His Regeneration (1915)
This one-reel drama from Essanay stars co-owner G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson and features a brief cameo by Charlie Chaplin as the “Little Tramp,” which makes it an odd sort of a bird to review. At first I thought it might be intended as a kind of spoof of “Regeneration” by Raoul Walsh, but that film came several months after this one, so that’s not a likely explanation. Besides, most of it isn’t very funny (the Chaplin footage excepted).
The movie begins in a pawn shop, where the decidedly unregenerate G.M. Anderson sells some presumably ill-gotten jewelry to a proprietor of indeterminate “foreign” origin (I can’t decide whether he’s Jewish or Chinese). Then the action shifts to a dance hall/nightclub that appears to stratify its clientele. On the lower level, rough working class-types brawl and enjoy Apache dancing with their molls, while in the balcony, higher-class customers spectate at a safe distance. The Little Tramp show up at the lower level and tries to chat up a girl with a large, muscular boyfriend, gets caught up in the violent whirlwind of the dance floor, then tries to take a breath at a table before being drawn back into the flurry of dancing. Now Anderson shows up and sits with a girl dressed like Cleopatra whose boyfriend is off getting drinks. He gives her a stolen watch and then fights with the boyfriend when he comes back, to the animated interest of the balcony crew. Their amusement turns to horror when, after Anderson wins, the boyfriend pulls out a gun and shoots him. One of their number (Marguerite Clayton) rushes down to dress the wound and pour alcohol from a nearby glass over it. She turns him over to the police when they arrive.
Anderson, who was obviously the victim in this case, is soon on the streets again, and he breaks into a fancy home with his partner (Lee Willard). While his buddy is opening the safe, Anderson cases the place and finds Marguerite sleeping in her bedroom. He is torn by his obligations to his partner and the girl who may have saved his life. He goes back downstairs and tries to get Lee to put back the jewels he has taken from the safe. Of course, they end up fighting, and eventually Anderson has to shoot his friend to stop him from taking the jewels. That wakes up Marguerite and the neighbors and soon the cops are called. When Marguerite finds him with a gun over his dead pal’s body, he gives her back the jewels and explains what happened. She takes the gun and hides him in the kitchen, claiming that she found and shot a lone burglar when the police arrive. He appreciates what she’s done and leaves a note saying that he’ll “try to make good.”
Fifteen minutes isn’t much time to develop a full story about the regeneration of a man’s spirit, and this movie takes time out for a comedy interlude that adds nothing to the story, so it doesn’t hold up all that well as a drama. What it does have in its favor is good acting by both leads, a very stylish period dance hall, and a good appearance by Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin, who is only on the screen for a minute or two, probably pleased audiences more than any other part of the movie. It is also tightly edited, and moves quickly through the storyline without a lot of repetition or over-emphasis of simple matters. There are no intertitles, apart from the close-up on the note at the end, so that we can see that the regeneration is complete. Both Anderson and Marguerite also get close-ups, and we can see the dilemma work itself out in his face at the end. Still, I’m not sure that the moral of this story really works: were these jewels really worth a man’s life and does Marguerite really owe Anderson his freedom at the end? Will he stay regenerate or has he merely learned that some rich people are good and you shouldn’t steal from them that treat you right? I expect a bit more by the standards of 1915.
Director: G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson
Starring: G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Marguerite Clayton, Lee Willard, Charlie Chaplin, Lloyd Bacon, Belle Mitchell
Run Time: 15 Min
You can watch it for free: here.