d. Raoul Walsh / USA / 71 mins.
Raoul Walsh's debut feature film, Regeneration, pulses with the influence of his mentor, D.W. Griffith, although not always for the best. No doubt made in quasi-homage to Griffith's proto-gangster film The Musketeers of Pig Alley, Regeneration is typically seen as the first feature film on the subject of gangsters (not of the organized crime variety, but of the street-smart turn-of-the-century tough types). It is also among the first films to make great use of on-location filming, in this case New York City's more impoverished neighborhoods. There is an unmistakable sense of realism captured in Regeneration, but like life itself, the film occasionally falls into bouts of lethargy that make its slim running time feel inordinately longer than necessary.
As the title suggests, this a film centered on second chances and social movement. Regeneration opens on young street urchin named Owen (John McCann) who climbs the social ranks to become an older street tough (played by the wonderfully named Rockliffe Fellowes), which, while not necessarily a position mothers wish for their sons, is at least more stabilizing than a life in rags and trash-picking. The life as a street tough does given allow Owen to make friends, however shady they may be. The story, adapted by Walsh from Owen Frawley Kildare's autobiography, initially avoids becoming too static by introducing movement in the opposition direction; Marie (Anna Q. Nilsson), a well-to-do if slightly naive society girl, wants to invest herself into the lower class by teaching literacy and — in the case of Owen — teaching how to love. If it seems cliche, it can be dismissed as at least a 1915 release that is probably the source of such cliches in the first place. But the theme of a tender tough-guy and is encouraged into comfort by a girl with a 24-karat ticker was already becoming commonplace in the cinema of the 1910s
Besides, it's not so much the formulaic (from this vantage) aspect of the plot that troubles me as much as it is the formulaic aspects in much of its style. Walsh had a leg-up on many of his peers as an assistant director and editor on Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and so Regeneration didn't need to benefit from a post-Birth release to begin stylistic exploration. In fact, stylistically speaking Regeneration begins on the right foot. Owen, as a young boy, is adopted by his married tenement neighbors after the death of his mother. During this section Walsh uses point-of-view shots and irises effectively to empower emotional transfers and social commentary (the husband is an abusive drunk). Later there is a scene of a ferry that catches fire, which is stupendously shot and edited — one of the real thrills of not only this movie but of many from the 1910s. Though the camera was incapable of being placed into too many different angles, Walsh compensates with varied shot distances and locations (sometimes on the boat, sometimes inside the fire, sometimes in the water looking out at it in flames as people jump to safety) and a fine montage of editing. The subject and staging naturally draw your attention, but the final result brings an excitement that overwhelms the rest of the somber film and draws attention to the slower, more clumsily edited sequences. As debuts go, particularly in an age when cinema was still learning to speak, Regeneration is by no means a failure.
05 June 2009
d. Raoul Walsh / USA / 71 mins.