At the end of the day, I have to shrug and surrender to my baser side and say that Michael Carreras probably needed to be kicked in the shin at least once. Possibly more than once, but at least once. Allow me to explain myself. Michael Carreras was the son of Hammer Studio founder James Carreras, and he used that relationship to finagle himself a more or less permanent fixture in the hierarchy of the studio, until eventually the reigns were passed to him entirely and the whole show collapsed. Now not everything with the name of Michael Carrereas on it was an embarrassing display of nepotism. In fact, there is much about Michael’s involvement with his father’s studio that is of high merit. He served as producer for most of the studio’s best films. As a director, he was a mixed bag, but he did manage to deliver The Lost Continent, one of Hammer’s loopiest and most hilariously daft adventure films. And after directing a decidedly pedestrian follow-up to Hammer’s smash hit The Mummy, he redeemed himself somewhat by stepping in to finish the job of directing the superb Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb when original director Seth Holt passed away. No, there is much about Michael’s tenure at Hammer that is worth celebrating. It’s just that at some point in the 1970s, he lost his mind.
H.P. Lovecraft may not be one of the best writers in the world, but he’s certainly one of the most fun to read — not to mention imitate. For this reason, I got it in my head that it would be a great idea to read The Dunwich Horror aloud to my wife. She not only loves to be scared, but is so committed to the endeavor that she’s even on occasion been willing to meet Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror movies halfway. That’s a perfect attitude to bring to Lovecraft, in my opinion, because he’s an author you really need to be willing to work with. In cracking open one of his stories, you’re making an implicit agreement to be scared; otherwise it’s just not going to work. Of course, Lovecraft does his part to help you along in that regard, always letting you know exactly how afraid you’re supposed to be, even when the object of that fear remains somewhat sketchily defined, and also modeling the desired behavior by populating his stories with characters who launch into paroxysms of terror at the faintest fetid odor.
The wonderful thing about Battle Beneath the Earth is that it allows even an underachiever like myself with no college edukation to feel that he has a breadth of scientific knowledge superior to that of its makers. On more than one occasion while watching it I was able to point at the screen and exclaim, “Der, that can’t not happen! Har!” For instance, I don’t know anything about geology, but I know that molten lava is hot, and that you can’t just daintily step over a stream of it as if it were a crack in the sidewalk. Also, if digging a tunnel between China and the U.S. were as easy as this film makes it out to be, China’s biggest problem would be the steady influx of six-to-eight year-old American boys constantly emerging from holes hither and yon to excitedly wave their shovels at people.
Battle Beneath the Earth strikes me as being what a movie conceived by one of those six-to-eight year-old boy might be like. It’s a film that is clearly targeted directly at the kiddie matinee market, and, as such, seems to bypass all adult sensibilities and mainline directly into the brain patterns of a prepubescent Sixties-era male jacked up on war comics, high sugar cereals and violent Saturday morning cartoons. I mean, listen to this premise: The Red Chinese dig a subterranean tunnel from China to the U.S. with the intent of detonating nuclear bombs under our major cities, only to be engaged by the U.S. armed forces–ideally portrayed by a bunch of green plastic army men–in all-out warfare… beneath the surface of the Earth! Seriously, fellows, if that doesn’t stir the kid inside, I don’t know what would.
Unfortunately, in execution, Battle Beneath the Earth confronts a discrepancy between ambition and means similar to what an eight year-old likely would. As a result, it ends up being a classic example of the type of movie that marries a grandiose concept to modest intentions. “The Chinese” end up being more like some Chinese (and not even real ones, in many cases) and the “battle” ends up being more like a skirmish. Still, the movie has to be given some points at the get-go for its dopey concept and total disregard for maintaining credulity among anyone whose age breaks the double digits. Then again, given that this is a British production pretending to be an American one, it could just be an instance of some smarty-pants English people making fun of us yanks by dumbing themselves down in imitation. (Executive #1: “So how do we make it seem authentically American?” Executive #2: “Well, first of all, we should make it really stupid.”)
