Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Godless Girl
(1928, d. Cecil B. DeMille)

I went into The Godless Girl with a bit of trepidation. After all, it was made in 1928 so I wasn't expecting to find a fair, even-handed assessment of the rejection of religion and belief in God, specifically Christianity. If anything, I was expecting to find the demonization of atheism and pretty much that's what I got, up to a point. The Godless Girl is to atheism what Reefer Madness is to marijuana, that is to say, a ridiculously wrong-headed portrayal of the subject at hand.* But two things mitigate this portrayal of atheism. One, the portrayal of Christianity is just as bad so the film seems oddly balanced, and two, this is a Cecil B. DeMille film, not a liturgical one. As to the first, it is a great irony that the way the good, religious types are portrayed in this film is exactly how a filmmaker today portrays religious types when he wants to ridicule them. All intolerant caricature and no depth. As to the second, that this is a Cecil B. DeMille film, the meaning there should be clear to any student of film history. DeMille wasn't interested in a theological dialectic, he was interested in spectacle. To put it another way, by reworking Clint Eastwood's famous line from Unforgiven: Religion's got nothing to do with it. This film is about atheism like Psycho is about a secretary stealing $40,000. Sure, that's a part of the story and it definitely gets things rolling but it's dropped faster than an "H" at the Doolittle family reunion and before you can say "'Enry 'Iggins" the story becomes a combination Romeo and Juliet/prison break movie.

Lina Basquette plays Judy, the Godless girl of the title, who holds Godless Society meetings at the high school she attends. The school wants her pamphlets for the club stopped and Bob (Tom Keene), president of the Student Body, volunteers for the task. It's during one of the Godless Society meetings that Bob shows up with hordes of religious students and all hell... oh, I'm not going to say it. A riot starts in the stairwell and in the incredible sequence that follows one of the members of the Godless Society falls to her death. After this Judy and Bob are sentenced on manslaughter charges and sent to juvenile prison along with "Bozo" (Eddie Quillan), the comic relief of the story and the character that caused the girl to fall after he was pushed into her.

The main thrust of the film, if you haven't guessed by now, is the burgeoning romance between Judy and Bob, separated by an electric fence at the juvenile prison (would it surprise you if I told you at one point Judy touches the electrified fence and crosses are burned into her hands? I didn't think so.). It's not long before the film becomes a tract against the inhumanity of juvenile prisons complete with the well-worn cliche (or was it fresh in 1928?) of the brutal guards being worse than the prisoners. This being a DeMille film there are more riots, jail breaks, nudity and a final prison fire that is a wonder to behold. Quite frankly, this is one hell of an entertainment. With the exception of an overlong introduction of the characters to the prison, the movie moves along swiftly and never loses the viewers' interest.

The story itself is rather banal, it's true, but the actors keep the story interesting regardless. Lena Basquette and Tom Keene do a fine job in the leads and, this being the tail-end of the silent era, keep the over-emotive pantomime to a minimum. Eddie Quillan provides comic relief without feeling obnoxious and in her short time onscreen, Mary Jane Irving, as the stairwell victim, gives a performance that evokes both terror and surrender in equal measure and ends up genuinely moving.

But the real star is Cecil B. DeMille. Watching this last silent film of his (but not his last fully silent as two short sound sequences were added to try and rescue it at the box office) one is reminded of how exciting a filmmaker DeMille was before the elephantine epics of the late forties and early fifties cemented his fame for successive generations who would grow up unfamiliar with the silent career of this master. From the stairwell riot and death to the prison break chase scene to the final raging fire and last second rescue this is a master class in how to make action sequences work and how to edit a two hour movie so it feels like an hour and a half. DeMille never regained the assuredness of his silent era works, and certainly not the vigor, and it's a shame that such a well-known filmmaker has so much of his best work unknown to the general populace, even among cinephiles. Hopefully that will change thanks to the restoration of this film by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

The restoration of The Godless Girl allows cinephiles everywhere to witness the last great gasp of a director in the silent era before sound slowed him down. The print is beautiful, pristine and sharp, looking as good if not better than when it was originally shown in the theater. It has been given a new piano score as well, composed by Martin Marks that is both perfectly matched to the action and unobtrusive to the experience. I would like to thank the National Film Preservation Foundation for sending me the DVD of The Godless Girl, as well as other shorts and films I will highlight this week here and at Unexplained Cinema, and giving me this opportunity to take part in this fund-raising blogathon.

