24 January 2009 | Steffi_P
"Intolerance versus intolerance"
Anyone who has seen a handful of Cecil B. DeMille pictures will be able to see that they are often contradictory on many levels, and can take some bizarre turns. In the Godless Girl – his last silent feature – an exaggerated and ill-informed attack upon atheism turns into what is for its era a rather grittily authentic portrayal of a penal institution.
Interestingly, the opening scenes show how fundamentalists such as DeMille and his screenwriter Jeanie MacPherson seem only able to picture atheists as having a ritualism and desire to convert similar to that of a religious group. It's also indicative of DeMille's fundamentalism that there are rarely actual arguments for belief in his pictures – just a sprinkling of quotations from scripture, a dash of Old Testament pyrotechnics and a reverent depiction of religious figures. Here that last tactic is reversed, with the unbelievers appearing as ridiculous caricatures, their tenets belittled rather than tackled. However the Godless Girl is rare among DeMille pictures in that it does contain a passing reference to an actual philosophical argument for the existence of God, one known as the argument from beauty. But this is rather overshadowed by DeMille's preferred method – to dazzle us with miracles. So we have cross-shaped burns appearing on Lina Basquette's hands, or Tom Keene's prayer being answered in the form of a falling electrical cable in the climactic fire sequence.
In contrast to this DeMillean theism is the thoroughly researched realism of the reformatory. Depictions of suffering and sadism do crop up quite a bit in DeMille's pictures, but they were rarely this convincing and this close to home. Particularly effective is the simplicity and relentlessness of the sequence in which Keene is tortured with a fire hose by the brutish Noah Beery. Beery is of course another caricature, but the starkness of the setting and the naturalism of the extras prevent this from becoming anything like a Sunday-school portrayal of Hebrew slaves toiling under the whip.
DeMille and MacPherson would probably not have regarded these changes in tone as inconsistent, and there is in fact one consistency in the Godless Girl that we can all appreciate – a formalist one. It's rarely noted that DeMille was a master of space and framing, and he always used his command of cinematic form to serve the story. It's natural that any competent director would depict the reformatory as Spartan and enclosed – and DeMille does that with visible ceilings, tight framing, swathes of barren grey and high angles in the yard so as not to show the sky or the outside world. However, DeMille also employs similar devices in the earlier scenes at the college. Why? Because the point of the story is that both the atheist girl and the Christian boy are close-minded and prejudiced, and DeMille's formalism is echoing this. They escape into the outside world at the same time as their convictions are beginning to soften, and DeMille takes full advantage of the outdoor setting with delicate framing, dappled lighting patterns and soft focus. It also gives him the perfect backdrop for his aforementioned argument from beauty.
The acting of the two leads is not at all bad, and for the most part tends more towards naturalism than melodrama (performances in DeMille pictures tended to go one way or the other – contradictions again!) The one moment of painful exaggeration from Lina Basquette is, unsurprisingly, in her early scene at the atheist meeting. The only sour note among the cast is comical character actor Eddie Quillan as "The Goat". In a rare display of deference to an actor DeMille apparently allowed him to improvise many of his scenes, but his style of comedy is at odds with the tone of the picture and spoils some of the deeper moments. This is not to say that Quillan had no talent, or that a picture such as this has no need of comic relief. It's simply that he is effectively a clown, and would fit better in a more light-hearted picture. Marie Prevost's sardonic sidekick actually provides much more effective comic relief.
On a final note, thanks to Filmfour we now have a very fine restored print of the Godless Girl. The score is by the unparalleled Carl Davis, and like all his work is listenable without being intrusive, and has a canny use of signature themes and classical interpolations. This new edition, occasionally shown late at night on the Filmfour channel in the UK, is well worth catching.