There’s a rumble at Hollywood High: George Duryea leading Team Christians vs. Lina Basquette leading Team Atheists. It’s all fun and games until the argument turns into a riot and someone gets killed. Our junior fanatics are sent to reform school. Shocking brutality ensues, as does romance. A genre mashup from Cecil B. DeMille at his mashiest.
Cecil B. DeMille’s reputation has not aged well. One of the most consistently popular directors of the first half of the twentieth century, his name is now met with snickers and eye rolls. I know the feeling, I used to do the same thing.
What changed my mind? Well, the vast majority of DeMille’s output was silent but the films that get shown the most are talkies, specifically his cheesy biblical epics. Sound did nothing for DeMille. He had a tin ear for dialogue and excesses that were welcome in the ethereal world of silent cinema became ridiculous once talking was added. But DeMille’s silent films… Ah! There are a few guilty pleasures in the lot but most of them were just plain good movies. Humorous, fast-paced, moody at times… Nothing at all like his overstuffed biblical sound epics.
Before we continue, let me recap a little. People who dislike DeMille generally fall into two camps. The first are the people who think he was a sanctimonious hack. We’ll be dealing with those in a moment. Second, there are the people who fall for the “artist ruined by the cruel winds of fate” narrative.
It goes something like this: DeMille made amazing films from 1915 to 1918. They had grit, they had grime, they had wit. Then, DeMille poured his heart and soul into The Whispering Chorus, a dark tale of conscience and death. The film tanked at the box office, which broke DeMille’s heart and made him give himself over to mindless crowd-pleasers, never to attempt an art film again.
This story has been parroted by film historians, critics and even Charlie Chaplin. The problem? It’s simply not true. The Whispering Chorus did respectable business and turned a profit. In any case, DeMille did dabble in artier, edgier films into the sound era.
The Godless Girl is one of those edgy films. From 1925 to 1929, DeMille had his own production company. He had made a lavish time travel fantasy (The Road to Yesterday), a romance of the Russian Revolution (The Volga Boatman), a religious epic (The King of Kings), and he was the uncredited director of the trash classic Chicago. His final film as an independent producer was one of his edgiest to date, the story of a teenage atheist and her stint in prison.
And the other matter? DeMille a sanctimonious hack? Nope. He certainly had his quirks as a director but the technical polish of his silent work speaks for itself.
Now we are going to dive into The Godless Girl, a film that is completely at odds with the cartoon DeMille but is very much in keeping with the tastes and talents of the real DeMille.
Cecil B. DeMille had knocked it out of the park with The King of Kings, his reverential film about the life of Jesus. The movie made a mint but what to do next? I mean, one could hardly follow up a film about such a holy figure with a tale of sin and vice. Well, actually DeMille did (Chicago) but he did not allow his name on the credits. The production of The King of Kings had been stressful, everything had to be just so, and it is easy to see why DeMille was ready for something different.
DeMille inquired into obtaining the rights to T.E. Lawrence’s memoirs of the war in Arabia but the price proved to be prohibitive. Lawrence’s adventures would have to wait over three decades to make it to the screen. It probably was not a good fit anyway. DeMille liked working with women and there were not many to be found in Lawrence’s book. (The David Lean film famously contains no speaking roles for actresses.) I also think we could do without Julia Faye mugging her way to Damascus in a gown by Adrian.
DeMille’s ease with having women as co-workers and collaborators can likely be traced back to his excellent relationship with his mother. Beatrice de Mille (Cecil was the one who change the surname to one word, uppercase) had been an actress before her marriage and her husband’s sudden and early death left her with two boys to support. In addition to running a boarding school for girls, Beatrice became an authors’ agent and play broker. When her school went under, she turned to the theater as her sole source of income, both writing and selling plays with considerable success.
Cecil later credited her with teaching him everything he knew about writing, directing and producing. Beatrice was the one who introduced her son, then a struggling actor and playwright, to Jesse Lasky. This introduction resulted in DeMille abandoning the theater for movies. Beatrice continued to aid her son’s career, helping him obtain rights to film famous plays.
By all accounts a flamboyant, eccentric and immensely likable woman with a fondness for get-rich-quick schemes and extravagant hats, it is easy to see how Beatrice influenced her younger son’s style. Combine that with fond memories of his bookish lay minister/playwright father and DeMille’s seeming contradictions (Sin! Religion! Orgies! Piety!) suddenly become quite logical.