In line with its moderate level of spectacle, Battle Beneath the Earth is the work of a group of professionals who shared a more or less equally moderate level of accomplishment. Before helming the picture, director Montgomery Tully churned out–seemingly at monthly intervals–a large number of competent but unremarkable B crime thrillers, and also worked in British television. Similarly, writer Charles F. Vetter (here credited as L.Z. Hargreaves) was responsible for writing enjoyable genre entries like First Man Into Space and Devil Doll that, while certainly not without their well-deserved fans, are far from considered classics. Star Kerwin Matthews, for his part, was known primarily for playing support to stop-motion monsters in films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and Jack the Giant Killer–though it was possibly his work in eurospy films like the OSS 117 series that put him in mind for his role here–and leading lady Vivienne Ventura had a healthy resume of TV work. All in all, a perfectly respectable line-up of talent, but nowhere near a guaranty that what you’re going to be seeing will rise above mediocrity.
Our action begins on a British soundstage dressed up to resemble–at least to a grade schooler’s exacting standards of verisimilitude–a street in downtown Las Vegas. As a crowd of British extras doing their best to exude American-ness looks on, obviously over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer (Peter Arne) kneels with his ear to the sidewalk, exclaiming excitedly about some kind of suspicious goings on “down there”. Of course, since the movie is called Battle Beneath the Earth, we know that Kramer is on to something, but the Las Vegas authorities, not being afforded such insight, just think he’s a nutter and cart him off to the bin. Kramer, of course, protests to the contrary and insures them that the threat he perceives is real. However, like most supposedly sane people in movies who are assumed to be crazy by everyone else, he steadfastly refuses to state his case in clear, simple terms, and instead resorts to vague, metaphorical language that is as close to incoherent raving as possible.
Enter Naval Commander John Shore, played by Kerwin Matthews. Since an undersea lab project he helmed ended in disaster thanks to a mysterious underwater earthquake, Shore has been relegated to a test lab where he spends his days hitting brightly colored pipes with a rubber mallet. Fortunately, one of his assistants happens to be over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer’s sister, and she asks Shore, an old family friend, to visit her brother in the brain hospital. Kramer is not much more transparent in his statements to Shore, but does show him a “seismographic drawing”–made as a byproduct of some earthquake prediction research he was conducting–that, according to him, shows man-made tunnels under the U.S.that he believes are entering the country somewhere along the Oregon coast. Later, when news breaks of an unexplained mine collapse in an Oregon coastal town, Shore decides that Kramer’s claims merit further looking into.
Part of that further looking into involves Shore visiting his buddy Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy at the very clearly labeled “Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center”. Despite the name, the center appears to be some kind of global listening post. They’ve got “the entire world bugged”, Cassidy tells Shore, and if “a champagne cork pops in the Kremlin”, they hear it. That this arrangement is unironically presented as being merely sort of neat is in keeping with Battle Beyond the Earth’s kid-like perspective, exemplified in this case by a purely “gee-whiz” conception of both the benevolence of military authority and the sleek efficiency of American bureaucracy. This is, after all, a movie where the sight of a uniformed official puffing out his chest and barking gravely into a bright red phone while standing in front of a wall-sized map is treated as being on an equal level of spectacle to any of the action set pieces, and in which, during the cast listing at the end, each of the characters are listed by full name and military ranking, even though some of them weren’t even referred to by name in the film… and none of them are real people (seriously, you feel like you’re supposed to stand up as they roll by).
The barking of terse commands into red phones is not just noteworthy in itself, of course, but also because it results in important things getting done, and often in remarkable time. At one point, when silence is required in order for the Navy’s detecting equipment to identify the locations of the Chinese underground tunnels, Admiral Felix Hillebrand (Robert Ayres) simply picks up the phone and makes a couple of calls, resulting, within just a few hours, in the entire United States going completely silent. All transportation has been shut down, traffic stopped, broadcast signals ceased and all heavy machinery of every kind brought to a halt in every single region of every state in the union. One by one, each of the states checks in with the central command center, letting the brass know that “condition silent” is in effect in their slice of the country–at which point, of course, that state lights up on a giant wall map. These few uniformed men in this room are not just important, Battle Beneath the Earth is saying, but super duper important–so much so that they can toggle the entire country on and off like a light switch.
