An astonishingly impressive and durable movie for its years, REGENERATION is notable for the authenticity of the big-city blight reflected in the places and faces it shows us, and also for its vivid staging of a ferryboat disaster on the Hudson River. It was Raoul Walsh's first feature
film as a director and the first of several that would establish him as the cinema's premier director of films about working-class Irish-Americans.
When Owen (John McCann), a child of one of urban America's Irish ghettos, is orphaned at the age of 10, he is adopted by neighbors Maggie Conway (Maggie Weston) and her alcoholic, often brutal husband, Jim (James Marcus). 15 years later, Owen (Rockcliffe Fellowes) is the leader of a neighborhood
gang of roughnecks and petty criminals.
One night, a frivolous, young society woman named Marie Deering (Anna Q. Nilsson) takes friends to a rowdy beer hall on a lark. When District Attorney Ames (Carl Harbaugh), a member of the slumming party, is roughed up by the joint's regulars, Owen comes to his rescue. The experience sobers Marie,
who becomes a settlement house worker in the city's slums. During the settlement's annual cruise, Owen again acts heroically when a fire breaks out on the ferryboat. Gradually, the young tough becomes attracted to the beautiful Marie and the selfless life she is leading.
Pursued by police, Skinny (William Sheer) is granted sanctuary in the settlement house by fellow gang member Owen, who owes him a favor. Fearing that he is washed up with Marie, Owen breaks all ties with the gang. Marie goes to look for him in the gang's hideaway, where she is cornered by Skinny.
When word of Marie's abduction gets back to Owen, he rushes to the scene and finds Skinny molesting Marie. Owen is in the process of rescuing his beloved when Skinny shoots at him, hitting Marie by accident.
Following Marie's death, Owen returns to the hideaway bent on revenge. Just as he is about to kill Skinny, he sees a vision of Marie, who reminds him that vengeance is a sin, and he relents. Skinny, however, receives his full comeuppance when he is slain by a friend of Owen's. At Marie's grave,
Owen pays her loving tribute as the source of his spiritual and moral regeneration.
Fresh from his performance as John Wilkes Booth in THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), Walsh took up the reins of REGENERATION determined to implement the filmmaking skills he had learned from D.W. Griffith. The result was a film as fine as any his mentor was ever to make.
The decaying urban sites Walsh captured on film are still impressively realistic, but it was his integration of REGENERATION's cast into these locations that was and is so remarkable. Bit players and extras were snatched right off the streets (and in some cases out of the gutters) of New York's
poorest neighborhoods. Again and again, one is startled by the gargoyle faces and beer-swollen bodies of Walsh's skid-row recruits.
The boat disaster is a triumph of choreographed chaos, still one of the most accomplished sequences of its kind ever shot. After the filming of this great set piece, Walsh, as he recalled, was arrested and booked for arson, malicious mischief, and indecent exposure (presumably not his own but that
of his players), but he was quickly sprung by an influential friend. A second crisis involving this sequence occurred, according to Walsh, when dailies revealed that many of the female extras were wearing no underwear or were indeed indecently exposed. A negative doctor saved the day. (It should
be noted here that Walsh's memory of REGENERATION was not totally reliable: his recollection of the picture's ending had Owen dying and Marie surviving, rather than vice versa.)
"[He] was a good stage actor--he had a good strong face and he underplayed everything," commented Walsh about REGENERATION's charismatic male lead, Rockcliffe Fellowes. Anticipating by decades the sullen-lipped good looks of Tom Berenger and the young Marlon Brando, Fellowes gave a commendable
performance. His Owen Conway is a striking precursor of Brando's Terry Malloy in ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), which itself could have been titled REGENERATION and which is a direct descendant of the Walsh film.
REGENERATION has lost little of its power over the years. Its themes of social misery and spiritual hunger are as relevant as ever. Particularly dateless is its acknowledgment of the terrible vulnerability of children. One of the most welcome intertitles of the entire silent era was the simple one
that followed REGENERATION's ferryboat tragedy: "All the kiddies were saved."
Additional poignant moments involving children: a shot of the adult Owen drinking a beer momentarily dissolves through a shot of Owen as a boy licking an ice cream cone; an action sequence is briefly interrupted so that the camera can capture the sad beauty of a slum madonna-and-child it has
discovered sitting on a stoop.
Most movies are too long, but this one is too short. If Walsh had been allowed another few reels to flesh out his characters, story, and theme with more detail, REGENERATION might have been an unconditional masterpiece. (Violence, substance abuse.)
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- Review: An astonishingly impressive and durable movie for its years, REGENERATION is notable for the authenticity of the big-city blight reflected in the places and faces it shows us, and also for its vivid staging of a ferryboat disaster on the Hudson River. It w… (more)