In January of 2013, Teleport City had a pretty notable server meltdown and database corruption, which naturally, occurred while I was on vacation and with spotty internet connection. Thus began a big move from hosting the site on my own server and dealing with all the backend hassle that entails, to moving it to a hosting service (wordpress.com). All has been pretty awesome as a result, but one of the things I lost during the move (besides an amazing history of bizarre search phrases that brought people to the site) was all our statistics. In the ten months we’ve been in our new home, traffic to the site has been pretty encouraging, but there are a number of older reviews that got imported and were never really promoted in our new space. They make up the Teleport City bottom ten, the least viewed reviews since we made the big move.
Kaiju films were old hat in Japan by the 1970s, but elsewhere in Asia the giant monster film industry was only just getting going. Inspired by Japanese movies like Godzilla and, even more so, television shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, aspiring (or canny) filmmakers (or hucksters) in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Korea decided they too would pit their cities against giant monsters and invading aliens against super-sized superheroes. South Korea was among the first kaiju copycats out of the gate with 1967′s Yongary. Because it’s Asian and features an irritating little kid in tiny shorts and a dinosaur-like giant monster, most people chalk it up as a Godzilla clone. It has far more to do, though, with that do-gooder crusading giant turtle Gamera and, in my opinion, even more to do with Western rip-offs of Godzilla and Gamera, like 1961′s Gorgo. Eh, whatever the case, a dude in a rubber suit was kicking over buildings and swatting model jets out of the matte painted sky much to the delight of all.
Sompote Sands is one of those figures in cult cinema who casts a long shadow. Granted it’s a shadow that twists around and warps into a demon like Calibos’ shadow in Clash of the Titans, but it’s a shadow never the less. Regarding the origin story of this supremely interesting and bizarre film maker, that was spoken to when we reviewed his Ultraman-meets-Hanuman epic Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, so rather than paraphrase here, I encourage you to mosey on over and check that one out. The twisted saga of Sands’ relationship with and claim of stewardship over the work of Japanese effects pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya is one of my favorite film stories. For our purposes here, let us fast forward a decade or so, into the 1980s and a point where Sands had moved on from remaking Japanese superhero properties for the Thai market and had decided to indulge more substantially in his fondness for Thai mythology.
People, Estus Pirkle is not screwing around. When this diminutive Baptist preacher from New Albany, Mississippi looks into the camera and describes an America whose small towns’ streets are littered with the corpses of murdered children, he is not presenting us with a “what if” scenario. He is telling us in no uncertain terms what will happen — within twenty-four months, no less — if America doesn’t get serious about Jesus. And if those words alone aren’t chilling enough, he has in his service a seasoned veteran of 1960s Southern exploitation cinema who will utilize all the tricks of his trade to bring them to vivid, bloody life for your terror and edification. Never mind that drive-in theaters are counted among the litany of evils that Pirkle says are driving our country to ruin; the man is obviously not stupid. As long as it’s God’s work that’s being done, it’s safe to assume that he doesn’t mind if it’s the Devil doing it.
Since it first flickered on the walls of rural Southern churches back in 1971, If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? has gone on to become one of the more notorious classics of off-the-beaten-path cult cinema. It also represents a rare instance of such a film actually living up to the breathless hype that trash aficionados have built up around it. No matter how weird and disturbing your various trollings around the online forums have lead you to believe Footmen is, you can pretty much rest assured that it will more or less live up to your expectations. However, given that the film has existed so far outside the normal cinematic channels, it’s doubtful if it would have ever received such notice had its director not already had an established track record in the secular world of Z-grade moviemaking.
Footmen director Ron Ormond is probably today best remembered for a toxic little 1953 gem by the name of Mesa of Lost Women, a film that combines boredom, incoherence and a wildly inappropriate musical score to create something almost supernatural in its ability to inspire trance-like fascination on the part of its viewer. At the time of making that film, Ormond was already a veteran exploitation professional, a no-nonsense showman with a workman-like ethic who, working closely with his wife Ruth, had made a number of micro budget programmers for low-rent production houses like Howco and Lippert. As I remember it, my initial viewing of Mesa, occurring when I was still in high school, was for me almost as much of a religious experience as first seeing Footmen must have been for its original intended audience. At the time I felt that I was truly seeing the worst film ever made, an epiphany that provoked exactly the same kind of tongue-lolling ecstasy with which I had greeted my initial viewing of The Creeping Terror a few months previous. Needless to say, that was a long time ago, and I now sadly shake my head at that pathetic innocent who was naïve enough to believe that such films represented the worst that cinema had in store for him.
