Saturday, October 30, 2010

PBR: Regeneration (1915)

Rosemarie closes out Silent Movie Mondays at the Paramount Theater.

Before the last in the series of Silent Crime Spree films unspooled our host and organist Jim Riggs reminded us about the early 20th century settlement movement, which established houses in poor areas where middle class volunteers lived among recently arrived immigrants, assisting with social services and education. A settlement house on New York’s Lower East Side provided the focal point of our movie: Regeneration, directed by Raoul Walsh.

The story is taken from My Mamie Rose by Owen Frawley Kildare, which tells the story of his childhood on the mean streets of New York. In the film, three actors play the part of Owen, who loses his mother at the age of 10 and becomes an orphan taken into the neglectful care of the battling neighbors across the hall. Owen at 17 doesn’t have much going for him except a quick way with his fists that lands him where we find him at 25, leader of a gang that rules their small patch of the neighborhood.

Into that rough society comes settlement worker Mamie Rose. Her beauty and kindness appeal to Owen’s better nature. She teaches him to read and under her tutelage he gives up his gangster ways. If there’s anything we learn from crime movies, though, is that you can’t escape your past. Owen’s friend Skinny stabs a cop and needs a place to hide out. Owen obliges and things go downhill from there.

The painted sets and harshly lit interiors are reminders the film is almost 100 years old. Yet some of its images are timeless: young Owen sitting alone in a window watching a hearse carry his mother pull way, children dressed in rags playing in the dirty tenement staircase, and a Madonna-like mother cradling her infant on the steps of a church.

Too sad? I agree. I respect Regeneration for what it does, namely enlivening a hortatory memoir with some well-executed action. Like when the cornered Skinny, after having attempted to violate Mamie Rose’s honor and shooting her in the process, tries to escape by sliding down a clothesline strung high between two apartment buildings. Owen, taking to heart Mamie’s plea to leave vengeance to the Lord, hesitates in pursuing the scoundrel. No such qualms for another young man who loved Mamie Rose from afar. He pulls out a gun and blasts Speedy, sending him plummeting to a messy death. Now that’s how you end a crime spree.

Next up on Silent Movie Mondays, starting in April: films about New York. I can’t wait.

Editor’s note: Rosemarie also participated in Donna Moore’s Ramones flash fiction challenge. Her story is here.