Thursday, March 5, 2009

Review – The Godless Girl

March 5, 2009

The Godless Girl – U.S., 1928

Cecil B. De Mille’s The Godless Girl begins with a warning that at first sight seems far-fetched. It seems something many people hold dear to them is in danger of being utterly destroyed, something as precious to some people as life itself – Christianity. The peril apparently comes from Atheist Societies, groups of non-believers who value science over religion and refuse to believe in a god until science conclusively verifies that one exists. To witness just how real the danger is, we step into an average high school somewhere in North America. There, a girl in her teens is cautiously stuffing fliers into her fellow students’ lockers, ever so careful so as not to be seen doing so. The fliers announce a meeting of a group known as “the Godless Society,” which from the rest of the slogans on the flier is certainly not advocating a civil discourse on theology and science. “Kill the Bible,” the announcement reads. “Man made God. God did not make man.” To the school’s principal, the distribution of the fliers and the words writing on them are crimes worthy of a jail sentence, and he declares that such acts blasphemy must be stopped.

Watching the students as they hear this proclamation, it appears that many of the students already have an idea who is behind the anonymous fliers. However, instead of revealing that the perpetrator is Judy Craig (Lina Basquette), a classmate named Bob Hathaway (Tom Keene) asks the principal to give the students permission to handle the situation their own way. The principal acquiesces on the condition that there is no violence. And yet it is clear that there will be. Later as Judy officially begins the meeting, a mob assembles outside and begins to make their way into the building and up the stairs. At the meeting, which resembles a town hall lecture more than it does a high school club session, we see signs declaring this to be the age of science and a new recruit being asked to declare his disbelief by taking a oath while touching the head of a monkey, whom Judy refers to as their “relative.” As Bob’s group of believers confronts Judy’s group of non-believers, a melee resembling nothing you’ve seen on film erupts. Bob makes the first threat, a member of the Godless Society throws the first punch, and within minutes, there is a dead body at the bottom of the stairs.

From here, the film takes a rather unexpected turn. Instead of staying focused on the two groups involved in the riot, the film takes Bob and Judy out of their comfort zone and places them in a place that strips them of all of their power to wage war or promote peace. The result of this is that what the film had presented as a national situation is reduced to a personal grudge. Bob and Judy, as well as a boy named Samuel Johnson (Eddie Quillan), are sent to a reformatory for their roles in the riot and their classmate’s subsequent death. At the reformatory, they are stripped of their identities, physically abused by ruthless guards, and punished for trying to be kind to others. In essence, they are no longer the aggressors. That role now falls to the guards and wardens of the reformatory, and it a role that they play so well that the film sees the need to remind viewers that not all reformatories are like the one depicted in the film. While I have no doubt that reformatories or prisons do in fact affect prisoners profoundly, I felt that by changing the roles of the central characters, the film was trying too hard to make them likeable. Whereas before their incarceration, they were quite willing to attack others in defense of their beliefs, now they are victims, good people in a rather horrendous place. With such a set-up, it’s not hard to predict what comes next.

In spite of this predictability, The Godless Girl remains interesting throughout. We meet a fellow inmate named Mame (Marie Prevost), who ever so slowly seems to be convincing Judy that those who believe in the Bible may indeed be onto something. For humor, even though it is not necessary in a film such as this one, we have Samuel, who seldom misses a chance to be clever or naïve, but who will nobly defend a friend in need in the blink of an eye. And then there’s the head guard (menacingly played by Noah Berry), a brute so violent and merciless that the prisoners under his watch are in very real physical and mortal danger. In one scene, the head guard beats a young boy so severely that the boy loses consciousness. He then turns to another boy and says, “I’ll…be…back!” Even in intertitles, his delivery of the line is frightening, and we understand the dire implications of these words.

Having established the beginning of a change in Judy’s way of thinking, the film stops give screen time to the opposite opinion, so when Judy’s hands are burned by an electric fence and the scars on her palms resemble a cross, no one even mentions that the scar could simply be an imprint of the fence she was holding onto. The film then is clearly about Judy’s eventual acceptance of a higher power. Moreover, as Judy and Bob slowly overcome their initial hatred of one another and come to see the world and religion in the same light, it is not surprising that the film has them fall in love. However, their emotions occur very quickly in an environment in which they are kept apart most of the time. Yet in a film like this, even that makes a bit of sense. Judy and Bob are teenagers after all, and young love does have the tendency to come on unexpectedly and with a great deal of intensity. That said, I was still much more intrigued by the opening conflict than anything that came after it. (on the third disc of Treasures from the American Film Archives III: Social Issues in American Film)

3 stars

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