Arts This Week on DVD
posted by October 26 at 13:25 PMon
I’ll get to This Weekend at the Movies shortly, but first I must obsess about The Godless Girl. You’ve probably never seen this exuberant, schizoid epic—by Ten Commandments maestro Cecil Blount De Mille—because it was produced without a soundtrack when silent films were going out of style, lost money at the box office, and fell into obscurity. It’s newly available on DVD, thanks to the National Film Preservation Foundation, whose third immense DVD box set of American film “treasures” I review in this week’s DVD column. Here’s the bit of room I had for The Godless Girl:
The most thrilling entry in the 739-minute set has to be Cecil B. De Mille’s silent The Godless Girl, from 1929, starring Lina Basquette as a popular vixen who leads her high-school godless society with a combination of sexual allure (spit curls and costumes by Adrian!) and exotic intimidation (the initiation ceremony requires the novice to swear on the head of a capuchin monkey). When her rival, handsome student body president George Duryea, gets permission from the principal to suppress the outbreak of atheism his own way, De Mille stages a teenage riot like you’ve never seen. It begins with hurled eggs, spans four floors of complete mayhem, and ends with a beautiful blonde finding God on her deathbed (and forcing Basquette into an unmistakable pietà). The godless girl eventually converts too, following a stigmatic encounter with an electric fence at reform school, but even then De Mille can’t resist a decidedly pagan nude scene in which she frolics, nymphlike, by the side of a stream. No excuses! You must see The Godless Girl.
Obviously you want to see the monkey. Here is “The Goat”—comic relief Eddie Mullan—being forced by Godless Society ringleader Lina Basquette to forswear Christmas:
I officially disapprove of the use of primates in the motion picture industry (by the way, did you read this sad AP article?), but this little cutie is long gone. Watching him disrupt the oh-so-high-school initiation ceremony is hilarious. (Later, during the teenage riot, the monkey tries to climb up the Goat’s pant leg. Also adorable.)
The film stills the NFPF provided are not ideal, but believe me when I say the riot is astounding. Garments are rent, hair is pulled, the bodies of children fly abruptly across the room and tumble tragically down spiral staircases, the atheist and the Bible boy cast epithets and flirt across battle lines—it’s choreography worthy of an epic. Which, on the modest scale of high schools and juvenile detention centers, it is.
Though The Godless Girl bombed in the US, it was a hit in the Soviet Union, where it was shown without the cheesy final reel in which our heroine comes to understand there is a God. You may prefer this version as well. But there is a delicious irony to De Mille’s delirious conclusion: The godless girl discovers God and sensual pleasure at the same time. (I wish I could illustrate this with a still from the soft-focus scene in which Basquette plashes nakedly in a stream. Alas, you’ll have to get the DVDs.)