Stella Mayo – the ‘Sensational Colored Screen Beauty’ – won the lead as Violet Daniels in Regeneration, only after director Richard Norman had struggled for months to find a lead actress who would (a), ‘photograph well’ and (b), meet the salary requirements of Norman Studios, stricken by a sharp decrease in the market for race films leading up to 1923.
We know very little about Mayo; she seems to have come to Regenreation from relative obscurity and returned there rather quickly. However, through the Norman Collection at the Black Film Center/Archive, a much larger story about the casting and promoting of Regeneration emerges – a fascinating window into the era of race films and the junctures of sex, economics, color and propriety.
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To contextualize a bit first, though, here’s the synopsis, followed by a montage of promotional materials:
A ne’er-do-well man, a beautiful girl, and her one-legged body-guard/family servant are the sole survivors – they think – of a ship wreck and make it to a uninhabited south-seas island. The influence of the girl brings about a reformation of the man in this version of Eden…until three sailors, also survivors, show up, and have designs on the girl. Then a pirates’ treasure chest is discovered buried on the beach, and matters become even more tense…and violent.
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On September 4th, 1923, Richard Norman wrote to A. Rosen, a friend and film distributor in Baltimore, about Regeneration:
Regeneration is a high class thriller and will appeal to New York, Philadelphia, Washington audiences better that ANY PICTURE WE HAVE RELEASED. ANOTHER THING, 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. And with two styles of ones, one of them showing this bathing scene with villain peering lustfully through the bushes at terrified girl – it will draw like mustard poultice.
Norman’s vision for a sexy Crusoe-esque story had began in May of that year, when he wrote to M.C. Maxwell (Maxwell and Norman had worked together before), who was cast as the lead man for his ‘mature physique.’ Finding his leading lady – who would bring sex appeal and with a known name and who could work within the studio’s budget – would prove very difficult for Norman, though.
He first tried Miss Ida Anderson, offering her a salary of $50/week and transportation to Jacksonville (where Norman Studios were) and back from New York (where Anderson lived). Continue reading