It will become clear as this blog progress that I don’t have much time for Cecil B Demille. To me, he is as a director what Mary Pickford is as an actress – an instant turn-off. I am sure that at some point I will write at length about the reasons for my dislike of most Mary Pickford films, but in the case of DeMille I object to his moralising, often ridiculous length and sense of self-importance. However, I have recently watched two DeMille films that I have liked very much: The Godless Girl (1929) and This Day and Age (1933).
These two films are quite a departure, and both can be classed as early examples of “youth” films. The Godless Girl is a late silent about a group of teenagers (played by rather older actors and actresses) who find themselves in a juvenile prison or detention centre following a mini-riot that takes place following a meeting of an atheist society. Whilst there, a romance blossoms between the leader of the atheists, Judith, and leader of the Christian Youth Organisation, Bob. Conditions are harsh and unfair in the detention centre, with physical cruelty being a common occurance. In many respects, the tone of the piece is very similar to The Mayor of Hell made a few years later starring James Cagney and other films of that cycle. Unusually for a DeMille film the action moves along at a fast pace and, despite clocking in at around two hours is remarkably entertaining throughout. The two leads (Lina Basquette and Tom Keene) are effective, even if they are noticeably older than the parts they are playing, but it is Eddie Quillan who really steals the acting credits here, making the token clown within the bunch of kids into a human being that the viewer really does care about.
Surprisingly, DeMille revisited the youth film a few years later with one of his hardest to find sound films, This Day and Age, which stars the ever-likeable Richard Cromwell as the leader of a gang of kids who decides to bring about the downfall of a group of gangsters who killed their (adult) friend. With the exception of a couple of well-executed crowd scenes, one would be hard-pressed to name DeMille as the director of this work if they did not know in advance. The film is a hoot, not least because of a cracking performance from Richard Cromwell and a fine script which includes some welcome pre-code snappy dialogue and other pre-code faithfuls such as sex, violence and references and accusations of homosexuality. At 82 minutes it, too, moves along at a fast pace and is remarkably entertaining.
But you haven’t heard of This Day and Age? Well, that’s hardly surprising, for it has never seen the light of day as a home video release since the era began in the early 1980s. It is seemingly never shown on TV either, and as far as I am aware not shown at festivals or conferences in recent years. This is a shame, for it is an entertaining work and deserves to be better known and would fit nicely into a boxed set of pre-code features. Meanwhile, The Godless Girl has seen a DVD release, but only as part of one of the volumes of the Treasures from American Archives boxed sets. This is a shame, for it really deserves to also be released separately from one of these pricey sets (wonderful though they are).
Update: This Day and Age has now been released via Universal’s burn on demand series, and is available from amazon.com.