Thursday, 25 May 2017

A Tribute to David Shepard …. Regeneration (1915), John Sweeney, Kennington Bioscope

Rockliffe Fellowes' smiles a natural smile in Regeneration
Blessed are the restorers for without them we know not what we would miss… Chief amongst all of these, as that other great preserver Kevin Brownlow readily admits, was David Shepard who, sadly, passed away a few months ago.

Without David Shepard we’d have missed hundreds of films and he even played his part in helping Mr Brownlow restore Napoleon as well as having produced a four and a half hour restoration of Gance’s La Roue. He was, as Kevin said in his introduction, a “buccaneer” and a man of immense generosity as well as determination.

Tonight’s Bioscope was by way of a tribute to Mr Shepard and Kevin Brownlow regaled us with stories of their encounter with Miriam Cooper – who loaned them the only copy of her still-in-progress biography which they dutifully read out onto tape overnight before returning it to her in the morning. So many biographies never made it to print and these two were that anxious not to miss out... Miriam's wonderfully-acidic Dark Lady of the Silents did however make it to press.

David Shepard
On another occasion the boys were less lucky when taking their pick of a pile of unwatched nitrate, Kevin chose the Louise Brooks’ film The City Gone Wild (1927) – directed by James Cruze - which showed signs of decay and so was consigned to a watery grave by an over-zealous archivist… on such fleeting moments does eternity turn.

An excerpt was shown of the gorgeous Maurice Tourneur Lorna Doone; death on the beach as young Lorna is kidnapped by the ruthless Doones, all set in silhouette against the falling night-time sky, dynamic horse chases along impossible cliff paths and the frustrated rage of her would be young saviour who would spend half a lifetime finding his love again.

Shepard’s favourite silent film was Henry King’s T’olerable David and yet he was passionate about so much from the silent era investing a huge amount of time in producing an award-winning documentary on the role of silent film in the Great War. An excerpt from his film The Moving Picture Boys in the Great War (1975) was shown with Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin finally being mobilised to encourage American support for the war at a crucial juncture. The film was dedicated to Erich von Stoheim the Austrian who portrayed so many monacled Germans, helping to solidify an image of those who were to become the implacable enemy. Miriam later described Erich as "a foul-mouthed, terrible man", but she didn't always note the best in people...

This was the time when Hollywood grew strongest and cinema in the warzones suffered, the dream machine which benefited also did its best to help.

Our main film was Raoul Walsh’s genuine classic, Regeneration (1915) a film with an authentic feel even from the man his future ex-wife, Miriam Cooper, would say “never bored you with the truth…” Long believed lost, the film was found in a Milwaukee basement and restored by Shepherd to reveal a work Brownlow says is “head and shoulders” above any other crime film of the period. Walsh was to go on to “fulfil his potential” in this genre with talkies such as The Roaring Twenties (1939), but it all began here with an almost forensic realism.

Actual onlookers in Regeneration
Based on Owen Kildare’s autobiographical My Mamie Rose the film used actual locations and indeed actual hoodlums, prostitutes and other non-professionals – at least of an acting kind. This adds a roughness especially when contrasted with the sophistication of dreamy Anna Q. Nilsson, the Marie 'Mamie Rose' Deering who will inspire Owen – Conway not Kildare – to break with his criminal past and look for salvation.

Walsh cast well and whilst we have three Owen’s showing him at different ages, he found a real gem in Rockliffe Fellowes who plays him as an adult. Fellowes has an edgy presence and is one of those actors who looks out of time passing for mid-century method-Brando or even a modern-day stylist: he just is and is so relaxed in front of the camera and in his part that you hardly notice he’s acting.

I’ve previously raved about Regeneration and you can read all about it here if you want the chapter and verse.

A harsh upbringing for Owen
It’s a gem and whilst it clearly shows the influence of his previous employer, DW Griffith, Walsh was on his own journey and the story is there for the watcher to judge for himself; with residual shades of grey in Owen that you maybe wouldn’t find in Griffith?

Even District Attorney Ames (Carl Harbaugh) has an angle and that’s very much Marie but she sees beyond him and Owen’s desperate background to the man and his potential for good. Yes there’s a bit of religion but that was a common benchmark for good in the days before social media and opinion polls.

Rockliffe Fellowes and Anna Q Nilsson
To add to the cinema verite feel, the camera moves impressively in some scenes revealing the full extent of situation economically and reminding the audience of our safe remove… But when his former lieutenant Skinny (William Sheer) knifes a copper, his old world threatens to suck Owenback in and the true test of his faith and Marie’s belief in him comes. It’s not as neat as you might expect.

Tonight Kevin Brownlow shared his 35mm copy – obtained from David Shephard – and so there were no tints as on the 1995 David Shepard restoration most currently available on DVD. This mattered not as the print was very good quality.

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

We also had excellent accompaniment from Mr John Sweeney on piano who matched the film’s dramatic subtlety with his own restrained themes moving in perfect sympathy with the story from start to finish. I am sure David Shepard would have relished both the playing and the projection; one of so many films that will live on as a result of his passion and commitment.

There's an lovely obituary from Pamela Hutchison on the BFI site with a clip of Kevin Brownlow talking about his preservationist pal.

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