Made the year exhibitor William Fox established himself as a moviemaker, Regeneration (Raoul Walsh, 1915) was released as part of the company’s ambitious plan for filling its 125-movie-theater chain with its own films. Adaptations of popular literary titles, either in the public domain or recent works with name recognition, were put into production with a new picture scheduled to debut every week. Standards were changing across the industry with competition from Europe’s elaborate spectacle films and American producers rose to the challenge with, among others, The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith) and The Cheat (Cecil B. DeMille), two major releases that bookended that year. In her survey of the company that incorporated on 1 February 1915, Aubrey Solomon describes the kind of material selected for the Fox production pipeline: “Almost all stories involved romance, infidelity, gambling, scandal and criminality that interwove two societal layers. Even when the stories were about orphans or the poverty-stricken, there was often a connection to wealth or royalty.”1 An uptown-downtown melodrama usually cited as the first feature-length gangster picture, Regeneration was a perfect fit, pulled from a 1903 memoir by Bowery denizen Owen Kildare who helped immortalise Park Row newsboys, gin-mill-lurking confidence men, and the saddle-nosed prizefighters of New York’s Lower East Side.
Kildare, who may have been the half-Irish, half-French Tom Carroll or, as Walsh biographer Marilyn Ann Moss speculates, a Russian immigrant,2 was an orphan, taken into an abusive home and eventually tossed onto the city’s indifferent streets at age seven. He hawked newspapers and otherwise “lived by his wits running with a gang of small-time hoodlums until age 30 when a reformer from a settlement house named Mamie Rose changed his life by teaching him how to read. Kildare’s story had its first incarnation on the Broadway stage, running only 39 performances in the fall of 1908. According to the New York Times,3 it marked the beginning of Kildare’s demise — a breakdown and subsequent hospitalisation over a new ending that distorted the nature of his relationship with his wife-savior. In the memoir, titled My Mamie Rose: The Story of My Regeneration, Mamie Rose lifts Kildare up from the gutter all the way to a byline in New York’s papers. In the play, he becomes her ultimate downfall, enforcing the pessimistic view that so aggrieved Kildare: you can take the boy out of the slum but he’ll still drag it around wherever he goes.
When Fox bought the property, Kildare had already died, in 1911, of paresis (a likely euphemism for syphilis), and was eulogised as “The Kipling of the Bowery”.4 The film adaptation hewed to the play’s story arc (also betraying Kildare’s intent) but did much better with movie audiences, scoring a hit for Fox among a plethora of hits, which included Theda Bara’s first appearance as the vamp. Praised for its depiction of tenements, gangsters, and “slummin’ it” nightlife, Regeneration is also notable as the feature debut of director Walsh. The actor and Griffith protégé had spent part of 1914 chasing Pancho Villa around the borderlands for the many-monikered The Life of General Villa (Christy Cabanne) and serving as a second unit director for Birth of a Nation (as well as playing John Wilkes Booth). Impatient to take the reins, Walsh left Griffith for Fox, who offered an auspicious beginning to his long, varied career.
Anchored by another remarkable film debut, that of stage actor Rockcliffe Fellowes, with his deep-set eyes and “drag me back in” posture, Regeneration features two memorable set pieces of a kind that can make a director’s name. In one, billowing laundry cascades between the drab tenement blocks providing an evocative backdrop for the film’s climax. It is a masterwork of atmosphere that comes across especially well now the film has been restored with its sepia finish. The other set-piece, a fire and rescue effort on a ferryboat enacted on the Hudson, provided the gasp-inducing spectacle that had become de rigueur for 1915’s ticket buyers. As one critic at the time noted, “the ship is burned for no definite reason whatsoever,” and even though it was “staged with the utmost realism … it would have taken better effect if a cause had been given.”5
The footage that comes before the fire is the real attraction: vivid scenes at the docks focusing on actual New Yorkers, corralled as extras, who breathe life into America’s melting-pot mythology. Other humanising touches can be found throughout, for instance when a young Owen stoops under swinging saloon doors for a growler of beer meant for his foster father and gulps some down himself. Motion Picture News recognised that Walsh’s skill extended beyond managing showy set pieces, the reason Fox had hired him away: “There are any number of laughs in the picture, but through it all runs the underlying touch of pathos, so elusive to the picture director.”6 Later, when Fellowes as Kildare enters a room to face a collision of his old life with his new one, a tracking camera pulls him subtly inward.
Walsh relied too heavily on one-note stereotypes in his treatment of Anna Q. Nilsson as the sainted Mamie Rose character (imagine how tough such a woman would really have to be), a result perhaps of too much exposure to Griffith or not enough to flesh-and-blood women. But under his direction the Bowery pulsates. It helped that Walsh grew up in New York and had occasion to slip downtown for adventures with brother George. It no doubt also helped that studios at the time were still based back east, Kildare’s old haunts within reach. Regeneration did so well for Fox that it was reissued as a money-maker in 1919. For his part, Walsh repeatedly returned to the setting, including in 1933’s The Bowery, about warring impresarios Chuck Connors and Steve Brodie, and in 1939’s The Roaring Twenties, with Cagney and Bogart as rum-running thugs. By then, however, moviemaking had become soundstage-bound, the Bowery as distant as it seems through set-dressed windows.
Regeneration (1915 USA 73 mins)
Prod. Co: Fox Film Corp. Prod: William Fox Dir: Raoul Walsh, as R.A. Walsh Scr: Adapted from Owen Kildare’s “My Mamie Rose”* by R.A. Walsh and Carl Harbaugh Phot: Georges Benoit
Cast: Rockcliffe Fellowes, Anna Q. Nilsson, Carl Harbaugh, William Sheer
*This is the onscreen credit. The screenplay was also adapted from the 1908 stage play, The Regeneration, which is credited to Kildare and Walter Hackett.
- Aubrey Solomon, The Fox Film Corporation, 1915–1935: A History and Filmography (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2011) p. 14. ↩
- Marilyn Ann Moss, Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2011) p. 47. ↩
- “Kildare a Wreck, Sent to an Asylum,” New York Times, 25 November 1908, p. 2. ↩
- “The Bowery Mourns for Owen Kildare,” New York Times, 12 February 1911, p. 16. ↩
- Peter Milne, Review of “Regeneration,” Motion Picture News (2 October 1915) p. 83. ↩
- Ibid. ↩