|John McCann as Owen aged 10. From Projectorhead.in|
With e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: John Sweeney at Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), Pordenone, 5 Oct 2014
Richard Koszarski (GCM catalogue and website): "In his 1974 autobiography, Each Man in His Time, Raoul Walsh devoted seven full pages to his first feature picture, Regeneration. His account is quite flavorful and filled with classic Walshian anecdotes, some of which may even be true. Walsh was filling in a great historical blank spot here; Regeneration hadn’t been seen by anyone in decades, and unlike some lost masterwork of Griffith or Tourneur, it had no status at all in the developing narrative of film history. No one was looking for it, and no one was likely to challenge him on anything he might say about it. Then one day in 1976, when Walsh’s memoir was still in bookstores, a meter reader in Missoula, Montana, discovered a cellarful of nitrate in a building scheduled for demolition. The cache was acquired by David Shepard, who not only identified one of the titles as Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration, but recognized its significance. Shepard copied the already decomposing print onto 16 mm negative and donated the original nitrate to the Museum of Modern Art, which produced its own 35 mm preservation negative that same year."
"Publicity surrounding Walsh’s arrival at Fox in 1915 made much of the director’s “years of Griffith experience.” In fact, the few films he had worked on for Griffith were all he had to offer in the way of credentials, but they were enough to win him a remarkable possessory credit. Years before Frank Capra, Regeneration begins with a dramatic “name above-the-title” announcement: “William Fox Presents R.A. Walsh’s Drama Regeneration.”"
"Walsh’s film (for which he and his half-brother, Carl Harbaugh, took screenplay credit) is based on the autobiographical legend of Owen Frawley Kildare, which first appeared in book form in 1903 as My Mamie Rose: The Story of My Regeneration. An enormous success, it established Kildare as a “famous and exemplary instance of Progressive-Era self-transcendence,” as Tony Tracy wrote in Film History in 2011. Working with Walter Hackett, Kildare later adapted his story to the stage as The Regeneration, with Arnold Daly playing the lead on Broadway in 1908. (Tracy not only describes each incarnation of the Kildare story, but suggests that the Irish immigrant saga offered by Kildare is so highly fictionalized that it might be better understood as ethnic impersonator autobiography.) Ironically, Kildare was unable to manage his brief moment of fame, and after failing to repeat his initial literary success suffered a rapid physical and emotional decline, dying at the Manhattan State Hospital for the Insane on Ward’s Island in February 1911. This sad ending would provide the conclusion to August Blom’s unauthorized version of the Kildare story, released later that year by Nordisk as Det mørke Punkt."
"No earlier version of Kildare’s story contained anything much in the way of spectacle, and spectacle is what a Griffith man would have been expected to provide. So into the middle of this adaptation someone at Fox decided to incorporate an evocation of the worst civic disaster to strike New York in the 20th century: the burning of the excursion vessel General Slocum. On June 15, 1904, parishioners from a Lower East Side church had chartered the Slocum for a picnic cruise up the East River and then out to Long Island. They did not get far before a fire (said to have been caused by a discarded cigarette) raced through the ship, killing 1,021 people."
"Fox turned the filming of these scenes into a well-organized media spectacle, inviting “a large number of metropolitan newspaper men” to cover the burning of the ship (with yellow smoke pots) and the rescue of its passengers from the Hudson River. Much of this footage was shot near Nyack, but the New York Sun reported that the fire scenes were filmed closer to New York, off Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx. Local residents called out police and fire rescue boats, fearing a repeat not only of the Slocum disaster, but also of the sinking of another picnic excursion boat, the Eastland, which had turned over at its pier in Chicago only a few weeks earlier, killing another 844 passengers. Scenes featuring “thirty professional diving girls who were to dive from the uppermost decks” appear to have been shot later near the yacht club at Glen Island, just north of the city on Long Island Sound. Critics and audiences were impressed with the scene, but few had any illusions regarding its relevance to the plot. Peter Milne, while praising the sequence as “excellent… melodrama,” also complained that “the ship is burned for no definite reason whatsoever.”"
"Reporters covering the action seemed surprised when the director ordered retakes of a fight over life preservers. “I want to see more men helping women, more life preservers in the air, more smoke and more excitement,” he ordered. As extras floated in the water, “dodging burning bits of wood and waste,” Walsh was said to have shouted, “Don’t laugh. Remember this is serious; you’re all dying and you’re all excited.”"