It’s kind of hard to believe that those behind Battle Beneath the Earth meant for any of this to be taken seriously, even by the attention-deficient rugrats at the core of their target audience. This was 1967, after all, and characters such as these were already commonly being presented as either villains or figures of ridicule throughout mainstream entertainment. Most of the military men on display here, with their implied mania for control and obsession with commies, are, in fact, just a few tweaks away from becoming Dr. Strangelove‘s General Jack D. Ripper. Still, if fun is being made, Battle Beneath the Earth is doing a superhuman job of feigning stone-faced earnestness throughout, never once tipping its hat or giving the audience the slightest glimmer of a wink.
Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy, by the way, is portrayed by Ed Bishop, who, of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, probably makes the largest blip on the radar screens of Teleport City’s readers. Though he was born in Brooklyn, there was something about Bishop–perhaps his weathered farmboy good looks or unaccented TV announcer’s voice–that seems to have struck British casting agents as being quintessentially middle-American, because his early career consisted largely of bit parts as token American astronauts, low level military functionaries and mission control operators in a number of British productions. Around the time of making Battle Beneath the Earth, he was providing the voice of Captain Blue in Gerry Anderson’s puppet series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. That would lead, a couple of years later, to him donning a platinum wig and taking the lead role of Commander Ed Straker in Anderson’s first live action series, UFO — if not the best, than certainly one of the most stylish science fiction programs of the Sixties.
Anyway, Shore’s initial visit to the (Underground) Atomic Detection Center proves unfruitful, as Cassidy’s equipment is more attuned to picking up Champaign corks popping in the Kremlin than it is hundreds of Chinese burrowing away right beneath our feet. Undaunted, Shore heads to the collapsed mine in Oregon where, while exploring a disused section, he stumbles upon a freshly made tunnel whose walls have apparently been hewn via the application of extraordinary heat. He also finds a medallion that someone has left behind that has a Chinese dragon on it. This discovery leads to Shore being authorized to return to the mine with a small group of combat soldiers. This second time around, Shore and the soldiers happen upon a big yellow tank thing bearing the same dragon insignia as the medallion, which is in the process of carving a tunnel through the rock using high intensity lasers. (These lasers are portrayed by a couple of extra-bright headlamps–but have no fear; the use of drawn-on cartoon laser beams will be used at later points as dramatic effect requires.) They follow the laser tank to an underground chamber in which a number of Asians in lab coats, as well as a few soldiers, are tending to some large, black, lozenge-shaped things which also bear the same dragon insignia. “Chinese!”, exclaims one of the soldiers. “With atom bombs!”, exclaims Kerwin Matthew in reply.
At this, Shore and company leap from hiding and waste the whole group in a hail of machinegun fire. This tactic, while effective in a very limited sense, leaves quite a few questions with little hope of being answered, such as just who all of these freshly dead Chinese people are working for. As we will soon learn, the answer to that is General Chan Lu, a rogue Chinese officer who has seized his country’s plutonium stores and held his government hostage while pursuing his own personal plan to nuke the U.S. to rubble using a system of world-spanning tunnels dug by his private troops over the course of three years. Serving loyally at his side are the evil scientific genius Dr. Kengh Lee and his key military aid Major Chai, both of whom have to compete for attention with his ever-present pet falcon.
