Cecil B. DeMille’s final silent film, The Godless Girl, had the misfortune of being released in the shadow of The Jazz Singer, making it a casualty of the rapid shift in public tastes from pictures that didn’t talk to those that did. As a result, it became something of a footnote in DeMille’s career, which is a shame. For people, like myself, who entertain a fairly narrow conception of the director based on his association with Bible-thumpers like King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, viewing it can be an eye-opening experience — because even though it is, in part, concerned with the spread of atheism among the young people of its day, it doesn’t quite come down on that topic in the way you might expect.
Though an “A” picture in its time (it was produced at DeMille’s own studio in Culver City for a cost of $722,000), The Godless Girl bares all the hallmarks of a classic exploitation picture, in that it boasts sensational content housed within the legitimizing framework of social concern. This is not to say that DeMille was disingenuous in that concern — as we’ll see, he put a good deal of effort into insuring the accuracy of the film’s didactic content. He was, however, an entertainer first and foremost, and a crusader somewhere below that, and it would have been a betrayal of his instincts to not present the lurid details of his expose in a manner as thrilling to his audience as possible. That said, those parts of The Godless Girl dedicated to presenting the harrowing conditions of Coolidge-era reform schools might come off as tame to those steeped in the conventions of modern prison movies (in my case, for instance, the last reform school movie I watched subjected its inmates to depradations that would have made Pasolini blush).
The incident that inspired The Godless Girl was reported in the Los Angeles Times in 1927 and involved the discovery, on the campus of L.A.’s Hollywood High School, of pamphlets for an atheist student group. Tensions subsequently erupted between Christian-identified students at the school and those associated with the group, leading to a noisome confrontation at one of the group’s off-campus meetings. DeMille and his regular scenarist, Jeanie Macpherson, set out to blueprint a film based on this event and, somewhere along the line, also decided that said film should serve as an expose of the nation’s juvenile reformatories. To this end, DeMille commissioned six month’s worth of research on the topic that involved extensive interviews and information gathering, and even extended to him hiring a young woman to go undercover as an inmate in one such institution. This resulted in DeMille being able to make the claim that, no matter how titillatingly brutal the depictions of reform school life in his film might be, they were all based on documented facts and eyewitness accounts.
As fascinating as The Godless Girl is for being a sort of proto-youth-behind-bars movie, for me its real interest lies in the atheism-themed hijinks of its first act. Given DeMille’s Christian preoccupations, we — looking back upon the film from these ostensibly more enlightened and tolerant times — might expect The Godless Girl to demonize and vilify those who would renounce God. But the surprising fact is that, while DeMille certainly doesn’t advocate the atheist position, he takes pains to present zealotry on the part of the film’s believers as being equally divisive and intolerant as that of the atheist students. In addition, he clearly takes the position that the apparent ferocity of these beliefs, as expressed by his characters on either side, is merely the product of youthful enthusiasm, and in no way cancels out those characters’ essential decency (and certainly doesn’t make them deserving of the punishment that is meted out to them). The end effect is of a plea for calm and understanding, as if DeMille is trying to assure the adult America of 1929 that, yes, the kids really are alright — and, as such, it’s an authoritative, mitigating voice that no doubt would have served the country well during the many youth-focused hysterias that would sweep it during the generations to come.
The film begins with high school student Judy (Lina Basquette), the leader of the atheistic Godless Society, distributing fliers throughout the school for one of the group’s upcoming meetings. These fliers, displaying a gift for deft rhetoric sure to win many converts among the Christ-preferring members of the student body, read “Join the Godless Society – KILL THE BIBLE!” Predictably, much uproar and consternation ensues among both the students and faculty, not the least on the part of young Bob, the president of the student body and one of the school’s most outspoken mouthpieces for imposingly waspy piousness. Bob is portrayed by a ruthlessly handsome young actor named George Duryea, who would not long after enjoy considerable success as a cowboy star under the name Tom Keene — a somewhat vanilla career lived out between the exotic bookends of this film at its beginning and Keene’s role as Col. Tom Edwards in Plan 9 From Outer Space at its close. Interestingly, despite their mutually-antagonizing viewpoints, there are obvious sparks of attraction between Judy and Tom, and Judy even appears to get noticeably turned on by the righteous fury that Tom beams in her direction. Of course, given that DeMille was more of a “big picture” director who left actors to their own devices, this randyness on Judy’s part could easily have been a result less of the text than of the inclinations of the particular actress assigned to play her.