But what about that darn follow-up to King of Kings? After the T.E. Lawrence deal fell through, DeMille’s thoughts turned to creating a social film. He arranged for researchers to confirm whether juvenile reform schools were really as harsh as they were reputed to be. He soon had in his possession affidavits and letters from former inmates who testified to beatings, whippings, shackles, straitjackets, bloodhounds, electric fences and solitary confinement.
Screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson then wove in a recent local controversy. It seems that atheist pamphlets had been distributed throughout Hollywood High School. They invited students to attend a lecture hosted by an atheist action group. These pamphlets and the idea of an organized club of student atheists inspired the moral center of The Godless Girl’s script.
The movie opens with members of the high school atheist club slipping pamphlets into lockers. Such behavior can be punished by expulsion but the club is nothing if not determined. They are led by Judy (Lina Basquette), a gutsy rabble rouser. The opposition is led by the religious Bob (Tom Keene, billed as George Duryea), the preppy, jockish type and, at thirty-one, surely the oldest kid in the eleventh grade. (Hollywood never changes, eh?)
The principal wants to stamp out the atheist club. Bob knows exactly who is responsible. He and Judy have been exchanging notes and smoldering glances on the subject. Instead of turning the atheists in, Bob asks for permission to let the students police themselves. The principal seems to rather like the idea of minors engaging in vigilante justice. “No violence, kids. Wink, wink.” Nice school you got there.
Judy is leading a peaceful meeting when Bob storms in with a mob and demands that they vacate. Judy refuses and the fight is on. I do mean fight. In fact, a riot.
It’s pretty clear during the battle that Bob and Judy are in this for more than religion. They flirt with insults and they romance by clobbering one another. In short, this is their thing, wink wink. Yeah, this is one of those “sexy fight” movies. Each to their own, I guess. To think, this whole sordid mess could have been avoided if they had just invested in some coed kickboxing or fencing lessons.
In the melee, the goofy Bozo (Eddie Quillan) gets shoved into an atheist girl trapped on the staircase. The bannister breaks and she plummets seven floors.
The other kids flee but Bob and Judy rush to the dying girl. This act of mercy backfires as they, along with Bozo, are the only participants in the melee to be arrested. (But not before the former atheist has a deathbed conversion.)
Bob, Judy and Bozo are found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to a reform facility. Sadistic guards, torture and abuse await them.
I must point out that I really admired DeMille’s gutsiness for making Bob and Judy’s sentence just. See, a lot of these social exposes, particularly ones dealing with prison abuse, involve an innocent party. On the surface this may seem like a good idea as it automatically creates sympathy but it actually subverts the purpose of the expose itself.
You see, filmmakers are trying to show how awful prison conditions are. This has nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of anyone. By making protagonists innocent, the message becomes one of wrongful conviction.
In the case of Bob and Judy, it is clear that they were the instigators of the riot and they bear responsibility for the girl’s death. Bob may have started the fight but Judy escalated it. Neither one considered the consequences of their actions.
(Poor Bozo is wrongfully convicted but, frankly, he is such an annoying and superfluous character that it really doesn’t matter to the plot.)
So, to prison they go. It’s a paramilitary affair with hard labor thrown in. Judy is put under the care of a fellow inmate, Mame (Marie Prevost), a tough cookie who is also exactly the sort of devout, vaguely non-denominational Christian DeMille loved to feature.
Meanwhile, Bob is filled with guilt about what has happened. Well, not about the girl who died. No, he feels bad for Judy. Thus begins a romance through barbed wire and iron grates. Mame sees Bob and thinks she might like a little piece of that action but she backs away when she realizes that Judy has prior claim.
The kids have to deal with beatings, long hours of work and the frightening punishments of the head guard, played by Noah Beery. His idea of fun is electrocuting people. During one of these shock sessions, the super-heated barbed wire burns the shape of the cross into Judy’s hand. Subtle.
Later, Bob and Judy escape (thanks entirely to Mame’s help but she gets left behind) and they make it to an abandoned farm. With the guards on their heels, they decide that it is the ideal time for canoodling. Also, Bob is having a crisis of faith but Judy has the zeal of the converted. This reversal is not explored in any depth as it would have interfered with said canoodling.
We also get Lina Basquette’s famous nude scene, which is filmed with a thick gauze over the lens. Basically, all you see is a vaguely human-shaped blob twitching. (Miss Basquette seems to have attended the Carol Dempster school of twitch acting.) It’s absolutely G-rated. Not that I’m complaining.
