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Saturday, 21 January 2017

Summer Games - Raoul Walsh - Barrie Pattison retrieves REGENERATION (USA, 1915) ...and nominates the Great Man's most lacklustre efforts

All the attention to Raoul Walsh seems to skip his remarkable 1915 Regeneration set in a slum neighborhood, teeming with activity - kids on the tenement stairs or idling in the streets, the two storey theatre with the black group and a singing quartet on stage and the toughs sitting about sharing a beer pale drinking at tables on the floor. There’s a gang slum HQ with a peep hole door and the cops make formation in front of the desk before piling into open squad cars to race through real streets.

Plot has the kid hero John McCann taken in by gross washer woman Maggie Weston, bringing beer to her drunken husband, handed under the saloon bat wing doors. The kid grows up tough, taking out the bully and becoming gang leader Rockliff Fellowes at twenty five, operating out of the secret headquarters with the concealed exit through the drain pipe. 

Anna Q Nilsson, Regeneration
New District Attorney (and sometime Fox movie director) Carl Harbaugh announces a tough on crime policy and intrigued socialite Anna Q. Nilsson, never having met a gangster, has him take her to the slum theatre, where the official is recognised and set upon, only to be saved by Fellowes. Impressed, Anna abandons her idle life and signs on to work at the Settlement House there. Her influence reforms Fellowes, though mean Harburgh warns him off. 

Rockliff accompanies Anna on the Settlement picnic trip in the river boat - pause during grace before the grab for food at the long table. A fire breaks out. This is the film’s set piece, with spectacular shots of  panic as the mob surges out of the stairways filled with smoke, alternated with less convincing wide shots of jumping off the side into still water. Fellowes joins in saving the passengers and a period maritime fire tender arrives.

However his old gang rival runs a caper in which he knifes a cop and the hunt is on.
Fellowes’ loyalties are divided and he reverts to his underworld associations, despite cutaways to Nilsson’s flowers. She goes to find him at the HQ and is trapped upstairs by the disguised heavy, having to shelter in the closet like Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms, before the surprisingly down beat ending.

Coming the year after Birth of a Nation this is a striking example of the then new
sophistication in film making. Walsh pushes the skills of the day to their limits and the piece has a vigor not common then - or in the decade to come.  The limits of still formative technique are tested, with trackings (one reveals the alarming gang filling the room) mixed with some roofless sets. The confrontation with the detective is masked to slits of eyes. We get cross cutting between Fellowes and the priest facing blacked out half frames in their dialogue  There is parallel action and edits closer within scenes, along with the odd inventive compositions, like the shadow of a gallows on the wall behind the murderer. 

Though Walsh does make the teeming slum setting more alive than similar material in the films of Griffiths and the ferry sinking is remarkable, with all it’s qualities however, this still remains an old crook melo which can’t match his mentor’s vision.

All this effort in choosing our man’s best work. How about the hotly contested spot for his worst? Candidates should include the dreadful Marines, Let's Go (1961) The King and Four Queens (1956) Battle Cry (1955) Blackbeard, the Pirate (1952) Silver River (1948) They Died with Their Boots On (1941) Hitting a New High (1937) You're in the Army Now (aka. O.H.M.S. 1937) The Yellow Ticket (1931) Women of All Nations (1931) In Old Arizona (blame Irving Cummings - 1928) and The Wanderer(1925).

1 comment:

  1. Because of this discussion, I dug out my VHS tape of SASKATCHEWAN which I remember loving as a teenager, but curious to see it again when no-one has mentioned it among their favourites. It is actually superbly crafted but demolished by a nonsensical screenplay and non-stop dreary stock music. But the landscapes are spectacular, the pace is snappy, and the central idea of a more empathetic approach to relations between white settlers and the indigenous population (with Alan Ladd playing an "indian-lover" who just may be of Indian blood) make it a distinctive and diverting failure.

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