In Keith’s review of The White Hell of Piz Palu, he remarked upon how the naturalism of the acting in that film contrasted with what one would typically expect from a silent film of its day. Lina Basquette, on the other hand, provides pretty much exactly what one would expect — and, if she doesn’t, it is perhaps by dint of her performance being anachronistic even for its time. Eye bulging, breast heaving, and elaborate, spidery hand gestures are her best friends here, sometimes to the extent that she is at odds with the other cast members, none of whom are slouches in the histrionics department themselves. On top of that, when called upon to express any type of passionate feeling on the part of her character — be it ideological fervor, furious indignation, or what-have-you — Basquette seems to fall back upon an exaggerated carnality as her guiding principle. And, lord knows, no one can express exaggerated carnality like a silent movie actress. After all, while the relaxed standards of later eras may have allowed actors to do and say nasty things, these actresses were required to exude nastiness on a molecular level. In the case of Basquette, this overheated comportment — along with the corresponding reaction to it on the part of George Duryea — gives the distinct impression that much pain could have been avoided had Judy and Bob dedicated those energies spent on petty religious squabbling to what was actually on their minds. Again, whether this was DeMille’s intention is another matter, but it still provides The Godless Girl with an amusingly steamy little subtext, accidental or not.
Anyway, the fateful evening finally arrives, and it is time for the Godless Society’s meeting, held “in a shabby hall on a squalid street… where little rebels blow spitballs at the rock of ages”. (Anyone who holds up silent films as an example of purely visual storytelling is forgetting just how much editorializing tended to sneak its way into the title cards.) It’s during this scene that we’re put on notice that the film’s sober subject matter is not seen by DeMille as necessarily requiring sober treatment — a rude wakeup call delivered by the comic relief stylings of Judy and Bob’s classmate Bozo Johnson (Mack Sennett regular Eddie Quinlan), who, over the course of this sequence, will do several pratfalls and have a monkey run up his pants leg. This monkey, of course, is part of Judy’s characteristically fiery presentation to the group, and is introduced to the assembled blasphemers as “your cousin” — a reference that was probably pretty edgy at the time, given that the Scopes trial was a very recent memory. Despite this scandalous talk, the Society’s meeting is clearly being conducted in an orderly manner, and well within the limits of the law. This places in unflattering contrast the actions of Bob, who shows up at the meeting with his own sizeable God squad in tow, all of whom come armed with crates of rotten eggs and are obviously spoiling for a fight. They get it, of course — after a brief stand-off, during which the devout demand that the meeting be shut down and Judy stands her ground — and soon the scuffle devolves into a full scale melee, at its height spilling out onto the rickety stairwell outside the meeting room.
The multi-leveled set that represents the stairwell is a truly impressive construction, and in this scene is the setting for the first of two breathtaking set pieces that bookend The Godless Girl‘s action. (If you thought that the subject matter of this film would put a damper on DeMille’s predilection for spectacle, you were wrong.) The frantically battling crowd ends up surging out along the entire length of the structure like one giant writhing mass, causing the railings to bulge ominously with their weight. Finally, an unintentional shove from Bozo sends one of the Godless Society’s young female members — identified in the credits only as “The Victim” (Mary Jane Irving) — plummeting from the uppermost landing to her death. DeMille makes the interesting choice of shooting the girl’s fall from her perspective, and presenting it as playing out unnaturally slowly, so that we see the horrified faces of the kids lined up along the stairway watching her as she passes (perhaps affording The Victim the opportunity to say a few quick goodbyes to her friends among the crowd as she goes by — though, since it was shot from her POV, I couldn’t tell you if she was waving or not.)
