- The Godless Girl (1928) movie review: Directed by Cecil B. DeMille and written by Jeanie Macpherson, this compelling, thoughtful theological drama is bound to convert even the most hardened of cynics.
The Godless Girl movie review: Cecil B. DeMille proves that he could go far deeper than what’s seen in his campy Judaeo-Christian epics
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille from a scenario by frequent collaborator Jeanie Macpherson (The Cheat, Male and Female, Madam Satan, etc.), the 1928 morality tale The Godless Girl was the filmmaker’s final silent movie. (Note: A 1929 version has added talking scenes handled by actor Fritz Feld.)
The Godless Girl also happens to be one film that took me totally by surprise.
For although the story starts out with a focus on seemingly conventional high-school brawls, in place of the usual “Sharks vs. Jets” what we get here are Atheists vs. Believers.
Freedom from Religion fighters
Fronting the Godless Society is Judy (former child actress Lina Basquette), a pretty brunette who has a crush on fellow student Bob, the Bible Boy – actually, Bob Hathaway (George Duryea, later known as B Western star Tom Keene), the head of the Christian youth organization.
Judy tries to recruit Bob to attend her Atheist meetings, but being the devout Christian that he is, Bob opts instead to form a gang of hoodlums to invade the gathering and beat those evil non-believers over the head with their Bibles.
At this point, I’m siding with the Atheists.
Swear on the monkey’s head!
At the Atheists’ meeting, the proselytes have to swear allegiance to the anti-religion cause by placing a hand on a monkey’s head – ostensibly representing Darwin’s theory of evolution. Theirs is a peaceful gathering until the Christian assault begins.
In the melee, one of the Atheist girls falls over the stairway rail to her death, at which time 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.
Sadistic law enforcers
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.
That’s when 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 torture. The brutality is convincingly depicted, as The Godless Girl becomes an indictment against inhumane conditions in the United States’ juvenile penal system.
God works in mysterious ways
Despite their religious disagreements – and even though they’re kept on different sides of the detention center – Judy and Bob learn that they love each other when they both get crosses burned into their hands after touching one another through the electrified fence.
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 eventually make their escape.
They are caught. They are tortured.
The whole drama climaxes with a conflagration so impressive – so real – that I felt like I was there with them.
I have seldom been so caught up in a drama that my eyes were kept riveted to the screen. Never once did I want to look away.
That’s how compelling I found The Godless Girl.
Choose your own path
In fact, The Godless Girl haunted me for days.
I kept thinking of what point of view Cecil B. DeMille and Jeanie Macpherson (who also co-wrote the titles with Beulah Marie Dix) wanted their audience to take.
Did DeMille and Macpherson want us to side with the Believers?
But they are the ones who begin the attack that kills one of the students.
Or are we to side with the Atheists and forever be branded “Godless”?
Now I’m a Believer
That’s what I admire so much about The Godless Girl, an engrossing, thought-provoking drama that succeeded in disturbing my jaded passivity.
Granted, Judy becomes a God-fearing believer by the end, but at no time are the Atheists demonized or portrayed as evil. The viewer is free to identify with either side.
So thank you, Mr. DeMille and Ms. Macpherson, for shaking off my cynicism and making me a Believer once more.
Not in religion, but in the art of filmmaking.
The Godless Girl (1928)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille.
Screenplay: Jeanie Macpherson.
Titles: Jeanie Macpherson & Beulah Marie Dix.
Cast: Lina Basquette. George Duryea (a.k.a. Tom Keene). Marie Prevost. Noah Beery. Eddie Quillan. Clarence Burton. Richard Alexander. Mary Jane Irving. Hedwiga Reicher. Kate Price. Julia Faye.
Uncredited: According to online sources, Lyle Talbot and Robert Young are featured in bit parts.
“The Godless Girl: Theological Drama Will Make You Believe” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
The Godless Girl (1928) Movie Review” endnotes
Robert Birchard’s Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood and Mark A. Vieira and Cecilia de Mille Presley’s Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic mention actor Fritz Feld (Bringing Up Baby, Freaky Friday) directing The Godless Girl’s talking scenes, as Cecil B. DeMille had by then left Pathé for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Eddie Quillan and Lina Basquette The Godless Girl movie image: Pathé Exchange.
“The Godless Girl: Theological Drama Will Make You Believe” last updated in October 2021.