by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Charles and I got home from the library showing of Rabbit Hole around quarter to 9 and had time to watch another movie, a rather different one: The Godless Girl, a Cecil B. DeMille production from 1928 (though it wasn’t released until the following year) and his last silent film, which TCM showed as part of their Easter salute to religion in general (and Christianity in particular) on film. The story of The Godless Girl really begins in 1925, when DeMille had a falling out with his employers, Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky of the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (later known by the name of its distribution arm, Paramount Pictures), and having already helped build one major studio DeMille thought he could do it again. So he looked around for financial backing and ultimately started a company called Producers’ Distributing Corporation (PDC), for which he intended to direct major films himself and also to make smaller-scale productions he would produce and other people would direct.
Alas, things went poorly for PDC when DeMille’s second film for them as director, The Volga Boatman, flopped, and his backers insisted on merging the company with Pathé — whose parent corporation in France was a well-established major studio but whose American branch was considered a cheap, low-budget studio whose only major star was Harold Lloyd (and even he only used Pathé as a distributor; he owned his own studio and produced his films himself). DeMille protested but his backers held firm, and the PDC/Pathé merger went through just in time for the bean-counters at Pathé to get their hands on DeMille’s next film, The King of Kings (1927), a biopic of Jesus (based, all too loosely, on the Gospels) and a blockbuster hit. In the enviable position of coming off a super-success and thereby being able to make any sort of film he wanted, DeMille commissioned his favorite writer, Jeanie MacPherson, to come up with a wild tale that in a way serves as a modern pendant to The King of Kings the way the second, contemporary-set half of the DeMille silent The Ten Commandments (1923, and to mind a far better movie than its all-Biblical 1956 remake) served as a pendant to the Biblical story. (Gloria Swanson noted in her autobiography that many of DeMille’s films, even ones with contemporary settings, frequently flashed back to earlier historical periods with the same stars playing previous incarnations of their modern-day characters; she said DeMille did those scenes because he actually believed in reincarnation.)
The Godless Girl begins with a couple of hysterical titles by MacPherson and Beulah Marie Dix: “It is not generally known that there are Atheist Societies using the schools of the country as their battle-ground — attacking, through the Youth of the Nation, the beliefs that are sacred to most of the people. … And no fanatics are so bitter as youthful fanatics.” Then the film starts and we see one of these societies, headed by Judy Craig (Lina Basquette), at work in one high school, where one member sneaks its leaflets into students’ lockers and the school principal (William Humphrey) speaks to a class, announcing that blasphemy is a crime, that the people printing and distributing the leaflets are liable to imprisonment, and that every student who has one of those leaflets should hand it over to him immediately. The student-body president, Bob Hathaway (George Duryea, later known as Western star Tom Keene), a member of a believing family who’s both in love with Judy and is trying to win her for religious belief, tells the principal that he and the other (believing) students will handle things their own way. The principal tells them to go ahead but warns them, “No violence” — a warning the angry students predictably ignore as they crash a meeting of the Atheist Society which Judy is chairing.
They bring rotten eggs and other foodstuffs to throw at the atheists — who give as good as they get in a sequence that’s supposed to be high-tension drama but looks at this date more like the food fight in Animal House — and the confrontation escalates until a railing on the second-floor hallway (the atheists’ meeting room was on the second floor of a walk-up building) gives way and one of the atheist students (Mary Jane Irving) falls to her death. As she expires her face is transfigured with bright lights (courtesy of cinematographer J. Peverell Marley — who’s in superb form throughout this film, aided by the fact that we’re watching DeMille’s own personal print and it’s in excellent shape) and she says that she can’t believe this is the end; she insists there must be something beyond this life. Judy, Bob and Bob’s friend Samuel “Bozo” Johnson (Eddie Quillan), the comic-relief character, are all convicted of manslaughter and put into a reformatory — and the film, as risible as much of its sermonizing has been to this point (though to this hardened atheist, at least, at this point the atheists have come across a lot better than the believers: the atheists are the ones who are holding peaceful meetings — including a lemur they put on display as a demonstration of evolution, no doubt a powerful image in a film made just three years after the Scopes trial — while it’s the believers who have used both the threat of law enforcement and physical violence to shut the atheists up), acquires overwhelming power and force.
Much of the remaining hour and a half looks like a beta version of all those tense, exciting prison dramas Warners cranked out by the yard in the 1930’s — and DeMille’s directorial skills, which actually seem to have deteriorated over his long career, are on display and quite impressive. (The death of the woman in the meeting hall is represented by a still shocking subjective camera shot from her point of view.) The reformatory is literally hell on earth, and DeMille’s reactionary sermonizing is mostly held in abeyance and his dramatic skills are shown at full force — and for someone with such a Right-wing reputation as DeMille, his attitude towards penology is quite progressive; our sympathies are kept with the put-upon inmates and the villains of the piece are the authority figures, particularly the head guard (Clarence Burton) of the male wing of the reformatory, who turns a fire hose full-blast on Bob for some trivial infraction of the rules. Judy isn’t having a much better time of it on the female side, though she befriends another inmate, Mame (Marie Prevost), even while pushing away the Bible Mame offers her. Mame starts the film wearing the “Honor” armband of a trusty and telling us she worked three years to earn it — only to lose it when she tells a matron that the Bible fell to the floor accidentally and Judy says no, she knocked it to the ground deliberately, and the matron penalizes Mame for being willing to lie for a fellow inmate.
