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teaser Regeneration (1923)

"A Girl, a Man, Cast upon an Uninhabited Island, a Garden of Eden. Then the Serpent..." That was the catchy tagline given to the tropical adventure Regeneration, an example of the "all-black" films being created both in and outside of Hollywood in the silent era (and well into the sound era as well).

Drawing inspiration from seafaring adventure books and island fantasies popular at the time, the film stars one-shot actress Stella Mayo as Violet Daniels, a recently orphaned young woman who's left a strange map to buried treasure in the South Pacific by her late sea captain father. She recruits Jack Roper (M.C. Maxwell), a schooner owner, to take her on a treasure hunt while the villainous "Knife" Hurley tags along to steal the bounty for himself. The couple end up stranded on an island where Jack's passions begin to boil, and they name the island "Regeneration," the site for a final struggle between good and evil.

Regeneration was one of only eight films made by Norman Studios, also known as Norman Film Manufacturing Company, which specialized in product for black moviegoers of the time including The Flying Ace (1926) and Black Gold (1928). The studio was founded in Jacksonville, Florida by the director of this film, Richard Edward Norman, and astonishingly, the original facilities have survived intact as the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum in Jacksonville.

A white filmmaker himself, Norman originally started the company by buying the defunct Eagle Film Studios and using it to shoot a black remake of one of his own films, The Green-Eyed Monster (1916). In fact, he apparently made several versions of the story over a short period of time (with titles including The Wrecker and The Man at the Throttle), which have since been lost. Black actors were soon flocking to Jacksonville to appear in his films, which proved to be successful until the advent of the sound era and a damaging anti-film political campaign initiated by Jacksonville's mayor, John W. Martin. Norman would retire from feature films after 1928 and move to making short boxing and industrial films for the remainder of his career.

Also touted as "A Super Feature with an all-star Colored Cast! Six Reels of Love! Thrills! Romance!," Regeneration was considered to be fairly hot stuff when it opened in 1923. That was entirely intentional according to Norman's correspondence maintained and preserved at the studio, which notes that reports show that in New Orleans a screening had to turn away customers lined up for four blocks as the film broke records at the Lyric Theatre. "I am endeavoring to work in several nude and artistic bathing scenes on the desert island that will not offend and can be nicely removed [for] censorship," Norman wrote in one letter to a friend. "One of them showing this bathing scene with the villain peering lustfully through bushes at a terrified girl - it will draw like a mustard poultice. But as I said, everything is constructed so you can get by censorship - even if same is cut out as it is an addition to the story to boost business." Not surprisingly, state censors ordered brief cuts - but mostly for violence. That didn't put a damper on the box office appeal of the film, which went to vanish for decades and was presumed lost forever, much like its main characters.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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