This one took me totally by surprise! Cecil B. DeMille's last silent movie (one version has added talking scenes), The Godless Girl, starts out as an intriguing story (by Jeanie Macpherson) about high-school hijinks – but instead of Sharks and Jets, the gangs consist of Atheists and Believers. Fronting the “Godless Society” is Judy (Lina Basquette), a pretty girl who has a crush on a fellow student, Bob-the-Bible-Boy (George Duryea – later known as Tom Keene). She tries to recruit him to attend her Atheist meetings, but being the good Christian that he is, Bob instead forms a gang of hoodlums to invade the gathering and beat those evil non-believers over the head with their Bibles.
At this point, I am siding with the Atheists. At their meeting, the proselytes have to swear allegiance by placing a hand on a monkey's head (ostensibly representing Darwin's theory of evolution) and to eschew religion. They are having a peaceful gathering until they are attacked by the Christians. In the melee, one of the Atheist girls falls over the stairway rail to her death – where she miraculously becomes a believer and suddenly calls for the Good Lord.
Then the pace changes. The kids are put into a Juvenile Detention Center and the real horrors begin. The guards are all sadistic and the punishments never fit the crime. And since both Believers and Non Believers are treated with the same cruelty, their differences don't seem to matter anymore. Judy's best friend, Mame (Marie Prevost), becomes a shining example of what a good Bible-believing Christian is really made of. She is compassionate and protective of her Atheist friend.
Meanwhile, on the boys' side of the prison, Bob and his friends are subjected to all forms of sadistic torture. The brutality is convincingly realized as The Godless Girl suddenly becomes an indictment against inhumane conditions in the juvenile penal system.
Despite their religious disagreements, Judy and Bob learn that they love each other – even though they live on different sides of the detention center – when they both get crosses burned into their hands after touching each other through the electrified fence. And the symbolism doesn't stop there. While Bob changes his prison tag, “7734,” by turning it upside down and altering it with a marking pen to read “HELL,” Judy alters hers from “3107” to read “LOVE.” As he is losing his faith, she is gaining hers.
The lovers make their escape, they are caught, they are tortured. The whole drama climaxes with a conflagration so convincing, so real, that I felt like I was there with them. I have seldom been so caught up in a drama that my eyes have been riveted to the screen – and I never once wanted to look away. That's how compelling I found The Godless Girl.
In fact, The Godless Girl haunted me for days. I kept thinking of what point of view Cecil B. DeMille wanted his audience to take. Did he want us to side with the Believers? They were the ones who began the attack that killed one of the students. Or are we to side with the Atheists and forever be branded as “godless”? That might have been what I admired so much about this movie.
Granted, Judy becomes a god-fearing believer by the end, but at no time were the Atheists demonized or portrayed as evil. The viewer was free to identify with either side. Thought-provoking movies such as The Godless Girl disturb my jaded passivity by thoroughly involving me.
Thank you, Mr. DeMille, for shaking my cynicism and making me a believer once more. Not about religion, but about filmmaking.
© Danny Fortune
The Godless Girl (1929). Dir.: Cecil B. DeMille. Scr.: Jeanie Macpherson; titles by Macpherson and Beulah Marie Dix. Cast: Lina Basquette, George Duryea (a.k.a. Tom Keene), Marie Prevost, Noah Beery, Eddie Quillan, Clarence Burton, Hedwiga Reicher, Kate Price, Julia Faye, Dick Alexander, Mary Jane Irving.