Casting ‘Regeneration’: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Race Film

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.

*                             *                             *

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.

*                             *                             *

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[1].

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.

Miss Ida Anderson of New York

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).Anderson was a fairly established New York star who had worked with Oscar Micheaux, among others.  She replied to Norman’s offer of $50/week in June of 1923:

Your letter received and carefully read.  My salary is $200.00[2]…per week including concessions. I am an experienced artist and not giving away my services for try-outs to anyone.  Lasky and Selznick pay me $40.00…per day.  However should you really wish to talk business I am at your service.

Respectfully Yours,

                                                                                                                                Ida Anderson

In Norman’s reply to Anderson, that July, he reveals how the race film market has influenced his salary offers:

We see that you are laboring under a delusion.  White Pictures have a possible distribution of over 15000 theaters, including all colored theatres.  Colored Pictures have a distribution of a bare 100 theaters.  The greatest race colored picture ever produced played in only 105 theatres in boom times.  These few theatres have indifferent management in the majority, some are closed.  Revenues have decreased 50% in the last 2 years.  Colored pictures have ceased to be a novelty and have lost their original drawing power.

Norman, of course, was a business man, and was interested in making money.  But he doesn’t seem to be exaggerating too much with Anderson for simple leverage, as his correspondences with other directors and producers (whom he was good friends with) quote similar observations and figures.  In any case, Anderson was out of the picture, and Norman would have to search elsewhere for his leading lady.

After Miss Ida Anderson didn’t pan out as the stunning, beautiful lead that Norman was looking for in his upcoming film Regeneration, Norman turned his attention to Edna Morton, another New York star who had worked with Micheaux.   she initiated contact, having heard of Regeneration through industry contacts.  Like Anderson, Norman was interested in Morton because of the drawing power of her name – he knew he would be able to pack theaters with a big name.

In a flurry of correspondence that July,  Norman and Morton go back and forth about contract negotiations.  Morton first reiterates her experience and says she would love to work in the film.  Norman asks what he can ‘secure her services for.’  Morton (via telegram) says she will work for $125/week.  Norman says he cannot pay that.  Morton telegrams Norman to have him wire her terms.  Norman says he cannot wire terms “because we have done this several times before to New York talent who became insulted with our offer through ignorance of salaries that could be paid for talent in the production of Colored Pictures.” Morton responds that she cannot work less than $100/week: “anything less would be a financial loss as well as lowering the standard I have set for myself as an artiste of the screen.”

Morton and Norman don’t continue negotiations much further; “I have just received another letter from Edna Morton and she has come down off her high horse, but she hasn’t the looks for the part,” wrote Norman to his friend and male lead M.C. Maxwell.

In that same correspondence with Maxwell, he explains what type of lead he wants before appealing to Maxwell for help (looks preferred over acting talent):

These is only one girl in the plot and I want her to be good looking, she needn’t have any great dramatic ability, but must be willing to learn…You should play Jack Roper a sea captain with ease as your physique is well suited to the part…When Violet Daniels [the female lead] is cast on the Island of Regeneration, she becomes somewhat ragged through the lapse of time, which shows parts of her leg and neck, just enough to intrigue and the fancy…if your characters have good figures, it will add to the charm of the movie.

A flurry of names are suggested by Maxwell.  There’s  Miss Irma Boardman of Alexandria, Louisiana, Madame Mozell Perry of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Earline Jackson, a  “nice looking brown skin girl about 18 years old, just the right size and shape” from Asheville, North Carolina.  Norman suggests someone he’s just met (he was “combing the streets of Jacksonville for talent”) who had just moved to Jacksonville from Savannah, Georgia.

A Goldilocks affliction descended on all of those possibilities.  While Mazel Perry was “too stout,” an actress from The Green Eyed Monster (Louise Dunbar?) was “too slender,” (they both, though, have lovely faces, it seems).  The girl from Savannah, at 5’10’’, was, unfortunately “too tall,” and other actresses did not reply.

In a letter to a film distributor in early September, Norman says that Earline Jackson, the girl from Asheville, would play the leading lady.  For unknown reasons, that falls through.

In mid-September, ready to shoot, Norman wrote to Maxwell, asking him to come down and begin shooting, even though they didn’t have a leading lady.  They seemed determined to find one.  Against that backdrop, through a process that leaves no record in Norman’s correspondence, one Stella Mayo became the leading lady.  A few sources suggest she was with the ‘famed’ Mayo Family Magicians, though they seem quite obscure as well.  We also don’t know, after the contract negotiations with the other actresses, how much Mayo was paid for her role.  We know that Maxwell was paid $40/week ($504 in 2010 dollars).

The film was distributed around the South and up the East Coast in December of 1923 and into 1924, with Stella Mayo marketed as the ‘Sensational Colored Screen Beauty.’  As no surviving prints of Regeneration survive, we can only infer about the romance, intrigue, and sensuousness referenced by Norman in his letters.

Some of our last knowledge of the film, then, comes from The State of New York Motion Picture Commission, who said, in 1924:

The picture “REGENERATION” has been reviewed.  The following eliminations are ordered:

Reel 2: Shorten scene one half – struggle between the crew and Captain on the stern of the boat and eliminate scene of girl (Olive) with the pistol hodling up the crew.

The reason for the cut-outs are that they would “tend to incite to crime.”


[1] A kind of heated cataplasm (?) made from mustard used to treat pneumonia and other chest pains, and that, apparently, really draws things.

[2] Adjusted for inflation, $50 in 1923 (Norman’s original offer for weekly salary) would be equivalent to $630 in 2010, while $200 (Anderson’s requested weekly salary) would be equal to $2520.

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

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