Cast & Crew
Cecil B. De Mille
Judith Craig, the daughter of an atheist, forms a club called The Godless Society in her high school and begins to recruit members. Bob Hathaway, a stalwart Christian lad, incites the students to attack the atheists, and there is a riot. Grace is killed as a direct consequence of this disturbance, and Bob and Judith are sent to the state reformatory. Bob and Judith are badly treated by the head guard, and Bob, attacking the grocery man, escapes with Judith in his wagon. They are quickly recaptured and locked in cells. A fire breaks out, and Bob rescues both Judith and the head guard. As a result of this selfless bravery, Bob and Judith are returned to freedom, facing life with a renewed faith in Divine Providence.
Cecil B. De Mille
Mary Jane Irving
Cecilia De Mille
Billie Van Avery
Beulah Marie Dix
J. F. Westerberg
The Godless Girl
The Godless Girl's was DeMille's follow-up to his epic life of Christ, The King of Kings (1927). Although he had taken great pains to insure the purity of that film, even contractually obligating leading man H.B. Warner for five years so that he couldn't appear in more worldly roles and forbidding him from being seen night-clubbing or even playing cards during production, the director/producer had been condemned by the faithful for devoting too much screen time to the Savior's relationship with Mary Magdalene. In response, he started looking for a project that would take on the immoral and the overly moral at the same time. He found his inspiration in a newspaper story about the furor that erupted at Hollywood High School when students were found with flyers advertising a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. At the time, he was researching reform school conditions in the U.S. The high school incident gave him a hook; the reformatory scenes would follow a conflict between high school Christians and atheists during which a student would be killed. Amazingly for DeMille, though he presented the student atheists as irreverent and even militant, the Christians were presented in an even more unattractive light. He clearly portrayed them as the instigators of the violence and painted their leader, Bob, as harsh and judgmental. By the film's end, both godless girl and self-righteous boy have developed more moderate approaches to religion while falling in love along the way.
At the time DeMille conceived the plot for The Godless Girl, he was already researching reformatory conditions for a film tentatively titled The World Against Them. According to some sources he spent $200,000 obtaining affidavits from former inmates and sending male and female researchers into reformatories undercover for a firsthand account of conditions. The results were assembled in two large scrapbooks, which, according to journalist Dorothy Donnell, contained "things so revolting they will probably never be printed."
Initially, DeMille announced that he would cast the film with high-school aged actors in the teen roles, but that was not to be. Although he tested the young Sylvia Sidney, then starring on Broadway at the age of 17, he instead cast 20-year-old silent film and Ziegfeld Follies star Lina Basquette, recently the widow of Harry Warner (some sources claim she inspired him to invest in talking pictures). An unsolicited test sent by an instructional film producer led him to 31-year-old George Duryea, who would later star in low-budget Westerns as Tom Keene. For the chief supporting roles, he cast two Mack Sennett veterans, Eddie Quillan (20) and Marie Prevost (29).
The Godless Girl was built around two mammoth set pieces: the fight in the high school stairwell and the reformatory fire. The latter took place on a massive set constructed on the Pathé lot by DeMille's art director, future director Mitchell Leisen (although publicity claimed the scenes were shot on location). The set was so large, cameraman J. Peverell Marley had a special monorail constructed with a platform that could hold four men, including DeMille. For the climactic fire, the director decided to shoot the real thing by burning down Leisen's set. In an attempt to insure the cast's safety, the art director had extras sprayed with asbestos (long before there was any knowledge of the substance's long term effects). Nonetheless, at least three female extras were badly burned, and Basquette lost her eyebrows to the flames.
The set of The Godless Girl was a hotbed of romance. Jeanie Macpherson, the screenwriter for the ever-pious DeMille, had been his mistress years earlier. His current inamorata, Julia Faye, was cast in a small role, despite the fact that his daughter Cecilia also had a bit part. The still grieving Basquette, involved in a bitter battle over her husband's estate with the rest of the Brothers Warner, found a sympathetic ear in cameraman Marley. They would marry in 1929 and divorce over a year-and-a-half later.
By the time The Godless Girl was finished, the film industry had been shaken by the success of Warner Bros.' The Jazz Singer (1927). Late silent films were dying at the box office, and most filmmakers were tacking on at least a few talking scenes to draw crowds. After releasing The Godless Girl as a silent, the production company, Pathé, called the film back to re-shoot two scenes with sound. DeMille was tied up with his next film, so they turned the scenes over to actor Fritz Feld, who had worked as an assistant to director Max Reinhardt in Germany. Even with the new sound scenes, however, the film was one of DeMille's biggest flops, losing almost $300,000 of its $782,000 investment. Although DeMille eventually recovered from the debacle, most of the cast ended up in low-budget films. Prevost's talking film career did so badly that she turned to alcohol and died of malnutrition in 1938, an incident immortalized in song by Nick Lowe on his album "Jesus of Cool" (aka "Pure Pop for Now People").
One place the film succeeded, however, was the Soviet Union. Years later, DeMille learned the reason for its success. Censors there simply cut the last reel, featuring Basquette's religious conversion. Later critics and historians, most notably Kevin Brownlow, have suggested the picture might be one of the most contemporary of DeMille's silents because of its violent reformatory scenes and its take on faith. The Godless Girl also brought Basquette a fan letter with a very famous signature, though it would be years before she realized its significance -- the letter came from Adolph Hitler.
Producer-Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Jeanie Macpherson
Titles: Beulah Marie Dix, Macpherson
Cinematography: J. Peverell Marley
Art Direction: Mitchell Leisen
Cast: Lina Basquette (The Girl), Marie Prevost (The Other Girl), Tom Keene (The Boy -- as George Duryea), Noah Beery (The Brute), Eddie Quillan (The Goat), Julia Faye (An Inmate), Cecilia de Mille (Bit), George Irving (Principal).
by Frank Miller