The films of Cecil B. DeMille offer a spectacle of extremes. Success was never more opulent than in a DeMille film, nor was poverty more grinding. Reared on Bible stories and the romance sagas that appealed to his preacher/playwright father, DeMille’s films relied on a pattern of sex, sin, damnation and redemption that played well with audiences at the crossroads of the Victorian Era and the Jazz Age.
The Godless Girl was DeMille’s final silent picture. The production values fit comfortably on a typical DeMille scale—massive sets and literally hundreds of extras—but the subject matter is the stuff of social problem films, and its treatment is that of an exploitation picture.
In 1927, the idea of treating juvenile offenders differently from adult criminals was still fairly new. The first juvenile court was established in 1899, in Chicago. As the juvenile reform system spread throughout the nation, reports of abuse began to circulate, and DeMille conducted research that uncovered water torture, restraint with chains, ropes and straitjackets, corporal punishment, and the use of bloodhounds and electric fences to deter escape. During the same period, DeMille read of an atheist organization that was actively scouting for recruits at Hollywood High School. For The Godless Girl, DeMille had scenarist Jeanie Macpherson combine abusive juvenile reform, atheist evangelism and fundamentalist Christian zealotry into one story.
As boys growing up, Cecil de Mille and his brother William were taught Bible stories on a daily basis by their father, who would follow this catechism with grand tales of romance, opulence and adventure. Henry de Mille, a schoolteacher who gave lay sermons at an Episcopalian church in Brooklyn, was also the author of numerous stories and plays, as well as a partner of theater impresario David J. Belasco. His two sons, born three years apart, inherited his love of romantic literature, his passion for the stage, and his faith. Belasco produced the plays that William wrote. Cecil sought, with little success, work on the stage as an actor, director and producer.
In 1913, he left New York for California, where he set up a motion picture studio – the first in Hollywood. He glamorized his name by capitalizing the “D” in de Mille and adding his middle initial, transforming himself into Cecil B. DeMille, and he discovered his calling as a movie director with the success of his very first production, The Squaw Man (1914).
By 1928, DeMille was among the most recognized of all film directors. For the title role of The Godless Girl, he chose Lina Basquette, a San Mateo native whose life story rivals any DeMille picture for sheer spectacle and implausibility. Christened Lena Baskette, she spent her childhood dancing to records in her father’s drugstore, which was San Mateo’s first Victrola outlet. After a representative of the Victor Recording Company saw her informal act, the eight-year-old Baskette found herself promoting phonographs at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. A year later, she was making “Lena Baskette Featurettes” for Universal Pictures. By 1923, the uncommon sixteen-year-old had become the singular Lina Basquette, featured dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies, where she performed alongside a nineteen-year-old Louise Brooks in 1925.
That same year Basquette wed Sam Warner, second youngest of the four Warner brothers, who transformed cinema when he joined with Western Electric and Vitaphone to develop talking pictures. In October of 1926, Basquette gave birth to her first child, Lita Warner, and on October 5, 1927, Sam Warner died unexpectedly—just one day before the New York opening of The Jazz Singer. Harry, Albert and Jack Warner stopped Basquette from inheriting Sam’s share of the company, and, more significantly, they took Lita away from her. Basquette tried in vain for years to regain custody of her daughter.
In 1930, Adolf Hitler, then leader of a minority party in Germany, wrote a fan letter to Basquette, praising her for her performance in The Godless Girl. In her autobiography, Basquette describes a 1937 meeting with Hitler in Munich, at which the Nazi leader made it clear that he was interested in more than her screen presence: “I said, Adolf, surely you wouldn’t have relations with a woman whose grandfather is a Jew!”
Basquette’s acting career all but ended in 1943 with the Poverty Row film noir, A Night for Crime. A few after that she became a trainer of show dogs, and developed into a recognized authority on the Great Dane, even authoring a classic text on the subject in 1972 entitled Your Great Dane. She made one final appearance on screen in the 1991 drama Paradise Park, an independent production filmed in West Virginia. She died, at the age of 87, in 1994.
Marie Prevost gives a remarkable performance in The Godless Girl as a born-again Christian whose faith in God is tested by the brutality of incarceration. A native of Canada, she got her start in the movies as one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties in 1915, when she was just seventeen years old. Her flair for comedy earned her star billing in Sennett’s madcap Keystone shorts, followed by a contract with Universal in 1921.
Regularly typecast as a free spirit in the flapper mold, she starred in a 1922 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned opposite Kenneth Harlan, who would become her second husband. They shared in common with Basquette a fondness for dogs, and raised Cairn Terriers that they showed at competitions all across the West Coast.
The death of Prevost’s mother in 1926 proved to be a source of great distress, and both she and Harlan took to drinking heavily, which led to the dissolution of their marriage in 1927. Her alcoholism caused her to gain weight, which greatly reduced her appeal to casting agents. By 1935, the only work she could find was alongside fellow Keystone alumni Ben Turpin, Ford Sterling and Chester Conklin in a Sennett pastiche, The Keystone Hotel. Her final film was the Poverty Row production Ten Laps to Go (1936).
On January 23, 1937, in response to complaints of a dog’s persistent bark, police went to Prevost’s Los Angeles home to investigate, and found her dead. Her death was attributed to heart failure prompted by malnutrition and alcoholism. She was just 39 years old. The police report, which stated that her pet Dachshund “had chewed at her arms and legs in a futile attempt to awaken her,” was exaggerated to ghoulish effect by Kenneth Anger in his sensationalized account of film colony scandals, Hollywood Babylon. His suggestion that Prevost’s corpse was eaten by her dog demonstrated a DeMille-like penchant for the spectacular, but it effectively reduced Prevost’s life to a morbid joke.
In his autobiography, DeMille recounts a 1931 visit to the Soviet Union, where The Godless Girl was a hit. Why his film had proved to be so successful in a country devoted to Communism and atheism was a mystery, until he made the following discovery: “The Russians simply did not screen the redeeming reel, but played the rest of the picture as a document of American police brutality and the glorious spreading of atheism among American youth.”
Presented at SFSFF 2007 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer