Regeneration (1915) + David Shepard Tribute

Kennington Bioscope at The Cinema Museum

                                                                            24 May 2017


It was with a tinge of sadness that we assembled for this evening’s KenBio presentation because tonight’s event was dedicated to the memory of David Shepard, the world-renowned film preservationist, who died in January.  The evening’s main feature was Regeneration (1915), on which David Shepard worked.

But before that the equally renowned Kevin Brownlow regaled us with some memories about his work with David Shepard and provided some examples of his work.  As well as his knack for tracking down lost films and his skill as a preservationist David Shepard will always be remembered for his willingness to share and promote the films he restored, unlike some other collectors.  To illustrate this point we got to see a short film made by David as a satire on the actions of another renowned (for all the wrong reasons!) collector, Raymond Rohauer.  Labelled by some as ‘King of the Film Freebooters’, Rohauer, would lay copyright claim to every film that entered his collection – and many that didn’t – re-edit them, re-write the inter-titles in a self-promotional style and willingly sue anyone he thought was screening ‘his’ films,  all of which is hilariously captured in David’s parody, ‘Raymond Rohauer presents THE SNEEZE’.  Next up we got to see a genuine example of David Shepard’s work with a beautifully tinted clip from Lorna Doone (Dir. Maurice Tourneur, 1922, right) which was restored in 2001.   

We then got to see part of David Shepard’s contribution to an ill-fated documentary series The Moving Picture Boys in the Great War.  Made in 1975 this was apparently a project very close to David’s heart and is a compilation documentary, narrated by Lowell Thomas, illustrating changing attitudes toward the First World War and its participants, as well as toward the movies themselves. A mix of newsreel, propaganda films, public education shorts and commercial features it presented a fascinating picture of the war years.  Stars such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Sessue Hayakawa were seen promoting the purchase of ‘Liberty Bonds’. Public information films warned soldiers against going AWOL or advised them and their families of the necessity of taking out War Risk Insurance (!).  There were patriotic newsreels and numerous propaganda items focusing on the ‘evil Hun’. 

But two of the most fascinating items in the documentary were both commercial features.  Firstly, Hearts of Humanity (Dir. Allen Holubar, US, 1918) which reinforced the idea of the evil Hun by showing German soldiers depriving starving French villagers of their milk.  When Red Cross nurse Dorothy Phillips seeks to help a wounded German soldier she in turn is attacked and it is only her trusty Red Cross dog that saves her honour.  But a worse fate is in store for her from an even more evil Hun in the form of Erich von Stroheim (image, right), ‘the man you love to hate’, a German officer not averse to throwing babies out of windows.  This really was propaganda film making with a capital P. In the second feature, the Mack Sennett studios added a comedic dimension to the war with Yankee Doodle in Berlin (Dir. F Richard-Jones, US, 1919). Even from just a few short clips this looked to be an extremely funny picture, using every gag in the book to ridicule the Germans, the Kaiser and his beer swilling wife. Starring Bothwell Browne, a well-known female impersonator of the time, the plot revolves around Browne as an American airman disguised as a woman seeking to steal war plans from the Kaiser but plot seemed largely secondary to the visual gags.  This certainly looked worth a film to track down and have a proper look.

All in all, this was a fascinating documentary with some stunning imagery.  So good in fact that you could almost forgive the American movie makers of the time for putting over the message that ’it was the Yanks wot won it!’. 

( NB    A fuller version of  The Moving Picture Boys in the Great War is available on DVD and can be viewed on-line.  Lorna Doone is available on DVD.  Raymond Rohauer presents THE SNEEZE can be viewed on-line.)

Then for the main feature we had another David Shepard restoration, Regeneration (Dir. Raoul Walsh, US, 1915).  Long considered a lost film, a copy was apparently found in a house basement in the 1970s by a visiting gas man.  Based (very) loosely on the autobiography of Owen Frawley Kildare, supposedly an illiterate thug born in New York’s Bowery district who, after being taught to read and write by a kindly teacher named Marie Rose Deering, became a successful writer.

