Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Our Delinquent Daughters: Reforming Adolescence in Cecil B. DeMille’s *The Godless Girl* and G. W. Pabst’s *Diary of a Lost Girl*
April Miller

Last modified: 2010-05-28


On November 24, 1925, the Los Angeles Times published a brief article describing the legal accomplishments of a rather unusual defense attorney: fourteen-year old Queen Silver.  The previous day, Queen had acted as legal counsel for her mother, Mrs. Grace Verne Roser, who was facing a charge of assault and battery for whipping James Merry, a representative of the Bible Institute, with an automobile skid chain. Silver successfully argued that Roser’s actions were justified retaliation against Merry’s verbal attack on Roser during one of Queen’s many speeches promoting evolutionary theory and atheism. The rather laudatory article goes on to describe Queen Silver as a “child wonder” who understood Einstein’s theories of relatively when she was only eight years old, thus adding to Silver’s mythic status.


To film director Cecil B. DeMille, however, Queen Silver was simply “the Godless Girl,” a figure who would inspire his 1928 production of the same name.  Based loosely on the well-known public figure, The Godless Girl portrays the criminal exploits of Judith Craig (Lina Basquette), an affluent teenaged atheist and Darwinian intellectual who must serve time in an abusive reformatory when her battle against the “bible-pounder” Bob Hathaway (George Duryea) incites a riot that causes the death of another unnamed young atheist. During the film’s lengthy production stage, DeMille described The Godless Girl’s lofty polemic goals: first, to present a “courageous treatment of the problem of Atheism and its promotion among the youth of America”; second, to provide a frank disclosure of the living conditions and treatment of the delinquents being housed in many of the nation’s reform schools. 


Using contemporary scientific writings on juvenile delinquency, this paper will compare DeMille’s examination of delinquency to G. W. Pabst’s representation of the young female offender in Diary of a Lost Girl.  Whereas The Godless Girl approaches the “girl problem” with the moralizing tone one might expect from a DeMille production, Pabst presents a much more nuanced take on the issue of girls’ delinquency. While Diary frames female delinquency as an unfortunate but inevitable response to an unjust system, The Godless Girl makes the torturous methods of the reformatory seem both cruel and necessary in that the titular protagonist’s time in prison teaches her to control her rebellious ways and allows her to find God.  Certainly, both films condemn villainous characters and misguided social practices; however, whereas Pabst’s film saves its harshest critique for a social system that unjustly condemns young women and a judicial system that fails to protect them, DeMille’s film indicts the female offender herself, portraying the young woman’s misguided intellectual and spiritual independence as the cause of her own suffering.

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