Regeneration: Gangsters Before Gangsters

Raoul Walsh’s 1915 film Regeneration is often acclaimed as one of the first gangster films, but these aren’t really gangsters modern audiences would be familiar with. The gang Owen (John McCann) leads are more of a mob of Lower East Side plug uglies than true sports. They wear floppy caps and the working clothes of the docks and congregate in a basement called the Chicory Hall, where the thugs are as likely to be found sleeping on the bare dirt floor as playing cards.

In films like The Roaring Twenties (1939), Walsh would deal in a more glamorous look at the criminal sort. But in Regeneration the emphasis is squarely on squalor. Orphaned at a young age, Owen is raised by abusive foster parents and eventually takes to the streets. As a teenager, he proves to be tasty with his fists. Soon he’s running with a crowd of petty crooks engaged in minor shakedowns and pickpocketing.

His life is changed when he meets Marie (Anna Q. Nilsson), a society dame who takes to social work at a neighborhood “settlement” after Owen saves her slumming pals from some working class rowdies. The hoodlum comes good, first when he saves a group of children from a burning steamboat—a direct reference to the PS General Slocum disaster of 1891. (The film is based on a memoir by Owen Frawley Kildare that later became a stage play.) Then Owen rescues a baby from its warring parents.

Walsh presents alcoholism, homelessness, wife-beating and drunken rages with a dispassionate eye, even while tweaking his audience’s voyeuristic desire to get a peek at the wild side with a one-eyed villain and criminals appearing at peepholes. He saves his moralizing for a moment when Marie literally calls up a vision of Hebraic script to warn Owen against pulverizing a rival. The location filming is populated with a rich gang of grotesques that include a hunchbacked dwarf, a man with a cauliflowered nose, a one-armed doorman, obese freaks and surreal imagery like goldfish swimming in one man’s glass of beer.

Walsh’s narrative control and flair for action is also evident even in this early film, his second according to Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film. He uses the parallel editing of his mentor D.W. Griffith to compare the moneyed soirees of Marie’s family with the populist entertainers at a downtown theatre, and the film concludes with a daring escape from the by way of a washing line stretched between tenements. Although film noir wouldn’t arrive for a few decades, Walsh associates shadows with the underworld. There’s a thrilling moment when the silhouette of a gallows appears on a wall behind a gang leader. Walsh also uses fades to contrast the young Owen eating an ice cream with the older Owen drinking from a bucket of beer.

Walsh began as he meant to go on, fast and furious. As the elder Owen, McCann has some of the depraved sensuality of a young Marlon Brando, although he convincingly comes around for the finale demanded by the title. The Swedish-born model Nilsson—at one point dubbed “The Most Beautiful Woman in America”—would later turn up as one of Gloria Swanson’s “waxworks” in Sunset Boulevard (1950). Walsh adapted Regeneration with Carl Harbaugh, whose name would later appear on the credits for Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), whose star Buster Keaton was himself destined for a place at Swanson’s bridge table.

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One Response to “Regeneration: Gangsters Before Gangsters”

  1. The Blue Bird: No Place Like Home « SquallyShowers Says:

    […] One of Thriller’s slower moments but well worth including in the list « Regeneration: Gangsters Before Gangsters Happy Birthday, Betty Grable! […]

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