What makes this sequence significant is that just before Judy knocked the Bible out of her hand, Mame had it open to a New Testament passage in which Jesus is talking about loving one another — and Judy’s hard atheistic heart is softened not by threats of violence or punishment, but by her first experience of religion as something compassionate and humanistic. For someone with DeMille’s reputation as an Old Testament moralist, these bits of ecumenism — here and again in my favorite DeMille talkie, The Crusades, with its astonishingly sympathetic portrayal of Islam and his refusal to turn the story of the Crusades into the “Christians good, Muslims bad” parable one would have expected from that director and that time (1935) — are amazing and reveal a filmmaker who was capable of subtlety and sophistication even though he didn’t often show it (at least partly because he was also a hard-headed commercial artist who noticed that the more morally and cinematically simple his films were, the better they did at the box office).
Eventually Judy and Bob meet again on either side of an electrified fence — they press their hands against each other’s through the fence and just at that moment the sadistic head guard turns the current on, leaving crosses burned on Judy’s palms in an odd high-tech version of the stigmata — and finally they escape and hide out in a hayfield, in sequences that almost certainly inspired later filmmakers like Mervyn LeRoy (in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) and Frank Capra (in It Happened One Night), only they’re recaptured and put in solitary confinement. Just then the head guard causes an accident that sets fire to the reformatory — DeMille, whose mania for realism sometimes approached Erich von Stroheim’s, built a full-scale set of a reformatory, deliberately burned it down and refused to allow his actors to use stunt doubles (his assistant, Mitchell Leisen — who later became a director in his own right — designed fireproof asbestos undergarments for the actors, but even with that protection some of them were burned for real, and Lina Basquette complained in later years that her eyelids had been singed and never grew back properly) — and it’s touch and go as to whether Bob will be able to get out in time himself, rescue Judy and save that sadistic head guard (whom he’s ready to let die, until Judy convinces him the decent thing to do is to rescue him if they can); they pull the guard out of the fire, and though they’re too late to save him, with his dying breath he recommends that they be pardoned, and so they are, with Bob paired off with Judy and his comic-relief friend Bozo paired off with Mame.
The Godless Girl was filmed during the last gasp of the silent-film era, and when DeMille turned in his director’s cut to his new bosses at Pathé — who were in the middle of yet another merger, with the Radio Corporation of America’s new movie studio, RKO (a merger that accelerated when a real-life fire broke out on the set of a Pathé musical being filmed in New York and 11 people were killed — still the highest death toll of any accident during the actual shooting of a film — and all of a sudden the Pathé brand was box-office poison for reasons other than the quality, or lack of same, of their films) — they decided no one would want to see a silent film anymore. DeMille had already left the company — he had signed a three-film deal as an independent producer-director with MGM, to disappointing commercial results, and after it ran out in 1931 DeMille went hat in hand to Paramount, got a budget to make the historical spectacular The Sign of the Cross, had another huge hit and stayed at Paramount for the rest of his career — so the two talking sequences for the end of the movie were directed by Fritz Feld, normally a character actor (one of whose appearances was playing a director — a broad caricature of von Stroheim — in the 1937 film Stand-In), and the movie went out in a version DeMille disowned and was a commercial failure.
Interestingly, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne seemed unaware of which version his employers were showing; he mentioned the sound sequences in his introduction (though he didn’t say that DeMille didn’t direct them!), but the actual print was DeMille’s all-silent director’s cut, taken from DeMille’s own vaults, with a musical score by Carl Davis, recorded in modern sound quality — which worked pretty well for the film, except for the rather cornball Paul Whiteman-style jazz he concocted for the scenes involving Quillan’s character; the gong sound effects he contributed over DeMille’s titles telling how gongs were used to run the inmates’ lives are especially chilling. The Godless Girl is a surprisingly good movie — fast-paced, consistently exciting and dramatic (except when it gets preachy, which fortunately isn’t too much after the first half-hour), and while it doesn’t seriously engage the debate over whether or not God exists (but then again, why would one — in 1928 or today — have expected it to?), it’s a good deal better than its reputation and shows what a great director Cecil B. DeMille could be (and why so many later filmmakers cited him as an influence) when he wasn’t making empty-headed historical spectacles and letting his enormous sets and thousands of extras direct his movies for him.