Saturday, 6 February 2016

Mean streets… Regeneration (1915)

Raoul Walsh shot President Lincoln twice in his role as John Wilkes Booth and also as assistant director to DW Griffith on The Birth of a Nation. Within a few months he was directing his own feature and one that showed plenty of influences from his experience.

is full of close-ups, dolly shots, juxtapositions, multiple and parallel narrative strands and a basket of cats that may or may not foreshadow what’s to come. He obviously learned quickly but the flair on display was all his own including his ability to get the best of a cast of professional and non-acting participants.

Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Skinny?
Regeneration is often described as the first gangster film but whilst I’m not sure on that it is certainly an attempt at realism way beyond some American contemporaries. Filmed on location in New York City, down on the docks and in the Bowery (before CBGBs livening things up…) it provides a precious view of the darker side of Manhattan enlivened by the appearance of actual member s of the criminal classes: drunks, punks and prostitutes.

Over the roofs of New York
Remarkably, Regeneration is also based on My Mamie Rose: The Story of My Regeneration (1903) an autobiographical book by one Owen Frawley Kildare who had been orphaned early in life and brought up the hard way first by abusive adopted parents and then using his own wits, made his way as a gangster until the chance for redemption came in a relationship with a Settlement House worker – Mamie Rose.

Spot the actors
Kildare’s version of his life has been challenged but there’s no denying the grit and darker edges  which permeate the cinematic interpretation.  It’s not just the locations and the extras that are tough, the story doesn’t go easy with the viewer either.

The boy's view of his mother's hearse
Walsh works his way through his characters’ formative years with economy and three actors… the ten year old Owen Conway (John McCann) is shown on the day of his mother’s funeral and there’s a moving point of view shot as he looks in sad shadows out of the window down onto the sunlit hearse carrying her body.

Mr and Mrs Conway have a disagreement
He is taken in by neighbours, the battling Conways – Maggie (Maggie Weston) and her abusive alcoholic husband Jim (James A. Marcus). For a while Owen dodges his way between their everyday conflicts but Jim just gets worse leaving him no option but to leave.

Owen grows up a fighter
Moving on to seventeen, Owen (Harry McCoy) is now working on the docks and stepping up to protect a disabled co-worker from abuse. He defeats the bully and gains the loyalty of the victim as well as the local hoods. By the time he’s a man, the superbly-monikered Rockliffe Fellowes, he’s head of a gang and looking a little like a young Marlon Brando: cock of the walk and yet with a warmth around the eyes… It’s surprising that Fellowes didn’t go onto to greater things as he gives a really excellent performance here.

Rockliffe Fellowes
Up 2nd Avenue 50 blocks or so and there’s a man who wants to eradicate the hoodlum problem – new District Attorney Ames (Carl Harbaugh) who has risen on a platform openly condemning the underworld. He entertains guests with talk of the dark side including Marie Deering (Anna Q. Nilsson – the Q standing for Quirentia) who is excited by all this talk of gangsters and would like to meet one.

Anna Q and Carl Harbaugh
Be careful what you wish for Marie… Ames can’t resist showing off and takes his party to Grogan’s Theatre. There’s more interesting work from Walsh as Owen’s table is shown enjoying the theatre alternated with the more civilised dining of Ames. Grogan’s has some fascinating acts from a trio of rag-time singers to a dancer and acrobats: genuine off-Broadway variety from 1915.

Good times at Grogan's
The focus shifts from the stage once the posh party arrives and, catching Marie’s imploring eye, Owen has to step in to prevent Ames being ruffed up by some of his delinquent targets. It’s a pivotal meeting of worlds though as Marie resolves to help the poor and Owen has seen a glimpse of wholesome beauty that will inspire him to better himself… in time.

Owen to the rescue
Marie joins the Settlement Movement and aims to help the destitute and disadvantaged better themselves through education, religion and respect – it’s the kind of stuff UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, still has dreams about.

“A new world – wherein Owen finds, education, inspiration and love…”
Owen becomes involved after a reformed member of his gang suggest he will be effective in intervening in a domestic situation involving the fighting Flanagan family (why always the Irish!?) who have a father very drunk in charge of a baby.  Marie goes to ask his help and dropping all at a no doubt vital card game he goes and impresses Pa Flanagan with the force of his argument delivered in the case by a straight right…

Marie persuades Owen to lay down his can of beer
Owen is pleased with his intervention and loves the atmosphere at the Settlement along with the attention he gets from the electric-eyed Marie… Soon he leaves the gang to Skinny and attempts to gain enlightenment and Marie’s heart.

But this cosy scene cannot remain undisturbed for ever: District Attorney Ames has his eye on this interloper who has seemingly stolen his Marie’s heart whilst Skinny and the boys are never likely to stay sensible for ever… Will the past catch up with Owen and Marie?

“… this girl o’ mine …her soul, the noblest and purest thing I ever knew…”

The version I saw was from Image Entertainment and came with a considered new musical setting by Philip Carli from the 1995 David Shepard restoration…. It doesn’t match Griffith for length or actual invention but it tells this wholesome melodrama well and is unflinching in its own way. The gangster films to follow would not all be so careful in the moral  balance of their narratives.

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