Once The Victim finally touches down, a distraught Judy rushes to take her in her arms. Asked by the dying girl for reassurance that there really is something on the other side after all, Judy is only able to deliver a series of deliriously overwrought facial expressions. Fortunately, there is a kindly old cop on hand to tell the girl — in a soothing Irish brogue, I imagine — that the J Man is indeed awaiting her arrival with open arms and, probably, a gift bag of some kind, after which the child blissfully shuffles off this mortal coil. With the crime established, and the law present, it is now time for Judy and Bob, as the instigators of the riot — along with Bozo, for his apparent part in the girl’s accident — to be carted off to the youth reformatory.
The reformatory — represented by a surprisingly convincing set constructed by designer Mitchell Leisen on DeMille’s back lot — is a bleak, castle-like structure of brick and mortar with an electrified fence neatly bisecting its yard to separate the male and female inmate populations — a clear visual reference to the divisions wrought by intolerance and zealotry that DeMille is seeking to decry. Here, Judy and Bob, obviously upper middle class kids accustomed to a not inconsiderable amount of creature comforts, step up to the hard slap in the face that the institution’s harsh, military style of discipline has to offer them. For Judy, of course (being, you know, a girl, and all) the first insults are the unflattering haircut and the sack-like clothing (though, I’ve got to say that the hats look oddly fashionable), followed by the lack of privacy and the frequent dressing downs from the shrewish wardens. For Bob, the Civil War-like uniforms and the borderline-emo asymmetrical shearing he gets are also an issue, but are no doubt eclipsed by the frequent, enthusiastic beatings he receives.
Fortunately for Bob, he’s not alone in his confinement, because Bozo is right there with him — which, actually, upon consideration, has got to be nearly as awful for Bob as it is for us. So Judy is clearly the winner here. However, she also ends up with a friend and confidante on the inside: a tough talking, Bible-toting blonde by the name of Mame. Mame is played by Marie Prevost, an actress who is likely known to readers of Teleport City more for having the ignominious circumstances of her death immortalized in song by Nick Lowe than for any of her actual screen performances. It seems that the talkies were not kind to Marie, and, in January of 1937, a lethal combination of anorexia and severe alcoholism lead to her death from malnutrition at the age of 38. As legend has it, some few days passed before her body was discovered, and when it was, the cadaver showed signs of being the subject of some postmortem noshing on the part of Marie’s pet dachshund. Contrary to that legend, the police report at the time indicated that the bite marks were assumed to be the result of the dog trying to rouse Marie, rather than eat her. But being that consumption of humans by domestic animals has always been such a favored subject of popular song, Lowe couldn’t resist that spin, and so, in his song “Marie Provost”, blessed the world with that evergreen couplet, “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner.” (As much of a fan as I am of Lowe — and that song, for that matter — I must say that I think it’s a little raw that, while making light of Marie’s pathetic demise, the singer didn’t even bother to get her name right.) Those sad facts aside, we can here enjoy Marie in her heyday. And I’m happy the report that, as the movie’s representative tough cookie, she’s blessed with all the best, colloquialism-riddled lines, variably referring to her fellow inmates as “Mama”, “Sister” and “Bimbo” while striking all manner of slouchy bad girl poses.