Now, as far as I could tell, all of those Chinese military personnel gunned down by Shore and his men, like most of the non-speaking Asian roles in Battle Beneath the Earth, were played by actual Asians, but the door slams pretty hard on race-appropriate casting once we get to the speaking roles. Chan Lu and Kengh Lee, for instance, are played by veteran character actors and British TV stalwarts Martin Benson and Peter Elliott, and they do so in a dispiriting display of the most egregious putty-eyed Orientalism you could imagine. In all seriousness, if there was just one of them it might be easier to get around, but between the two of them they’re like a tag team of Fu Manchus trying to out “ah so” one another in a taxing display of excruciating inscrutability. Major Chai, also, is played by a British actor, David Spenser, though in a comparably lower key. It is only Paula Li Shiu, out of all the Asian actors on screen, who gets a speaking role, playing Dr. Arnn, a functionary of Chan Lu’s who shows up in one scene to hypnotize a captive Peter Arne using a handheld electric fan.
By the way, out of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, Peter Arne is definitely the one most worth watching. For one thing, he’s perfect for a comic book movie like this, because he looks like he was drawn by Steve Ditko; his face a collection of anxious lines that looks like just one more stressor could cause it to collapse in upon itself. Furthermore, in a field of stubbornly one-layered characters, his is the one that strives the most toward three dimensionality. Kramer is conflicted, resentful of his earlier treatment by the military establishment, but driven by a sense of duty once he is called upon to rejoin the cause, and Arne brings a twitchy irascibility to his portrayal that makes him the focus of every scene he’s in. Arne was yet another fixture of 1960s British TV (I swear, I don’t think there’s a single member of the cast of Battle Beneath the Earth who didn’t make a guest appearance on Danger Man) and I was sad to learn that he left this world under violent circumstances, the victim of murder in 1983. I wish I could pay him better tribute than simply saying that he was the best actor in Battle Beneath the Earth, but there you go. At least I mean it sincerely.
Now I have to mention here that I will be describing things in Battle Beneath the Earth that will sound much more exciting or colorful than they actually appear on screen. To counter this, I suggest that you apply to every mental image conjured by these descriptions a sort of down-sizing formula, reducing the scale of what you see in your mind by a factor of about, oh, eighty percent or so. For instance, when I describe a clash between Chinese and American soldiers, you might think of it as involving actual armies, when in reality there will be no more than a dozen people on either side. This was done, I imagine, not only to save on the cost of employing extras, but also because that is about as many people as the small sets could accommodate. To give some idea, also, of the level of art direction and set design on display, I should call your attention to the command headquarters of General Chan Lu. It appears to have been staged on a single cave set that was redressed and used for the majority of the film’s subterranean locations, and is pretty lazily decorated with whatever could be purchased cheaply and easily from a Chinatown gift shop. There are a couple of Oriental rugs slung on the wall, one of those folding screens, some Chinese lanterns and a couple of dragon statues, etc. Pretty shoddy, really, and fully in keeping with the laziness of the stereotypes portrayed by Benson and Elliott (which is the true source of their offensiveness, really: that they’re less the result of racism than they are of the filmmakers just not giving a shit).
Similarly, the high tech headquarters of the Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center is comprised of a surprising amount of exposed aluminum sheeting and, if not for all of those colorful wall maps with all their flashing lights to distract us, might look more like the kitchen in a run-down elementary school cafeteria. Finally, on the prop front, the Chinese laser tank is appealing in a life-sized toy kind of way, but looks like it was probably made out of wood, and when the U.S. makes their own version of the tank, it appears to be just the same prop painted blue. (See, theirs is yellow and ours is blue. Blue vs. yellow. Get it?)
So, with all that in mind, let’s return to the business of plot synopsis. After successfully defusing all of those atomic bombs (Matthews’ Shore is one of those old fashioned omni-abled sci-fi movie heroes that we here love so much: not just good with the science, but also with using his fists and, if the plot requires, dismantling nuclear weapons), Shore and his small team of soldiers are sent back for another foray into the tunnel. This time Chan Lu’s men lead them into a trap which is comprised of a bucket of steam-emitting nuclear waste that one of the Chinese soldiers appears to detonate using a Roadrunner-style plunger. What follows is just one of the movie’s instances of people running away from a nuclear blast–though, in this case, with only varied success, as many of Shore’s men end up getting killed. This is cold realism in action, of course, because everyone knows that you need at least ten minutes to make egress on foot from the effects of an Atomic explosion, which is the reason why Shore and his crew are later able to jog to safety after detonating several full-sized nukes. You can’t overemphasize the importance of lead time.