"Fox press agents told reporters that the fire in the film is deliberately set by Skinny after a fight between gangs, which is not what we see in the surviving print. Some accounts describe other missing material, including scenes of “Chinatown by night and day” featuring “Tom Lee, the Mayor of Chinatown” and “Rose Livingston, the Angel of Chinatown.” The Chinatown material may have been deleted on the film’s reissue in January 1919 (“care has been taken to eliminate everything interfering with fast, snappy, sustained action,” Moving Picture World reported), may have been lost to decomposition, or may never have been included in the first place. Edge code numbering on the surviving print shows that the stock was manufactured in 1918, consistent with the reissue date."
"In addition to Chinatown, press accounts also referred to scenes of the Lower East Side, Chatham Square, and especially the Bowery. Except for an episode showing a teenaged Owen working the East Side docks south of the Williamsburg Bridge, none of these locations can be verified. It would have been especially difficult to film on the Bowery in 1915, because the entire street was heavily shaded by a hulking elevated train line. Generic tenement scenes could more easily have been shot in Hell’s Kitchen, on the West Side, where several studios were located and the streets were wider, affording better light for photography."
"So when Variety noted that “Fox will have photographed reproductions of Callahan’s famous old Bowery saloon… Chicory Hall [sic], and other East Side reminders,” it meant that these locations had been reproduced in a studio, not photographed on location documentary-style. “Chickory Hall,” Owen’s gangster den, is clearly a set, as is the generic “Grogan’s,” built on a roofless open-air stage, probably at one of Fox’s studios in Fort Lee. Walsh’s memory of the open-air Ford’s Theatre set in The Birth of a Nation, built for the Lincoln assassination sequence in which he appeared as John Wilkes Booth, seems very strong here."
"One thing Walsh did not remember very clearly in 1974 was the ending of Regeneration – an account which might have gone unchallenged but for the discovery of the Missoula print two years
later. According to Walsh, the film ended with the camera moving in on a harrowing close-up of the grieving heroine, her face wet with tears after “mobsters hunted down and killed [her] reformed lover after he abandoned the rackets.” The scene is indeed tremendously effective, and works perfectly at the conclusion of one of Walsh’s greatest films – The Roaring Twenties." – Richard Koszarski
AA: Revisited the debut feature film of Raoul Walsh, already displaying an authoritative approach as a director.
As a gangster film Regeneration belongs to the "road to Hollywood" period, explored in Pordenone in the seminal 1988 festival, displaying different approaches and styles before the standardization of the studio system, the star system and the genre system.
The classic Hollywood gangster films glamorized crime, and they still do, albeit unconsciously. Regeneration tells an anti-glamorous version about gangs. Its basis is in realism, even naturalism. There is an almost documentary passion in recording in vivid detail the life of the New York slums at the turn of the century. The abandoned children, the laundrywoman at work, the drunken husband in rags, the uncared babies at the staircase, the life on the streets, the ice cube business, the construction sites, the saloon frequented by the underworld, the singing waiters, the super obese man, the guy with the giant nose, the dreary hideaway of the gangsters. Raoul Walsh observes all this at eye level, as one of us, not from above, not in the sense of the picturesque. We sense his compassion and empathy. We understand how abandoned and abused children become criminals in order to survive.
The visual storytelling is brisk. We follow the progress of Owen, orphaned at the age of ten, to a fighter and a leader of the gang. The images are stark, the editing is deft.
The first meeting of Owen and Marie at the saloon where the D.A.'s entourage has come to observe the exotic gangsters is a turning-point for both. Marie becomes a settlement worker. Owen starts on his own personal way of regeneration, freeing himself from the life with no future, learning to write, learning to help others.
Walsh is here already an excellent action director, for instance in the sequence of the burning ship and in the final battle sequence between the gangsters and the policemen.
But he is equally good in scenes of sadness, solitude, pain, suffering and deprivation. No other master of the gangster film was as profound in psychology as Walsh, from Regeneration till White Heat.
Many Walsh films are thought lost. Regeneration is a treasure, preserved from a source with signs of decomposition, even severe damage, with footage bordering on abstraction, yet making perfect sense.