Ron Ormond would eventually leave his days as a hired gun behind, and, in 1965, he, his wife Ruth and their son Tim left California and moved their filmmaking operation to Nashville, where, under the Ormond Organization banner, they began churning out product for the still-thriving Southern drive-in circuit. Availing themselves of the numerous country performers who were hungry to promote their music by appearing in their films — as well as the services of assorted friends from the local music industry — the family produced a series of corn-pone-flavored expoitationers with titles like White Lightnin’ Road, The Girl From Tobacco Row and Forty Acre Feud, and also dabbled in straightforward sleaze-horror with 1968′s The Monster and The Stripper. Things changed for Ormond in 1967 after a small plane he was piloting crashed during takeoff. The entire Ormond family was onboard the craft, but somehow managed to survive — a seeming miracle that prompted a spiritual awakening in Ormond. Thus was the filmmaker set on the path that would lead, in 1970, to him making the decision to devote his cinematic talents to the service of the Lord. It was not long after that that Ormond would be introduced to Estus W. Pirkle.
If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? was the title of one of Pirkle’s signature sermons, one that the preacher had also seen fit to release in book form. Given that — and the fact that Pirkle’s uncompromisingly scathing text was rife with lurid imagery ideally suited to Ormond’s visual talents — it was an obvious choice to be the subject of the first collaboration between the two. Ormond’s approach to committing it to film was to film Pirkle’s sermon and then insert into it vignettes that he had filmed illustrating some of the more sensational episodes described therein. He was aided in this by performances from the usual cast of Ormond regulars, as well as by a large number of Pirkle’s parishioners, who had secured their turn at stardom by contributing to the film’s production costs.
As I alluded to before, the content of Footmen is indeed shocking — especially if you are coming to it with expectations grounded in feature-oriented genre cinema. However, when viewed within the context of the instructional films of its era, I think it becomes somewhat less so. To me, it is most reminiscent of the type of bloody scare-a-thons they used to spring on us in drivers ed when I was in high school — scarifying one-reel automotive grand-guignols that included notorious titles like Red Asphalt and Signal 30. Only in Footmen‘s case, rather than being terrorized into practicing safe driving habits by the prospect of having the top of your head graphically shaved off in a horrific car wreck, you’re being spooked into accepting Jesus as your savor by the prospect of being mowed down or chopped to pieces by a horde of grinning communists.
Pirkle’s sermon draws its title from apassage in the book of Jeremiah. In it, he recites a list of those “footmen” who are preying upon America’s youth, weakening the nation’s backbone and leaving it unprepared for the tribulations ahead. This list essentially comprises a litany of hard-line Baptism’s usual suspects: Dancing (“the front door to adultery”), public education (a teacher with a groovy mustache is shown telling his students that the day’s lesson will concern “the seven erotic zones of passion in women”), drive-in theaters, drinking (a pair of licentious youths are shown primly pouring their cans of beer into plastic cups before drinking), second marriages, television (especially cartoons) “joy riding”, etc. And those tribulations that such things are leaving us too softened and consumed by hedonism to deal with — the “horses’ of the title and, more specifically, of the apocalypse — are in this case represented by the invading forces of international communism, here represented by a sextet of mounted Red Army soldiers lead by the generously sideburned Cecil Scaife, a Nashville-based Columbia Records executive and Ormond family friend who is here billed as “The Commissar”.
Despite their apparent pre-industrial circumstances, the commies, Pirkle tells us, have a plan that will see them in control of the United States within fifteen short minutes. Toillustrate this, Ormond presents us with a sequence in which a stunned television news anchor — filmed against a newsroom backdrop that looks to be a garage door with a page from an atlas pinned to it — informs his audience that the president, the secretary of state, the speaker of the house, and many of the larger states’ governors have all been murdered. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he solemnly intones. “This is the communist takeover of the United States. This is the end of democracy.” This particular takeover tactic seemed to me to imply that foreign communist leaders occupy an actual spot somewhere way down in the presidential line of succession, but I may be misinterpreting. In any case, it is at this point that the real terror begins.
Scaife and his men descend, Red Dawn-like, upon the small, God-fearing Southern town in which all of Footmen‘s action takes place and quickly make it clear that they really enjoy mowing down innocent civilians — especially women and children — with their submachine guns. Parents have their children rent screaming from their arms and are summarily slaughtered, after which the tykes are thrown into the back of the reds’ Ford pickup truck and taken to a camp for re-education. There a mustached apparatchik — played by Wes Saunders, and referred to as “Comrade Teacher” in the credits — uses his baffling accent to mesmerize the children with devious communist logic. Commanded to pray to “Jeeesus” for candy, the kids come up empty handed. “Your Jeeesus didn’t bring us any candy!” scoffs the teacher in haughty, mock incomprehension. In short order, a prayer addressed to Fidel Castro brings candy by the bucket load, and a classroom full of newly-minted young Bolsheviks is primed and ready to hit the streets. I must say, though, that while Pirkle’s point about the communists’ amoral cunning is well taken, he never did address to my satisfaction why Jesus wouldn’t give those kids any candy.