____________________________

This review has been a part of the For the Love of Film Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren and sponsored by The National Film Preservation Foundation.

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.

Make your donation now. Thank you.

___________________________________

*I think my favorite intertitle in the whole movie is, "I'll teach you to tell my kid sister there isn't any God!"

34 comments:

Adam Zanzie said...

Greg,

I have to confess that DeMille is a filmmaker I've been warming up to. The only film of his I've seen is The Greatest Show on Earth, and for dumb reasons I've let the dubious quality of that movie block me from looking at his other work. I keep hearing that his strongest output occured during the silent era, and those clips from the stairwell sequence that you supplied have definately got me interested in checking out The Godless Girl, whenever I get the chance.

Marilyn said...

Anything to do with De Mille and God gets my vote! Great post, Greg.

Greg said...

Adam, if that's the only thing you've seen by him I'm surprised you can muster the energy to say his name much less see another movie of his. That is a horrible DeMille title to start with. Infamous for being the worst Best Picture ever and, with the possible exception of 1931's Cimarron, fully deserving of the title.

His silent work is simply laps ahead of the forties and fifties productions he's famous for, although the special effects alone in The Ten Commandments always keep me coming back (that's a definite "Land Before CGI" feature one of these days, maybe soon).

I hope Godless Girl is available soon. Maybe you'll win the drawing (it's on one of the giveaway DVDs), never know.

Greg said...

Marilyn - Give DeMille a moral tale to tell and his showman shines through. Glad you liked it although DeMille doesn't seem to pull them in around these parts does he? Oh well, silents rarely do unfortunately.

Arbogast said...

This sounds great. And I love The Greatest Show on Earth, so you can all go to... no, I won't say it.

The Hell I won't!

Hell!

Greg said...

Did you say "Hell?" You're a baaaaaaaad boy.

I'd love to take a seat with you on the Iconoclast Train but The Greatest Show on Earth is one of the most leaden, sluggish experiences I've had watching a movie. That said, I will meet you in the club car to discuss the parts I like. Well, only one really and you probably know what. The train smashing into the car. Man, I love that miniature work. Just great. Otherwise, I'm not a fan.

But The Ten Commandments, hell yeah! I'm thinking that is definitely going to be my Passover "Land Before CGI" pick.

bill r. said...

I liked THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, too. Granted, it's been a very long while since I saw it, but I did genuinely enjoy it.

Greg said...

Well, I watched it again about two years ago on TCM and it didn't improve any, for me at least. It's interesting that it's the one DeMille to win Best Picture because when I watched it again it displayed none of his flair for grand set pieces and the pacing was sluggish. The Ten Commandments has much more of that DeMille feel and wasn't going up nearly as good competition so it's kind of interesting that that lost to Around the World in 80 Days.

I also love DeMille's ridiculously hokey Samson and Delilah. Another great "Before CGI" finale.

bill r. said...

But Jimmy Stewart plays a clown who used to be a doctor but he killed his wife. Also, when Cornel Wilde falls from the trapeze, if you slow it down you can see the stunt man pass through the false floor. Also there's a train wreck. What's not to like?

Greg said...

What's not to like?

All the stuff you didn't mention that makes up the other two and a half hours of the movie. That stuff.

Arbogast said...

Snap!

Joe Thompson said...

Adam: Catch some DeMille silents before you make up your mind about what kind of a director he was. He could do it when he wanted to. There is a story that he gave up art after the failure of a movie called "The Whispering Chorus," but he made some good ones after that.

Back to the post: Greg: Thank you. I have to see this movie.

Greg said...

Joe, it's prime DeMille, very well-paced and filled with great vignettes and set pieces. The prison fire at the end builds slowly for almost 10 minutes before going into all out breakneck mode for the last 10. If you like DeMille's silents I think you'll like this one.

Tom said...

"...dropped faster than an "H" at the Doolittle family reunion". Good line. I like that.

