Raoul Walsh’s “Regeneration”

R: R.(= Raoul) A. Walsh. B: Owen Frawley Kildare (book), Carl Harbaugh & Raoul Walsh (screenplay). K: Georges Benoît. D: Rockliffe Fellowes, Anna Q. Nilsson, Carl Harbaugh, James A. Marcus, William Sheer. P: Fox Film Corporation. USA 1915
Print: Museum of Modern Arts / Lobster

“Urban criminals have been part of cinema at least since The Bold Bank Robbery and Capture of the ‘Yegg’ Bank Robbers – both follow-ups to Edwin S. Porter’s smash hit The Great Train Robbery. Many of the tropes now familiar to the genre were established when D.W. Griffith made The Musketeers of Pig Alley. Raoul Walsh, who learned filmmaking from working for Griffith, returned to the theme for his first feature, Regeneration, and in doing so quite probably made the first feature-length gangster movie. The similarities between Musketeers and Regeneration are pronounced – both involve the redemption of tough guys who’ve grown up in a harsh environment, and both emphasize the human side of the underworld, drawing on the audience’s desire to sympathize with the criminal.

This movie may confuse modern fans, however, because rather than spending the bulk of its length depicting its protagonist’s criminal career, it chooses to focus on his efforts to rehabilitate himself (his ‘regeneration’). This can partly be explained by the source material, a book called ‘My Mamie Rose’, by Owen Frawley Kildare. This book is a fairly typical ‘conversion narrative’ from the point of view of a former hoodlum gone straight, who wanted to tell of ‘the miracle that transformed me’. Unlike most such narratives, it isn’t Jesus Christ or a particular church that Kildare credits with his salvation, but the love of a woman named Marie Deering. The real Marie Deering died of pneumonia in 1903, the same year Kildare wrote his autobiography. It was popular, especially among reform-minded progressives, who held Kildare up as an example of the basic decency inside of every criminal, and gave rise to a stage version by 1908. In 1915, William Fox, a successful Nickelodeon entrepreneur who was breaking into movie production (…), bought the movie rights and handed the direction to Raoul Walsh.”
Century Film Project

“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 (…). 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. (…)

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. (…)

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. (…) 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.”
Fritzi Kramer
Movies Silently

>>> The Great Train Robbery: Edwin S. Porter: Blockbuster for Edison
>>> The Musketeers of Pig Alley: Griffith 02: Close-up
>>> The Bold Bank Robbery and more: Al J. Jennings, the Robber