The Godless Girl
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“”It is not generally known that there are Atheist Societies using the schools of the country as their battle-ground -- attacking, through the Youth of the Nation, the beliefs that are sacred to most of the people.
|—Opening title card of The Godless Girl.|
The Godless Girl is a 1929 film by Cecil B. DeMille. It was one of various "goat gland" films made during the transition between silent and sound movies, where talking scenes were added after the final silent version was made.
If you have ever wondered what Conservapedia's article on atheism would look like when turned into a silent film, this isn't far off. The film opens with several pages of text setting the scene: that atheistic clubs are out to undermine American values within their own school system. The "Godless Club" and their female leader (Lina Basquette as The Girl) is then introduced, shown to be having cultish meetings in school rooms, practically worshipping science and indoctrinating new members by having them swear against belief in God and renouncing the Bible by swearing on the head of a monkey. (So far, so good. It's the kind of propaganda that Ted Haggard would get hard thinking about, unless it involved men of course, because he's not gay).
After the school's Christian contingent, led by The Boy (Tom Keene) and the eventual love interest for The Girl, find out about the meetings they decide to break into the school and a massive fight erupts on the main stairwell of the school. This results in the death of The Other Girl (proving, if nothing else, that Cecil B. DeMille has no imagination when naming characters)[note 1] and The Boy and The Girl being sent to a brutal reform school. Typical of school administrations, both sides are treated as equally culpable, even though it was the Christians who came in and started the fight. (This might be the only accurate bit in the whole movie.)
After time in the reform school, where they are regularly beaten and forced to work all day in various menial jobs, The Girl and The Boy end up in love. They then escape, the reform school burns down (allegedly severely injuring some of the cast in the process) and in a predictable twist, The Girl denounces atheism and converts back to the loving Christianity that tortured her in the reform school.
This film was written by Jeanie MacPherson, an actress from the earliest days of the silent film era who had above average looks and below average talent. Her ability to spin extremely moralistic stories intrigued DeMille, whose wingnuttiness was legendary even before the First World War. (He would later lobby producers to blacklist left-leaning filmmakers during the post-World War Two "Red Scare," though this spectacularly backfired when he was forced to resign from the board of the Directors' Guild of America after what could best be described as a failed coup.)
MacPherson and DeMille collaborated for over 30 years. Some of their films include:
- The Cheat (1915): A white woman embezzles from her husband's company, then has an affair with a Japanese man who puts his brand on her.[note 2]
- Male and Female (1919): A sort of precursor to Lord of the Flies, but with rich adults and their servants.
- The Ten Commandments (1923): Silent version of the film DeMille remade in 1956 with Charlton Heston.
- The King of Kings (1927): Silent, later with dubbed sound. The Jesus story from Mary Magdalene's viewpoint.
What happens when two moralists work together?
DeMille was married to Constance Adams from 1902 until his death in 1959. Considering that he and MacPherson were: a) rock-ribbed moralists; b) Christian apologists; c) wingnuts; d) haters of anyone who dissented even one scintilla from their narrow worldview; and e) long-term coworkers, what would you guess the odds are that these two had an extramarital affair? 100 percent you say? You're right! MacPherson was one of DeMille's two long-term mistresses. They "collaborated" from about 1914 until just before her death in 1947.
- The Godless Girl at IMDb. The reviews are interesting: the one who said "The religious aspects of the film are subtle" is probably reviewing the wrong film or is on medication.
- Actually, in many American silent films, especially those with a romantic plotline, the characters often had no names. This began in the earliest days of the silent film era when American audiences were mostly immigrants. Identifying characters as "The Boy" and "The Girl" allowed audiences to imagine names familiar to them. It also allowed the studios to prevent their actors from becoming celebrities, so they could keep their salaries low. But, because DeMille was one of the few directors who tried to use this convention long after the introduction of sound — when dialogue like "Oh, no! We killed The Other Girl!" would sound strange even in one of DeMille's filmed delusions — we will retain this little bit of snark aimed at Herr DeMille.
- Not a metaphor. He literally burns her with a branding iron. Quite sensational for 1915.
- Directors Guild of America, Spring 2011, A Guild Divided