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.

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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.

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