REGENERATION – 100th Anniversary – AFI Catalog Spotlight – American Film Institute

Protected:

REGENERATION – 100th Anniversary – AFI Catalog Spotlight

REGENERATION 1923 film - marketingThis December, the AFI Catalog looks back 100 years to spotlight the centennial release anniversary of REGENERATION (1923), a landmark film notable for featuring an entirely Black cast and for catching the attention of both Black and white audiences alike. Billed as a “romance in the south seas,” REGENERATION titillated viewers as much as it disturbed censors with its boundary-pushing nudity and unflinching depictions of greed and desire as it follows three shipwrecked sailors, a beautiful woman and a trove of buried treasure. Like many “race films” of the silent era, REGENERATION has been largely lost to history with missing and deteriorated prints, but miraculously one reel survives. Viewers today can still experience the film’s impressive sea-set production and striking cast of all Black performers, finally given the opportunity to take center stage in a high-profile release.

REGENERATION - Richard Norman - Founder of Norman Studios - stands behind a cameraNorman Studios was not the first silent film era company to cater to underserved audiences of Black movie-goers with “race films,” but founder Richard E. Norman – who was white – was one of the first producers to successfully market his pictures to white audiences as well. As noted by Norman’s son on the company’s website, Norman was deeply concerned about race relations and racism in America, in daily life as well as on the big screen. He observed a market for Black films that was virtually untapped at the time, and he strove to empower the African American community by representing their interests in cinematic storytelling and in viewership. Norman’s first all-Black film production in his newly built studio in Jacksonville, Florida, was the action-adventure THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER (1919), which was followed by two Westerns, THE BULL DOGGER (1921) and THE CRIMSON SKULL (1922). The success of these pictures cemented Norman’s belief that audiences wanted to see Black movie stars, and he set about cultivating new talent to provide legitimate box-office drawing power. In addition, Norman innovated a marketing strategy in which he offset the risk of his ambitious productions by securing bookings and profit-sharing agreements in theaters before cameras started rolling. As Norman predicted, he was able to make such arrangements for REGENERATION on the strength of his popular Westerns, which distributors could count on as huge draws for audiences.

Always chasing trends to stay in audiences’ good favor, Norman cancelled a planned Western serial in favor of REGENERATION, recognizing that “sea pictures are all the rage now.” Still, Norman remained thrifty with his production budget and cast salaries, aware that as successful as THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER was, at its peak it still only played in just over a hundred theaters, compared to the thousands of theaters “white pictures” were distributed through. Unable to compete with the salaries that established actors cost in New York, Norman largely courted new talent. The two leads of REGENERATION, Stella Mayo and M.C. Maxwell, made their first on-screen appearances after cutting their teeth on the stage and in vaudeville; Maxwell had even done some marketing work for Norman before he made his move to film acting with REGENERATION. Norman hired both stars on a salary of $40 a week, far below New York’s standard $200 rate. Despite Norman’s cost-saving efforts, filming on the Mayport and Manhattan Beaches of the subtropical Florida coast went over-schedule and over-budget due to the complicated nature of shooting on the water. A large two-masted schooner was even set ablaze a few miles off the coast in the film’s most costly visual effect.

IREGENERATION 1923 film - marketing posternstead of focusing on the film’s action, which was expensive to produce, Norman Studios’ advertising campaign leaned into the film’s frank sexuality, with posters showing potential ticket buyers racy images of a naked Stella Mayo, only partly obscured by reeds and the darkness of the setting sun. These so called “Exploitation Accessories” also included the line “featuring Stella Mayo, Sensational Colored Screen Beauty!” to entice crowds in theater windows and lobbies. Even though it was Mayo’s first movie, Norman was determined to make her name and image a constant throughout the movie’s promotion, linking back to his dream of ushering in a new lineup of Black movie stars. However, REGENERATION was ultimately Mayo’s only movie. Norman even managed to get the film through some strict state censors with only minor cuts, removing any close-up shots of Violet’s (Stella Mayo) bound hands and feet and one sequence where Violet threatens the entire ship’s crew at gunpoint.

REGENERATION 1923 film still of characters on a boat. A woman points a pistol at several passengers who have their hands up.The gambit worked; REGENERATION was officially released on Christmas in 1923 and quickly turned into one of the most lucrative films Norman Studios would ever produce. REGENERATION went on a roadshow around the country, playing to packed houses in Jacksonville, Miami, Birmingham, Knoxville, Kansas City, New York City and Washington, DC. It smashed box office records in Dallas. Lines were reported stretching around the block in New Orleans.

The public’s appetite for this wave of “race films” eventually died down, and Norman Studios closed up shop for good with the arrival of the talkies. Despite their unprecedented numbers, most of these film prints do not survive. REGENERATION remains a groundbreaking film which proudly promoted its all-Black cast with provocative imagery. Stella Mayo’s compelling screen presence, the film’s unabashed sexuality and Norman Studios’ ambitious distribution and marketing strategy all contributed to the film’s unparalleled crossover success, and it holds up today as a milestone achievement in film production and business savvy. Just recently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Academy Museum displayed a landmark exhibition of Black cinema’s visual culture to enhance scholarship and inspire the next generation of storytellers that took its name from this picture, in the hope that the legacy of Black filmmaking will no longer be overlooked in the regeneration of our nation’s cultural heritage.

Watch the surviving reel of REGENERATION:

Resources:

A History in the Making. Norman Studios. (n.d.) http://normanstudios.org/about/history/

Jackson, J. A. (1923). In the Interest of the Colored Actor, Actress and Musician of America. The Billboard, 35(12), 56–57.

Klotman, P. R. (2001). Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: The Flying Ace, the Norman Company, and the Micheaux Connection. In P. Bowser, J. Gaines, & C. Musser (Eds.), Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era (pp. 161–177). Indiana University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1b7x4wf.16

Lupack, B. T., & Martin, M. T. (2014). “A Risky Experiment”: Zircon and Regeneration. In Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking (pp. 118–161). Indiana University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt16gz708.12

Movie Poster, Regeneration Poster Package. 1923. Richard Mette Collection. University of North Florida, Thomas G. Carpenter Library Special Collections and Archives. UNF Digital Commons, digitalcommons.unf.edu/mette_text/39

Regeneration. Norman Studios. (n.d.). https://normanstudios.org/films-stars/norman films/regeneration/

“Regeneration,” American Film Institute Catalog, accessed November 9, 2023, https://catalog.afi.com/Film/1647-REGENERATION

Learn more about supporting AFI’s mission.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Related Posts

DONATE

SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER