The Godless Girl (1929)

In The Godless Girl, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Judy (Lina Basquette) and Bob (Tom Keene) are high school students. Judy is a militant atheist, who holds atheist rallies, accompanied by a monkey as a prop, whom she refers to as our cousin. Bob is a Christian fundamentalist who leads a bunch of like-minded Christians on a raid on one of those meetings. A mêlée breaks out, during which a girl accidentally dies. Bob and Judy are sent to a reform school. After enduring much brutality, they escape and fall in love. While bathing in a river, Judy admires the beauty of nature, made no less beautiful by a naked Judy, and she thinks how she might almost believe in a God who created it. Bob, on the other hand, recalling all horrors of the reform school, says there is no way he can believe in a God who would allow such things to happen.

So far there is balance between the two. But notwithstanding the fact that this is a pre-Code movie, I knew that it would be required that Judy pray to God before the movie was over. I thought of San Francisco (1936) and The Spiral Road (1962), where the atheists in those two movies end up getting on their knees and humbling themselves before God, and so I braced myself for the inevitable.

They are captured and returned to the reform school. Bob is handcuffed to the bench in his cell, but Judy is handcuffed to a pipe above her head, forcing her to stand with her arm extended upward. Within the movie, the difference between the way Bob and Judy are handcuffed seems to be just a matter of chance. But from outside the movie, it just did not make sense, since handcuffed like that she would not be able to use the bucket, but would have to foul her pants when she needed to defecate. Actually, having handcuffs on prisoners while locked in their cells does not make much sense anyway. I suspected there was a reason this was put in the movie, but I could not figure out what. Soon all was revealed. A fire breaks out in the reform school, and Judy is forgotten about as the flames close in around her. In desperation, she prays. It is a conditional kind of prayer, not exactly expressing full belief, but more importantly, because of the way she is handcuffed, she cannot kneel. She thus retains her dignity, literally standing tall, and thus figuratively as well.

After Judy is saved by Bob, they rescue the brutal guard, whose dying wish is that they be pardoned, and so they are. As they ride away from the prison, Bob curses the foul place, but Judy says that it was where they learned to believe and let believe. It is not clear exactly what each believes at this point, but they will clearly tolerate each other’s views, whatever they may be. More importantly, because we were not treated to a vulgar display of humiliation and self-abasement on the part of Judy, this is a movie an atheist can enjoy, regardless of what Judy may or may not believe in the end.

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