New York: Home Of The First Gangster Movie
New York’s film history is a proud one, that can’t be denied. However, it’s also home to one particular film first that has long since been forgotten, but deserves a much wider audience. To re-discover it we have to trek right back to the infancy of films, when silents ruled and a certain director who himself hailed from New York was flavor of the month. The motion picture was called “Regeneration” and the director was called Raoul Walsh. This is the story of a film with true grit.
Raoul Walsh, forgotten film-maker
Born in 1887 in New York City to Anglo-Irish parents, Walsh’s first taste of the creative lifestyle was actually as an actor. This was in much the same vein as his contemporary DW Griffith, who had also started his life out as a film and theatre extra whilst honing his skills as a playwright, eventually turning to directing when he realised that was where his true skills lay. In fact, Walsh’s quick progression from acting into directing was made when he became Griffith’s assistant on film sets. His first full length feature was a film called “The Life of General Villa” which was shot on location in Mexico during the year 1914 and it was quickly followed up with his most famous work of the silent era.
Regeneration, by the film standards of its day, is a stark little creation. It was a film that was adapted from an original memoir called “My Mamie Rose” by an author called Owen Kildare. It was made and filmed in 1915 and was shot entirely on location in Manhattan's Bowery District.
In an era that was dominated by two distinct styles of film, the frothy, slapstick comedies of Mack Sennett’s Keystone, aided and abetted by Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle and the epic, sprawling and often debatably racist edifices created by directors such as Griffith, Regeneration offered something that was in many ways a complete contrast. It looked real and felt real. It offered a view of life that, although dramatised and stylised to an extent, for many would be recognisable.
The story centers on the main character of Owen, a young boy who is suffering after the death of his mother and has no way of surviving other than turning to petty crime. He ends up living rough on the streets after realising that he cannot cope with the alcoholism he has witnessed in the family that have taken him in. The film tracks his progress over the years until he hits the age of twenty five and he has become the leader of a bunch of gangsters who basically waste time gambling their money, finding ways of extorting and exchanging cash with other criminals and engaging in heavy drinking sessions in low down dens.
Owen ends up working as a bouncer in a low rent joint. There one night, he helps to save a young girl by the name of Marie. She is the polar opposite of Owen, erudite, well educated and moneyed, but in her own way fighting the battle of wanting to better herself and help people less fortunate than she. The inevitable happens and the two fall in love, with Owen seeing a chance to escape his background and Marie wondering if she really can rescue this young delinquent. It would be unfair to give the ending away for anyone that hasn’t seen it, suffice to say it is a film that is definitely worth sticking with to the conclusion.
A unique film
The film holds a unique distinction in film history as it appears to be one of the first genuine gangster movies ever made and follows on from other pieces in a similar vein such as DW Griffith’s work of 1912 ,“The Musketeers Of Pig Alley”. This was a film notable for its very unusual and starkly realistic framing devices, using tracking shots of actors in action to lend an eerie feeling to proceedings rather than staged, set pieces which sometimes ended up looking too stiff. "The Musketeers" purports to be set in New York too; however, this is a misnomer, as Griffith actually filmed much of the action in Fort Lee, New Jersey, so it was actually Walsh who provided New York with it’s first real, true gangster film. Although the gangsters in these films were perhaps unrecognisable in comparison to “real” New York criminals of then and now, the films would have been genuinely sinister and scary to watch for many audience members who visited the Nickleodeons at the time.
Sadly, there are very few clips available of the movie anywhere online, however, there are a selection of stills accompanied by a soundtrack that give a real flavor of the movie itself, it’s gritty realism and what it would have been like:
(Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration Film Stills and Soundtrack)
In the year 2000, this film was selected as being one of the most important of it’s kind and was given special status for preservation by the United State’s National Film Registry and deservedly so. It’s a real piece of film history that shows New York as it was long before the roaring twenties and offers a true glimpse of what life was like for those without money or hope.
Submitted by Eve Robinson
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