In the film, young Irish-American orphan Owen (Rockliffe Fellows) grows up in New York’s tough lower East side where he must fight to survive although when he sees a crippled boy being bullied he comes to his aid.  By the time he is 25 Owen is a gang leader.  Meanwhile, new District Attorney Ames (Carl Harbaugh) seeks to clean up the gangs.  When Ames’ high-society friend Marie Deering (Anna Q Nilsson, left) expresses an interest in seeing where the gangs hang out, Ames takes her to Grogan’s bar, a gang haunt.  When some of the gang members turn on Ames, Owen notes Marie’s concern and saves him.  Marie then decides to open a charity Settlement House in the gang neighbourhood.  On a charity boat outing, she persuades Owen and his gang to come along.  When a fire breaks out, panic ensues and Owen saves two small children before the boat sinks.

 Later, when a baby needs rescuing from its violent father the charity workers are afraid to intervene but the same crippled boy, now working at the charity, suggests getting Owen to help and he rescues the child.  Marie convinces Owen to enrol at the charity to learn to read and write. Meanwhile, Skinny (William Sheer) takes Owen’s place as gang leader while Ames grows jealous of Marie’s increasing fondness for Owen.  When Skinny stabs a policeman, he seeks Owen’s help in hiding out at the charity.  When a detective arrives looking for Skinny, Owen denies he is there.  But when Marie discovers Skinny hiding there Owen is caught out in his lie and Ames gloats that Owen has lost her for ever (right).  But when Marie relents, Owen is too ashamed, walks out in a rage and goes to see a priest.  When Marie goes to the gang haunt to look for Owen but finds only Skinny who says he will lead her to Owen, taking her to an attic room where he attacks her  (left) but she locks herself in a cupboard.  Warned by the crippled boy that Marie is in danger Owen breaks into the attic.  When Skinny shoots at him the bullet misses but goes through the cupboard door.  Marie is fatally wounded and Skinny escapes.  When Marie dies, Owen tracks down Skinny and is about to kill him until he sees an apparition of Marie and is overcome with remorse for his violent actions.  Meanwhile Skinny seeks to escape by crossing some washing lines (image, right) but is shot and killed by the crippled boy. 

A critical and popular success on its first release, Regeneration is regarded as one of the first feature length gangster films.  It was also director Walsh’s feature length debut and the first film from the Fox Film Corporation (later to become 20th Century Fox).  Shot on location on New York’s  lower East side, the film apparently used local gangsters, prostitutes and homeless people in the supporting cast. 

While Regeneration is perhaps not a classic of the gangster genre, for its time it was certainly a well-made film, cogently plotted, superbly shot and with credible performances from virtually all the cast.  Additionally, the location shooting and real life supporting cast gave it a convincing air of authenticity while the casting of a genuinely disabled actor in a significant role is still unusual now let alone in 1915.  The film moved at a brisk pace with a genuine sense of excitement and there were some nice shots, particularly the shadow cast on the wall behind Skinny as he hurriedly packed which terrified him by giving the appearance of a hangman’s noose (right) and the shot of the rat emphasising to Skinny how he was trapped.  My only quibble would be with the scenes on the charity boat ride and the subsequent fire which appeared to be a somewhat exotic diversion from the main plot, although they were very well staged (and recalled a real-life fire on a New York paddle steamer in 1904 in which over 1000 people died). 

Amongst the cast, Anna Q Nilsson (image, left) was excellent as Marie.  A Swede working in Hollywood long before Garbo she had a long and successful career in silents (although sad to say I have seen very little of her other work) and was at one point apparently named as Hollywood’s most popular actress, receiving some 30,000 fan letters a week.  She never made the transition to sound films although she did have a small part in Sunset Boulevard (Dir. Billy Wilder, US, 1950) playing herself in a game of bridge with Buster Keaton.  Canadian-born Rockliffe Fellows (yes, this was his real name! image, right) gave something of a brooding, Marlon Brando type performance, realistically playing the tough thug although he looked a bit more out of place in the ‘book-learning’ scenes.  Director Walsh of course went on to a long and distinguished career.  Having largely created the gangster genre with Regeneration he went on to perfect it with films such as The Roaring Twenties (1939) and High Sierra (1931) before directing his gangster masterpiece White Heat (1949).

The film was accompanied by the excellent playing of John Sweeney on the piano. 

(NB   Regeneration is available on DVD and can be viewed on line with an excellent jazz score.)