Back on Bob’s side of the fence, we see that one time-honored prison movie convention really is, in fact, time-honored, and that the boys’ wing of the reformatory comes complete with a sadistic head guard, billed only as “The Brute” and played by perennial silent movie heavy Noah Beery. In classic fashion, a battle of wills breaks out between Bob and The Brute, with Bob’s spirited refusal to be broken resulting in ever more severe beatings, blastings with the fire hose, and unwarranted stints in solitary. The Brute even delivers a crippling beat-down to Bozo, which, admittedly, is kind of awesome. Meanwhile, Bob and Judy’s separation has allowed for the nature of their true feelings for one another to dawn upon them, leading to a furtive tryst at the electrified fence. The Brute, unfortunately, is a witness to this meeting and, seeing it as an opportunity to forge new frontiers in bastardry, turns up the juice on the fence just as the two lovers are clasping onto its wires and gazing at each other longingly. Being that electrified fences are notoriously unsubtle, this incident leaves Judy with identical burns on each palm in the shape of a cross, something she chooses to see as a “sign” of some kind — probably related in some way to Jesus, and perhaps having something to do with the fact that she’s been making a halting journey toward Christian belief ever since setting foot within the reformatory walls.
Eventually an opportunity for escape arises when Bob gets the drop on The Beast during a scuffle in the solitary block. After locking the monstrous guard in one of the cells, Bob disguises himself as a laundry cart driver, collects Judy, and flees with her into the countryside beyond the reformatory gates. A brief, idyllic interlude follows in which the lovers enjoy their newfound appreciation for the simple fruits of freedom and the beauty of the open landscape before them. Both, we see, have undergone a shift in their beliefs during their confinement, with Bob coming to question his faith just as Judy is coming to embrace it, and the result is that each is now able to see and respect the other’s position free from the distorting influence of dogma. It’s a development that seems to indicate some confusion on the part of DeMille as to what his message is exactly, since the very harsh conditions that he’s decrying appear to be what has brought about the attitude of humility and tolerance that he is simultaneously making a plea for.
Of course, Bob and Judy’s liberty is short lived, and they are soon recaptured and returned to their prison, setting the stage for The Godless Girl‘s apocalyptic finale — a spectacular fire that consumes the reformatory as Bob struggles to free Judy, who is shackled to her bunk in a solitary cell. The fire effect here is achieved by the most analog means possible — i.e. by lighting the set on fire and forcing the obviously-in-real-peril-actors to struggle their way through it while being pelted by huge pieces of flaming debris from all sides. By reports, DeMille seemed to get a bit of a kick out of putting his actor in harm’s way like this, and was known to berate them when they objected to the notion of being killed in pursuit of his vision. Callous? Perhaps — but, hey, you sure can’t argue with the results. It’s a really riveting sequence, and you certainly have no trouble buying the looks of abject terror that play over the faces of Basquette and Duryea as it plays out.
Though our modern eyes might see The Godless Girl as containing, at best, the makings of a solid “B” type feature, DeMille clearly saw himself as making an epic, and the resulting two hour-plus running time of the original cut might come across to most as spreading the movie’s content just a tad too thin. Its final acts, after all, are largely comprised of prison movie tropes that have become all too familiar in the ensuing years — and the interest they hold pales in comparison to both the juicy subject matter and surprising even-handedness presented in the film’s opening moments. You have to wonder what this movie might have been like had DeMille not gotten distracted by his reformist crusade and instead tried to plot out a path to understanding between Judy and Bob that was less dependent on drastic dramatic interventions like sudden death and imprisonment. Chances are that, at the very least, audiences of today would get a clearer picture than the one hinted at of what popular attitudes regarding these — amazingly — still controversial issues were during the picture’s day. It’s a common assumption that attitudes in eras previous to ours were by their nature less “modern” than our own, even though the reality of our current era often renders that notion ridiculous. In light of that, The Godless Girl — just like any high school teacher worth his or her salt — might handily reminds us of the perils that lurk within the word “Assume”.
Release Year: 1929 | Country: United States | Starring: Lina Basquette, Tom Keene (as George Duryea), Marie Prevost, Noah Beery, Eddie Quinlan, Mary Jane Irving | Writer: Jeanie Macpherson | Director: Cecil B. DeMille | Cinematographer: J. Peverell Marley | Producer: Cecil B. DeMille