Once the communists have taken control, Pirkle tells the camera, the viewer will see “hundreds of dead bodies in the streets” of his or her town. And as the corpses pile up, Ormond’s camera returns again and again to pan slowly up and down the immobile, red syrup-splattered bodies of Pirkle’s parishioners, exhibiting a kind of anti-narrative, pornographic focus on the aftermath of violence that, but for the context, would be indistinguishable from the work of Ormond’s contemporary Herschel Gordon Lewis. Soon, Pirkle goes on, we will see “a communist soldier with a sub-machinegun in every pulpit stand in America”. But, as it turns out, getting shot will be the least of our worries. A later scene shows a group of children forced by the Commissar and his men to hoist their father up by a rope and repeatedly drop him into a nest of pitchforks. Elsewhere, in the movie’s most audacious gross-out moment, a young boy who has been caught receiving the word of God is shown vomiting copiously after having a bamboo shaft driven in one ear and out the other. Adding to the disconcerting nature of this particular scene is the fact that the post-dubbed retching sounds that accompany it are obviously being made by an adult man.
Pirkle caps off his accounting of the reds’ torture practices with a tale of a huddled group of staunch Christian souls who were forced by their communist captors to sit in the freezing cold on back-less chairs for “seventeen hours” (Pirkle, true to the conceit that the episodes recounted by him all actually occurred in one communist country of the other, throws out a lot of very specific-sounding, but uniformly un-sourced, figures over the course of the film) while an affectless, amplified voice recited the following phrases in mantra-like repetition:
“Communism is good.
Communism is good.
Christianity is stupid.
Christianity is stupid.
Now, if that bit of dialogue sounds familiar to you, well, first off, you are obviously some kind of smirky, art-damaged, big city boho who is well beyond the help that Footmen is seeking to offer you, and, secondly, that is because it is by far the most well-known passage from Footmen, thanks to it being sampled for a track by the Bay Area based sound collage group Negativland.
Which brings me to a point that I feel needs to be made. I think that any review of If Footmen Tire You, What will Horses Do? written by a smug urban hipster type such as myself should necessarily be viewed with suspicion, because it offers such an individual far too many easy opportunities to ironically mock timeworn countercultural punching bags like “small town American values” and uncomplicated expressions of Christian belief. And to be sure, there are enough stern-faced, boxy-haired church ladies and Johnny Unitas buzz-cuts on display in the film to insure that the temptation for such mockery is very hard to resist — impossible, in fact, ifmy previous paragraphs are any indication. Still, it would be a grave act of dishonesty if I failed to confess to you that, on some level, Pirkle’s scare tactics actually get to me. And this despite the fact that I was raised in a staunchly secular household, never attending a church service once throughout the entirety of my formative years. One might think that such an upbringing would lead to me having a somewhat more detached and rational approach to spirituality, but in many ways it has had quite the opposite effect. Instead it has made me view spiritual practices that are mundane parts of many Americans’ lives as being possessed of an almost Lovecraftian otherworldliness, to the extent that those people might as well be taking part in some kind of crazy voodoo ritual for all the terror and mystery that their actions hold. It is only in recent years, out of family obligation, that I have had to attend actual church services, and on those occasions I have remained poised on the edge of my seat throughout, waiting for the inevitable moment when the believers will turn upon me, pointing and hissing like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
It is for this reason perhaps that, despite the larger portion of my consciousness being devoted to exactly the sort of skepticism towards hard-line Christianity’s claims that you might expect, there is also that tiny part of me that on occasion wonders, “What if they’re right?” And then thinks, “That would suck balls.” So I am not completely immune to the rhetorical flourishes of Estus Pirkle and Ron Ormond. This was made especially clear to me when I viewed one of the pairs’ later films, The Burning Hell, in which a bunch of smirky know-it-alls are shocked to find upon dying that — oh shit! — there really was a fiery eternal Hell filled with endless, unspeakable torment after all. Sure, I LMAO as I watched stiff non-actors standing amidst what looked like a field of burning tires, tearing their hair and lamenting about “why, oh, why didn’t I listen”. But, again, I would be totally lying if I didn’t admit that there was a little piece of me that paused to soberly reflect upon the possibility, thinking, “Boy, that would really blow”. That piece of me then went on to imagine myself in the same circumstances, rending my garments as the flames licked at my heels, screaming “Why didn’t I listen? My baaaaad!”
