Sunday, December 29, 2013

Regeneration (1915)

Director: Raoul Walsh                                    Writers: Raoul Walsh & Carl Harbaugh
Film Score: Philip Carli (1990)                        Cinematography: Georges Benoit
Starring: Anna Nilsson, Rockliffe Fellowes, William Sheer and Carl Harbaugh

It’s tempting to want to lump all silent films together into a single category because they have so much in common with each other and are so obviously distinct from sound films. But there is a very perceptible difference between the films of the nineteen tens and the nineteen twenties in terms of style and story and production design. One of the things Raoul Walsh does so brilliantly in Regeneration, is to blur those lines of distinction in the forward looking direction of this film. Walsh, of course, became heavily associated with gangster films in the classic era through his work at Warner Brothers in films like High Sierra and White Heat. This was one of his first feature films after directing a number of shorts for William Fox’s company, and it was also one of the earliest gangster films, using that milieu not for sensationalism but as a morality play, something many films from the period attempted to do.

The story begins with the young Owen played by John McCann. He lives in a tenement and his mother has just died. As a result he’s taken in by the neighbors across the hall, James Marcus and Maggie Weston. Marcus is a drunk and Weston does the best she can with the meager resources she has. It’s a difficult life for the young boy but eventually he can’t take the old man’s beatings and leaves. In one brief scene where Owen is seventeen and played by Harry McCoy, his morality is shown when he is seen coming to the aid of a small hunchback who is being abused. After that the older Owen, Rockliffe Fellowes, becomes inured to a life of crime. It’s not until he meets society girl Anna Nilsson that he thinks about changing. She sets up a settlement house in the neighborhood for the betterment of the people living in the tenements and Fellowes becomes torn in the end between his love for Nilsson and his loyalty to the criminal gang he once belonged to.

The first thing the viewer notices immediately is the artistic quality of Walsh’s setups. Rather than the long static shots that audiences are used to seeing during this period, even in something like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation from the same year, Walsh’s camera pushes in much closer, emphasizing two-shots as well as much more intimate framing. There are also many shots that are placed at an angle, especially during close-ups, that are unlike those from any director I’ve seen from this era. Another effective technique he uses in the second half of the film, is a moving camera. It’s not Sunrise, but it is quite unexpected as characters enter the settlement house to have the camera move in toward them. And in one magnificent shot in the gangster’s hideout, the camera pulls back while all the men assemble in a last supper type tableaux. It really is breathtaking.

Unfortunately the film has suffered extreme deteriorations in a few places, but that does absolutely nothing to diminish the impact of the film. And the piano accompaniment by Philip Carli is especially good at being both atmospheric and suggesting the time period. Production design is also quite good, with the sets all very believable. The actors all give solid performances as well. Fellowes has a great face for the part and does a nice job of not overdoing his pantomime. Nilsson, however, is absolutely radiant. She had a lengthy career in Hollywood that was well deserved. The other great actor in the piece is William Sheer who played the criminal Skinny. While Walsh has reputation for being one of the great directors of all time, this early film shows that his talent was there from the start. Regeneration, despite it’s heavy moral tone, is one of the most impressive silent films from the nineteen tens.

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