Lina Basquette is often praised to the skies for her performance as Judy. For the life of me I cannot think why. Her performance consists of flaring her nostrils, rolling her eyes and generally overdoing every single emotion. Hers is exactly the sort of silent film acting that brings ill-repute to the entire era. She is consistently outclassed by Marie Prevost. Prevost does seem to inspire some better acting in Basquette as our godless girl is much more relaxed and natural in the presence of the Sennett veteran.
I understand the appeal of Judy as a character. When Bob tries to tear down the Godless Society’s banner, she smashes his head with a folding chair and recaptures her totem. She has fire, guts and a good heart to go with it. However, Judy succeeds as a character in spite of Basquette’s performance, not because of it.
George Duryea/Tom Keene does okay as Bob but he’s more handsome than exciting or charismatic. He was intimidated by DeMille and freaked out at the fiery climax, which was rather dangerous to film. Basically, the reform facility catches fire and that fire was not all special effects. Basquette, Keene and Beery were called upon to act in a set that was burning hot and very dangerous.
DeMille didn’t ask his cast to do anything he wouldn’t do himself but the problem was that he was a daredevil. Being reckless, he did not tolerate any signs of fear in his cast. When filming Samson and Delilah, Victor Mature similarly balked at fighting an elderly lion. On one hand, even old lions are dangerous. On the other, what the heck did he expect when he signed on to play Samson? (“I never would have agreed to play one of the Wright brothers if I thought I would be asked to fly!”) DeMille had the same disappointment with his leading man in The Godless Girl.
Duryea/Keene made the jump to talkies. In the 1930 remake of Tol’able David, he played a supporting role and this was the first time he was billed as Tom Keene. He stayed busy, mostly in westerns, but then changed his name again in 1944 to Richard Powers. In 1959, a film was released that would assure an immortality of sorts for Duryea/Keene/Powers. Plan 9 From Outer Space remains a beloved so-bad-it’s-good flick and our erstwhile silent star played Colonel Edwards, the army commander seeking out UFOs and delivering lines like this:
“For a time we tried to contact them by radio, but no response. Then they attacked a town. A small town, I’ll admit. But nevertheless a town of people. People who died.”
Hey, it’s a living.
When he formed his own production company, Cecil B. DeMille made it a policy to take on what may be described as troubled assets from other studios, particularly Paramount. This had as much to do with ego (“See what I can make of your rejects!”) as it did with the fact that DeMille was in no position to be choosy. The divorce from Paramount had been messy, DeMille’s company lacked infrastructure and the sort of publicity channels enjoyed by more established concerns.
Troubled assets? See for yourself. He hired Paramount executive Jesse Lasky’s former mistress (Agnes Ayres), a woman who had sued the studio (Jetta Goudal), an actor who had gone to war with both his leading lady and producer (Joseph Schildkraut) and a leading man who had been rejected as “weak looking” by Lasky (William Boyd).
Knowing this, it is now easy to understand why DeMille was willing to take a chance with Lina Basquette. A former dancer, she was the widow of Sam Warner, the driving force behind the talkie revolution. A teen bride, after her husband’s death she became locked in a bitter battle with her husband’s brothers for custody of her daughter and her inherited 20% stake in Warner Brothers. (She would later sign away both for a cash settlement.)
Basquette had the sultry quality and intense personality that DeMille sought in his leading ladies. (It’s unlikely that she was cast due to her work in The Noose, her other big silent hit, as it opened over three weeks after The Godless Girl began production in January of 1928.) DeMille was drowning in red ink and needed another hit to follow up The King of Kings. While all the films he directed under his own banner had been smashes (with the exception of The Road to Yesterday), the studio was losing money on most of the movies that did not have his name above the title.
DeMille is known as a star-maker for actresses but his early successes featured actresses who were popular in their own right. Fannie Ward was a stage star and, in any case, DeMille detested working with her. (Reportedly, he kept a blooper reel containing scenes of temperamental Fannie falling into a pond and getting conked on the head by her co-star. An excellent coping strategy, don’t you think?) Geraldine Farrar meshed very well with DeMille’s style but her fame on the opera stage was the main draw. Mary Pickford was a superstar already when she and DeMille made two films together.
Gloria Swanson was DeMille’s biggest discovery of the silent era. He took a Keystone girl and turned her into the decadent goddess who would symbolize the excesses of post-war cinema. Swanson had the will and talent that allowed her personality to shine through underneath the ostrich plumes and beaded gowns. Bebe Daniels, another comedy veteran, was able to make a similar leap to drama with the director’s help.