Anyway, once Pirkle has set the scene for us, Ormond introduces a parallel narrative of sorts with the story of Judy (JudyCreech). An obvious wayward soul, Judy is dropped off by her boyfriend — a guy with a wispy loser ‘stache — in the parking lot of the church where Pirkle is giving his sermon. Romeo bristles at the notion of going inside, protesting that he’s “a lover, not a Christian”, and Judy conspiratorially assures him that she is only doing so in order to “keep up appearances”. She then steps out of the car, buttoning her dress as she goes, and steps into the church. Once Judy is seated inside, we see her crisis of faith playing out on her face as Pirkle speaks, mostly by way of various degrees of lower lip biting. Over the course of the film, we will return again and again to Judy as she intermittently listens to the preacher’s words and flashes back to her poor elderly mother’s attempts to get her to read the scripture. I would say that Judy’s ultimate “come to Jesus” moment is something of an inevitability, but given the film she’s inhabiting, she is in all honesty just as likely to be mowed down by automatic weapons fire or disemboweled. So it’s safe to say that there is some small element of suspense surrounding the matter.
The straw that finally breaks Judy’s spiritual back comes in the form of an episode that Pirkle relates during the film’s closing moments — an event that, according to Pirkle, “actually happened in another country”. A kid carrying a portrait of Jesus confronts Scaif’s Commissar about the murder of his parents, an atrocity that the villain, in response, cheerfully acknowledges. He tells the kid that he is better off, because he now belongs to the state, and then throws the kid’s picture of Jesus on the ground and orders him to step on it. This kid, I have to admit, is kind of a badass — the kind who could conceivably give Christianity a good name among attitude-heavy twelve-year-olds across America — and in refusing he fixes Scaif with a pretty stirring look of righteous, steely-eyed defiance. In response, the Commissar produces a big knife and threatens to cut his head off if he doesn’t comply. The kid then turns those steely eyes of his heavenward and pledges to give his life for Jesus as Jesus did for him, after which we see his bloody severed head rolling across the lawn. This proves to be too much for Judy — as I imagine, true to the film’s intentions, it did for many of Footmen‘s devout viewers — and she jumps to her feet screaming, after which Pirkle leads her to the altar, where she tearfully accepts Jesus.
For those of you who intend to seek out If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? for your personal viewing pleasure, I have one word of warning — that is, of course, if you don’t consider all of the words I’ve expended on the subject so far words of warning. While the film indeed delivers all of the outrageous low-rent gore, hilariously amateurish acting, and general offbeat strangeness that whatever accounts of it you have read promise, what those accounts may have failed to prepare you for is Estus Pirkle himself. Put simply, the man’s style of oratory is far more insistent than it is dynamic. Perhaps he simply felt that injecting any level of flamboyance into his rhetoric would be ungodly. But, whatever the reason, the result is that a little bit of his hectoring monotone goes a long way, and over the course of Footmen‘s fifty minute running time, you may find yourself struggling against lapsing into a defensive coma.
In fact, the only break in Pirkle’s robotic harangue occurs, quite effectively, during the film’s fading final seconds. Films such as Footmen, as mentioned before, would typically be shown in small churches, and would be followed by an altar call, during which those audience members who had yet to do so, shaken by what they had seen, would step forward and, just as Judy had done at the film’s conclusion, accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. As a prelude to that moment, Pirkle looks into the camera as the closing music swells and, in a tone that is suddenly both gentle and beseeching, softly repeats the words “Won’t you come?” The effect is startlingly disarming, and, after having been hostage to the relentless, auctioneer-like stream of oratory issuing from Pirkle’s expressionless head for the previous near-hour, almost provocative of a Stockholm Syndrome-like reaction. Which is to say that, even as I sat there, sniggering imperiously at all of the unbelievable claptrap I had just witnessed, there was a tiny little part of me that found itself inching imperceptibly toward the screen.
Release Year: 1971 | Country: United States | Starring: Estus W. Pirkle, Judy Creech, Cecil Scaife, Gene McFall, Wes Saunders, La Quinta Scaife, Jim Rose, Billy Kent, Jimmy Little, Carl Haselton, Joe Scaife, Nathan Blackwell, Max Cannon, Bell Kent, Bondy Kent, Greg Pirkle, Tim Ormond, Ron Ormond | Writers: Ron Ormond, Estus W. Pirkle | Director: Ron Ormond | Cinematographers: Ron Ormond, Tim Ormond | Producers: Estus W. Pirkle, Monnie Stanfield
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