After this failure, team USA gets the jump on Chan Lu thanks to that aforementioned “condition silent” business, and are able to create a brightly-lit wall map showing the locations of his tunnels. Admiral Hillebrand determines that the General’s main supply tunnel under the Pacific can be accessed by way of an inactive Hawaiian volcano, and assigns Shore and his men the task of destroying it, while at the same time bringing Kramer back onto the team to create the blue version of the laser tank. It is at this point that we see the eleventh hour introduction of a sexy lady scientist (hey, who let that thirteen year old into the writing session?), Tila Yung, portrayed by Vivienne Ventura. Ventura ends up being a fairly innocuous presence, and provides someone for Shore to mack on during his downtime from saving the world, but she is disconcertingly orange in color, and has a strange vocal inflection that sounds like it’s half accent and half speech impediment which I found a little distracting at times.
Anyway, it is in the bowels of the Earth below that Hawaiian volcano that Battle Beneath the Earth‘s final battle beneath the Earth finally takes place. Of course, the way things work out, it ends up being just Shore, Tila Yung and Sergeant Mulberry (played by Al Mulock, who is sadly probably most famous for committing suicide while in costume during location shooting for Once Upon a Time in the West) holding up our end of the battle. Numbers aren’t important, however. What is important is that this battle affords the opportunity for Martin Benson to strut around and make pronouncements like “Our enemies stands naked before us!” and “Logic is the American’s god!”, and for Shore, Yung and Mulberry to steal some of Chang Lu’s soldiers’ uniforms and try to imitate Chinese people by speaking English in robot voices, and, finally, for the three of them to stand on a cliff, confusingly looking straight ahead at what is revealed to be an aerial view of a nuclear explosion.
For all its failings, Battle Beneath the Earth is a difficult movie to hate. In my case, this is partly due to it having the disarming quality of seeming like it was the result of someone watching me play army men on my bedroom floor when I was six and then making a movie out of it (though, of course, with much lower production values). In fact, it’s difficult to even call it a bad movie. What it is, in reality, is a solidly mediocre movie, though one whose mere adequacy is rendered bad when viewed in comparison to its over-reaching concept. Star Kerwin Matthews, director Tully and scenarist Vetter all contribute valiantly to maintaining that level of mediocrity, insuring that our hero will never diverge from a stubborn, slate-like blandness, that no camera composition will be inventive enough to call attention to itself, and that no situation will be novel enough to deliver any kind of actual surprise. Against that backdrop, the pulse-raising moral offense incited by the minstrelsy of Martin Benson and Peter Elliott actually comes as some kind of gift, as does the genuine quirkiness of Peter Arne’s performance.
The way it cagily intertwines itself with childhood nostalgia also makes Battle Beneath the Earth one of those infuriating films that always seems better in recollection than when actually viewed. There’s no harm in that, of course, other than that it encourages repeat viewings, which, believe me, the actual film really doesn’t hold up to. It’s a pleasant enough diversion on the first pass, but once it’s done, it’s time to close the toy box and move on.
Release Year: 1967 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Kerwin Matthews, Vivienne Ventura, Ed Bishop, Peter Arne, Martin Benson, Peter Elliott, Robert Ayres, Al Mulock, Earl Cameron, John Brandon, Bill Nagy, Paula Li Shiu | Writer: Charles F. Vetter (as L.Z. Hargreaves) | Director: Montgomery Tully | Cinematographer: Kenneth Talbot | Music: Ken Jones
You’d think that the isolation of Soviet-style communism would have at least shielded the citizens of East Germany from the worst excesses of seventies fashion, but the 1976 space opera In the Dust of the Stars tells us otherwise. Neither, apparently, did it prevent the creatives at the state-run DEFA studio from falling under the influence of such decadent western cultural products as Jess Franco movies and the swinging sci-fi TV series of Gerry Anderson. That this film never saw release on this side of the Iron Curtain is no surprise, given that the vision of a socialist utopia it presents — marked by free love, frequent casual nudity, and a distinctly lopsided female-to-male ratio — is one that many healthy young Western men could easily get behind. The resulting sudden spike in defections Eastward would have been truly crippling to national security.
