On DVD: Tough times in 1915

The 1915 film Regeneration, one of the early works directed by Raoul Walsh in his 52-year career, gives an interesting (if melodramatic) picture of tenement life for Irish immigrants. This Lower East Side tragic romance between gang leader Owen Conway and socialite-turned-social worker Marie Deering is set in battered apartments, gangland hangouts (a saloon, a basement), and a settlement house. There’s a boat outing that turns disastrous, neighborhood “domestic troubles,” and sad-faced children that look just like Jacob Riis photos. And a surprising number of cats. As a film, of course, it’s slow-paced and simplistic by today’s standards.

The source material is Owen Kildare’s “My Mamie Rose: The Story of My Regeneration,” an autobiography of his transformation from illiterate urchin to professional writer. In 1908, Kildare suffered a mental collapse and was sent to Bloomingdale sanitarium after “My Mamie Rose” was presented on stage with unauthorized changes.

The perspective is pretty much that of the settlement house. These centers were established to help the poor—especially the working poor—improve their lot; according to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, they were also a place where college-educated women could work when other professions were closed to them. Henry Street Settlement, established in 1893, still delivers social service and arts programming.

The film comes on a disc with Young Romance (1915), a story of love, class, and identity theft directed by George Melford.

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