Christopher said...

lol..high school Godless society meetings!...DeMille did some good silents with"young fella" Gloria Swanson.."So it is written..So let it be done!"

Greg said...

Thanks Tom.

Greg said...

Christopher, the meetings are comprises of her pointing at posters and people swearing on monkey heads instead of Bibles. Ah yes, just like my old high school days.

Christopher said...

secret society entry password?.."Well I'll be a monkey's uncle!"

Tinky said...

You DID make me want to see this movie.......

Ryan Kelly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ryan Kelly said...

Is it really as campy as Reefer Madness? I would think (hope, pray) that the absence of spoken dialogue would at least help the issue of camp. I've enjoyed the DeMille silents I've seen (original versions of The King of Kings and The Ten Commandments), but have not particularly enjoyed his sound era stuff (though I've only seen the remake of The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Show On Earth). Any you would particularly recommend beyond those four, Greg?

Greg said...

Tinky, I hope you get a chance to see it.

Greg said...

Ryan, it's not really campy at all overall, just that the portrayal of Atheism and Christianity is not exactly deep if you know what I mean. No one's discussing Bertrand Russell, they're swearing oaths on the heads of monkeys.

I haven't seen a lot of DeMille's silents beyond those two you mention, The Squaw Man on PBS years ago (not sure which version, he did three), Don't Change Your Husband and everything he did in the thirties, my favorite of which is Cleopatra with Claudette Colbert.

Joe Thompson said...

TCM sometimes shows "The Cheat" with Sessue Hayakawa. Very good. "Male and Female" is fun. It was a version of Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton," but the producer made DeMille change the title because audiences were tired of military pictures after World War One. I had to stop and think about that one for a moment.

Tom said...

Has anyone seen Unconquered? That one is supposed to be a very good film.

Greg said...

Joe, I haven't seen either of those but I've heard very good things about The Cheat. I'd love to see more early Sessue Hayakawa.

Greg said...

Tom, Unconquered is another of his I've seen and I liked it.

Christopher said...

DeMille's Northwest Mounted Police -1940 with Coop and Paulette Goddard used to get alot of TV airplay when I was a kid(along with Unconquered)but haven't seen hide nor hair of in ages..
The Affairs of Anatol 1921 with gloria swanson and wallace reid along with Male and Female are a couple a goodies

Sam Juliano said...

I have seen many DeMile films, and own two boxed sets of his work, but I confess, not THIS one. (which makes your marvelous review even more valuable) My favorite by the master showman is THE CHEAT, but THE SIGN OF THE CROSS and MALE AND FEMALE, and his celebrated two versions of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, the latter despite it shokey essence exceedingly entertaining over and over again.

HIS GOD "IS" GOD!!!! LOL.

Terrific review here and the cause, well it's incomparable.

Greg said...

Christopher, never seen Northwest Mounted Police but I'd like to. It wasn't running where I was unfortunately.

Greg said...

his celebrated two versions of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, the latter despite it shokey essence exceedingly entertaining over and over again.

Sam, I'm in total agreement. The 1956 movie is simply a hoot every time I see it. I really can, and do, watch it from beginning to end whenever it's on.

And I forgot about Sign of the Cross, that's a great one too.

Christopher said...

its almost Ten Commandments time once more..moses moses!"
I always find it amusingly odd in Sunset Blvd.that C.B. didn't take to Norma Desmonds,Salome("those wild Hallucinations of hers") script when it promised to fall in line with everything the director had done in regards to biblical films and was doing that very minute down at Paramount with Samson and Delilah..

Barbara Coffey Attaway said...

I realize this review/blog is old, but I love running across new thoughts about this movie. You see, this was (to my knowledge), my father's last. I was thrilled when it became available to purchase, and we now have not only a bit of film history, but a bit of family history, as well. It is, in my (not-so-humble) opinion, an epic and balanced offering of no-sidedness that is certainly still relevant today.

Greg said...

Barbara, it's a wonderful movie and I'm so glad to hear from you. Which part, if you don't mind my asking, did your father play? There's a lot of male parts in the film so I'm not sure which one it was. How thrilling though to have this piece of family history, and for your father to have worked with DeMille, one of the giants.