REGENERATION (Raoul Walsh, 1915)

A kid in his twenties, the same year that he played John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, Raoul Walsh made a compelling melodrama that already expressed in full the personality that a quarter-century hence would lend such color and humanity to his Strawberry Blonde (1941) and Gentleman Jim (1942). This is Regeneration, based on Owen Kildare’s autobiography.
     It is the pilgrim’s progress of an orphan in an impoverished, raucous New York City neighborhood. As a young man, Owen Conway is the leader of a criminal gang; but the entrance into his realm of a social worker, who operates a settlement house, transforms him once he falls in love with her. The ties that bind him to his former gang, however, are hard to break.
     The story is conventional. What elevates the material is the atmosphere: the teeming tenement, especially on sidewalks and in the streets, the colorful characters, the powerful sense of an environment that has such an impact on human lives—and, I might add, on the lives of three neighborhood cats. A fire onboard a three-tiered boat accounts for an especially dynamic sequence; many children are involved, and none, or anyone else, are lost. The real dangers lie elsewhere in the neighborhood.
     Walsh proves himself more agile and adept at crosscutting than Griffith, and he betrays a soft spot or two beneath his show of toughness. It is easy to imagine that Walsh identified with his protagonist, who is roughly the same age as he.
     Three different actors play Owen—at ten, seventeen and twenty-five. The middle Owen is played by someone billed as “H. McCoy.” Is this who we might think it is? The age is right, and the writer does have an acting credit under his complete name.

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