DeMille tried his Svengali approach a few more times during the silent era. May McAvoy curtly refused, Pauline Garon never caught on with the public, neither did Vera Reynolds. Elinor Fair was battling alcoholism and mental illness and her career quickly crashed and burned. Leatrice Joy did well under the DeMille banner but she and the director had a falling out, which brought an end to his patronage. The fiery Jetta Goudal proved to be too much for even DeMille to handle and their business relationship ended in a lawsuit (a real shocker there), though she remained a close family friend.
In the sound era, most of DeMille’s leading ladies were once again established stars. Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, Jean Arthur and Loretta Young already had their screen personas and didn’t need his fashion advice. Judith Allen was happy enough to be molded but her transformation came to a screeching halt when an inconvenient husband reared his head and told all.
In fact, DeMille was far more adept at making stars out of men. D.W. Griffith gave Joseph Schildkraut his start in the movies but DeMille revived his career and launched him on a successful string of character parts. William Boyd had been languishing in the extra ranks when DeMille gave him a chance as a leading man. Boyd’s own business savvy would later make him an icon (as Hopalong Cassidy) but DeMille had provided him the leg up that he needed.
In the sound era, Henry Wilcoxon did not have the charisma to become a major star but DeMille’s son-in-law Anthony Quinn did. Thanks to the leading role in The Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston enjoyed a long career in biblical and costume parts.
As a director, DeMille’s greatest talent was with people. His ability to handle armies of extras and have them behave in a realistic and exciting manner is part of what made his big films a success. Today, extras are often multiplied digitally or are entirely artificial creations. DeMille did things the hard way.
This skill is displayed to excellent advantage in the two set pieces of The Godless Girl, the rumble between atheists and Christians at the beginning and the reform school fire at the climax. In fact, these two scenes are the best in the film.
The schoolhouse riot occurs at the top of a multi-story building and the melee spills out into the stairwell with fatal results. DeMille’s camera shows unusual nimbleness and a bit of a German accent as it follows the Christian students sneaking up the stairs to attack the atheists. Once the battle starts, it’s a wild affair with extras looking like they are fighting for their lives. They may well have been. The only flaw with the scene is the incessant comedy relief. Thanks but no thanks.
Oh, by the way, DeMille also dusts off his old moody cinematography from the ‘teens. Hurrah!
The finale involves an accidental fire in the girls’ side of the reform facility. To add to the tension, Judy is handcuffed to a pipe in the basement. The scene is spectacular and no holds are barred in what catches fire. I can see why some of the actors were skittish.
It is also interesting to see the differences in the way the boys and girls react to the fire. The boys meekly obey their guards while a group of the wilder girls execute an escape, chopping through fire hoses with axes to ensure that their hated school burns to the ground. DeMille’s stint in independent production included some very empowered heroines and most of his scripts were written by women. In this case, we must also remember that DeMille loved nothing more than a good girl fight. His leading lady proved to be up to that challenge. Well, off-camera, anyway.
Lina Basquette described DeMille in melodramatic terms that Erich von Stroheim would find over the top in their vulgarity. Frankly, I find her narratives to be ridiculous. She doesn’t have much good to say about her director but The Godless Girl remains her one memorable cinematic achievement. (For all her complaining, Basquette was not above lifting the title of the film and her director’s name for her autobiography, Lina: DeMille’s Godless Girl.)
The Godless Girl was not a success. It was released in August of 1928 at the height of the talkie craze and no one seemed to want silent films, no matter how well-crafted. The movie was rereleased in March of 1929 with talking sequences (not directed by DeMille) but these did little to help the film at the box office. (The version I viewed was the all-silent release as preserved in Mr. DeMille’s personal collection.)
Sound also did Basquette’s career no favors. Her voice had a whiny tone, she tended to talk through her nose, her delivery was stilted and her attempts at accents were painful. She made one film for Universal, one for Fox and had slid into poverty row productions by 1931.
As stated before, Basquette is lavishly praised for her role but I do not share this enthusiasm. The main role should have gone to Marie Prevost, at least in my opinion. Marie as the atheist heroine and perhaps a more interesting, wholesome boy like Buddy Rogers in the lead. Now that would have been a movie.
Even if her appeal remains a mystery to me, Basquette managed to charm the trousers right off numerous film historians in her twilight years. She wove spicy tales of spies, war, getting a contract offer from the Third Reich and subsequently kicking Hitler in the naughty bits. Yes, quite literally. She claims that she trekked to Germany in order to talk over a career in Reich cinema and was greeted by Hitler himself. He got grabby, she got stompy and thus ended the negotiations.
