inner fights between a honest's life and a gangster's one, between the soft world of Mary, and the harsh and masculine one of the Gang. The end of the movie literally destroys this psychological conflict, when the two characters that symbolized each side both died. After having destroyed the two conflicted sides of his personality, Owen's life can really begins, as well as Walsh's cinema.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film has some absolutely amazing elements, though to my mind the story, editing and all the acting could be discarded.
What startled me was the realism. This was when the film industry was still based in New York, and that city becomes the star. Real street scenes are used, as well as (presumably) many of the extras. When there's a fight, it seems pretty real. When you have some toughs, they're tough and not just acting tough.
There's a shot early in the story where the star as a teenager has a fight. One of the spectators has a nose tumor. Its just the sort of thing you'd see in a bad area. These details make it real.
The camera is stationary except for very few moments. As I say, the editing is clumsy, but there is some terrific irising and two very effective superpositions. Those two elements, the effective use of the city and the camera, make this worth watching.
The story is trite in most respects, except the ending, which is intelligent. He broke the rules of fate, and so his girl dies. Except for the theatrical moaning, the end is gritty, like the streets.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
By the standards of its time, this is a better than average film, and it is
still watchable, even though the social and cinematic conventions of 1915
may make it rather quaint to some viewers. Still, the theme about a good
woman regenerating a rascal is not unusual today, and here it is told with
coherence and simplicity.
One may find the acting style quaint, too, but some of the worst excesses of the silent days are avoided for the most part. Perhaps we can thank young Raoul for that. The editing is choppy, but that may be due to losses over the years, and it may vary depending on the print or tape translation one sees.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Monday, October 25, 7pm, The Paramount, Seattle
"She made of my life a changed thing and never can it be the same again!"
An orphan (Rockcliffe Fellowes) grows up on streets of New York's Lower East Side and becomes the leader of a violent criminal gang. A social worker (Anna Q. Nillsson) turns his head and saves him from his immoral ways, but the past won't let him go.
A glowing tribute to the Settlement House Movement, Regeneration is based on My Mamie Rose, the autobiography of Bowery Boy Owen Kildare. While D. W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) is generally considered the dawn of the gangster film genre, Regeneration is the first of the feature era. Director Raoul Walsh firmly established the start of his half-century career with this influential film, produced by Fox Film Corporation in their first year. Moonlighting Kalem Studios star Nillsson and newcomer Fellowes interact with touching realism as the kind-hearted socialite and the Fools Highway thug in this balanced tale of love, disaster and redemption.
** (out of 4)
First film directed by the legendary Raoul Walsh after working on The Birth of a Nation is probably best known for being one of the first "gangster" pictures as well as being one of the first films to actually shoot on the streets of Hell's Kitchen. Owen is orphaned at the age of ten and taken in by his abusive neighbors and by the time he's an adult (Rockliffe Fellows) he's a "gangster" living on the streets, not working and drinking too much but a social worker decides to try and changed his ways. The term gangster here isn't like the gangster films we're accustomed to but instead it means poor folks hanging out on the streets. The historical importance of this film can't be argued and it clearly influenced some of Scorsese's films as he talked about in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese but at the end of the day there's really very little going on in this thing. The use of real locations and real actors is a nice touch but the story drags along and the editing, which Walsh is clearly trying to copy Griffith, is a mess. The 70-minute running time feels a bit long as well. From a historic standpoint this is worth viewing once but I doubt I'd go back for a second viewing. The highlight of the film is one scene where people are partying on a boat, which catches fire and they must try to make an escape. This here is certainly one of the great scenes of the silent era.
I became obsessed with this movie two years ago after checking it out of our great NYC library. I rave about it to my friends. To think that this full-length feature was made in l915 is astounding. Maybe it's because of its amazing star, Rockliffe Fellowes, who looks so much like Marlon Brando you'll be double-takes. That he never became a legendary star is a real tragedy but when you think of it, almost none of the film actors from that era survived into the 20s except for Mary Pickford and a few comedians. Rockcliffe is so natural, as is his co-star, the beautiful Anna Q. Nillsen, you have to remind yourself that they were acting. This movie should be studied in film courses to show today's younger movie buffs what dynamic work was being done back int he "dinosaur" age of films. And maybe, like myself, they'll never forget the fantastic Rockliffe Fellowes. This guy "coulda been a contendah!"
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