Shunya Ito’s first entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was essentially a women-in-prison picture that combined the action, violence and titillation typical of that subgenre with a striking number of audacious artistic touches. Ito’s second entry, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, was a whole other animal entirely. Emboldened, perhaps, by the success of the first film and the amount of creative leeway given him by Toei, Ito this time largely dispensed with genre trappings and delivered a film that was even more obviously the product of a singular directorial vision. Relentlessly bleak and harrowing, yet suffused with a desolate, breathtaking beauty and daring sense of visual invention, Jailhouse 41 is like a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.
Angelfist, aside from being a nonsensical title, was a video box cover that haunted my friends and I for many years. It was perched right up at the front entrance of Pick of the Flicks in Gainesville, Florida, and featured a blonde woman in an ugly leotard doing what has to be one of the most awkward high kicks I’ve ever seen, while holding her arms in this weird little curled-up T-Rex position. It was perhaps the single most ludicrous martial arts movie box cover pose I’d ever seen, at least until those Matrix movies made that completely silly looking Spiderman-meets-chicken jump/pose/kick inexplicably popular. I know guys did it in old kungfu films too, and it looked just as silly then, unless they happen to be wearing one of those silver wigs that is supposed to make you look like an old master even if you have the face of a guy in his twenties. Also, if you do that kick, the only way to get any power from such an awkward position is if a foley artist loops in the screech of a hawk or an eagle right as you jump
That some of Bollywood’s worst sins have been committed in the name of nepotism is a fact which anyone who has borne witness to Karisma Kapoor‘s early career can sadly attest to. For the Hindi film industry’s directors, stars and producers, dynasty building seems to be a top order of business, right alongside the practice of their chosen craft. For a fearsome reminder of this, one need look no further than director Raj Kumar Kohli’s 2002 film Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, as terrible a monument to a father’s love for his son as has ever been erected.
In 1975, exploitation film master Roger Corman produced one of his very best films. Combining a wicked sense of campy humor, a healthy dose of violence, and an angry satirical edge, Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel, was the best things to bear Corman’s name (as producer) since Corman himself was directing cool horror films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories for AIP. Always keen to make a buck, Corman immediately set about creating another vehicle-based futuristic fling, albeit one with a lot less of a budget — even for a Corman flick — and a much less talented writer and director. Corman would do his best to make people think it was related in some way to Death Race 2000 by calling the new film Deathsport and casting David Carradine in the lead. But the similarities end there, and while Death Race 2000 is a genuinely good, enjoyable, and even smart film, Deathsport is an incompetent piece of junk with almost nothing to offer humanity. Predictably, I do not own Death Race 2000 and have only seen it once. I do, however, own Deathsport in two different formats now and have watched it at least half a dozen times.
At various points in various reviews, we’ve discussed the painful demise of Hammer Studios and the Hammer horror film, so rather than rehash it here yet again, I direct you to Taste the Blood of Dracula (the review, I don’t mean I’m actually directing you to taste Dracula’s blood, should you have any lying about), Dracula AD 1972, and Satanic Rites of Dracula, all of which ramble on and probably repeat the same information about Hammer’s inability to sustain itself into the 1970s and in the face of a brutal collapse of the British film industry. I also point out on several occasions that, despite the fact that Hammer was a rudderless ship adrift in a tumultuous sea, many — in fact, most — of the horror films they made in the 1970s were of exceptional quality. It’s a shame that the worst horror film they ever made, To the Devil…A Daughter was their last, and thus the swan song for a studio that deserved much better.
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