I remain unimpressed and unconvinced. Worse, no one discusses the biggest problem of the narrative: Why the heck did she go to Germany? This was not the early thirties, the Nazis had been in power for years. Further, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin had helped open up a conversation on fascism, Nazism and the growing threat from Germany and its allies. To willingly enter the nationalized, Nazified German film industry (at Hitler’s personal request) in 1937… Well, I’ll let my readers judge for themselves.
(I do not often agree with author Anthony Slide but he is one of the few major silent film historians to see through Basquette. He correctly points out that by this time in her career, she was reduced to sixth or seventh billing in obscure poverty row films. It’s likely that even her American fans would have trouble seeing her films. How exactly was Hitler watching them? And wouldn’t these tiny studios take notice if there was an unexplained market for these films in Germany? And if there was, wouldn’t they have given Miss Basquette higher billing to exploit this popularity once they realized they had a sort of female David Hasselhoff on their hands? Germany was one of the biggest foreign markets for Hollywood films. And why did it take Hitler so long to send for her if he loved her so much?)
Clarification: American studios maintained distribution deals with Germany (if you want to complain about that, I expect you to be equally hard on all businesses that did trade with Germany pre-war; not saying it is right, just not sure why films are singled out) and some non-German stars were still locked into contracts that were negotiated before the Nazis took power or before their dangerous ambitions were widely known. I hope you see the difference between these circumstances and Miss Basquette’s alleged German jaunt. Also, a few German performers—Camilla Horn and Curt Jurgens, for example—did not leave their native country but made their displeasure with the Nazi regime known and suffered the consequences.
If you can think of a plausible reason for an American actor to join UFA in 1937, I would be happy to hear it. (I’m not talking about publicity tours for American or British studios, I am talking about signing on the dotted line.) Remember, Hollywood’s ranks were being rapidly filled with talented German industry refugees who had chilling accounts of Nazi oppression, racism, violence and censorship to share and Basquette visited England in 1937, which was home to even more German film veterans with horror stories to share.
Sorry, Miss Basquette. I have never bought the Hitler story, I still don’t buy the Hitler story and even if I did buy the Hitler story, it still doesn’t exactly leave her smelling like a rose.
The Godless Girl was the end of an era in several respects. It was the last silent film that DeMille ever directed and it was the last film he made under his own banner. Creative accounting could not save a studio with finances that had always been shaky. DeMille signed on with MGM for a disastrous three film deal, an unpleasant experience for all parties involved.
It looked like his career was kaput and he was unemployed for a year. He was saved by returning to his roots. DeMille rejoined Paramount and made the sort of decadent historical film that would become his trademark, The Sign of the Cross.
(In fact, biblical/religious costume dramas made up a relatively small portion of DeMille’s total output of nearly eighty movies. Counting the hybrid ancient/modern version of The Ten Commandments and Joan the Woman, he only made seven religious/ancient epics in his entire forty-two year career. Eight, if you count The Crusade but I don’t. The plot involved less religion and more Richard and Saladin arguing over who would win Berengaria’s heart, which is pretty ridiculous if you know anything at all about Richard and Berengaria. But that’s changing the subject. In contrast, DeMille made over a dozen western/wilderness flicks.)
The Godless Girl is a mixed bag but it does show what DeMille was capable of when he put his mind to it. It doesn’t quite succeed but it is significant for what it attempts. You can safely say that this is a movie ahead of its time and it has the usual limitations of a trailblazing work. It’s on to something juicy but it doesn’t seem to know what to do about it.
The film is rather marred by its oh-so happy ending. Not giving too much away but let’s just say that all is forgiven and love and flowers reign. And those questions of lost faith? Forget them! We have romance!
In three years, Warner Brothers would have a smash hit with I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, a film that took what The Godless Girl was attempting and brought it to its logical, tragic conclusion. Nine years after that, the brutal prison expose was mature enough for Preston Sturges to simultaneously satirize the genre itself and message films and filmmakers in general with Sullivan’s Travels.
With all this movie history behind us, it is easy to forget how lurid this film would have seemed when first released. All silent films require a certain amount of mental time travel to enjoy but The Godless Girl requires more than most.
While the performances in film are not all they could be, the raw prison scenes still have the power to shock. This is an intriguing film that shows off DeMille’s strengths, as well as the beauty and the power that silent film had achieved on the eve of its death.
Where can I see it?
The Godless Girl was released on DVD as part of the Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film box set. It is currently out of print, which is a shame as it is excellent.