Last week I finally caught the 1940 film Brigham Young on TCM. Mormon film history fascinates me as much as Mormon history itself, and like the latter it’s divided into two diametrically opposed camps: anti-Mormon films and sympathetic Mormon films, with little–if anything–in between. By “in between”, I mean of course, historical accuracy.
In my extensive movie collection I have some silent examples of brutally anti-Mormon cinema that really make you relate to the Mormon persecution complex. The first is the 1916 A Mormon Maid, which depicts frontier Mormons as the villains shrouded in robes and hoods inspired by the Ku Klutz Klan in the previous year’s Birth of a Nation (which coincidentally, the Reconstruction-era KKK never wore hooded robes either). The second is 1922’s Trapped by the Mormons, one of several British efforts to depict the American missionaries as a corrupting influence and abducting force on Britain’s women; this film is particularly fascinating as it’s a mimesis of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There is apparently one sympathetic Mormon movie from the silent era, which like Brigham Young, depicts the Mormon migration to Utah. I’ve always felt it was a shame that no Mormon filmmakers adapted any part of the Book of Mormon in a Biblical epic on par with Cecil B. DeMille during Hollywood’s golden age.
Anyway, within the first few minutes of Brigham Young it was evident it wouldn’t be anything like those previous films. The movie opens with a Mormon family being driven from their home by an angry mob, and the scene closes with a copy of the Book of Mormon burning in the house fire. The mother, actress Jane Darwell (apparently reprising her role of Tom Joad’s mother from The Grapes of Wrath), sorrowfully professes to outsider Linda Darnell that they’re being persecuted “Just because we’re Mormons.”
As you may have noticed already, 20th Century Fox devoted most of the budget to star power, casting heartthrob Tyrone Power in the lead role, which strangely for a movie named after him, was not Brigham Young. Instead, Brigham Young was played by the lesser Dean Jagger, probably best remembered today for playing General Waverly in White Christmas. In a humorously ironic casting decision, the part of Joseph Smith was played by a young Vincent Price, long before horror films would define his screen persona, but you still can’t help but see that persona in whatever character he plays.
Luckily for Mormons, Vincent Price doesn’t appear for very long in the film, as Joseph Smith is jailed and assassinated in the first half (ok, so that part wasn’t so lucky for them), prompting the Mormon exodus to the frontier territories. The movie glosses over the political strife in Navou, IL at the time, only mentioning polygamy in passing as an accusation. Brigham Young is introduced giving a defensive libertarian speech about freedom of religion and a flashback shows his quest to find a good religion “to raise his family up right”, which seem in stark contrast to the policies and practices of the real Brigham Young. The realities of the church’s succession crisis after the death of Smith are also barely mentioned. To their credit, the producers probably weren’t trying to make as much of a biased pr0-Mormon statement, instead, it appears they just wanted to make an epic western. The Mormon migration was simply a different context to tell the same story after the Oklahoma land rush had gotten stale to movie-goers. The religious aspect takes a backseat for most of the movie after that, and Mormons are depicted from then on as the persecuted flavor of the month.
Along the way, one can’t help but notice the scenes generously lifted from other popular films. It’s appropriate really, that the movie plays out like the Book of Mormon, borrowing from a variety of obvious sources. For instance, the motherly Jane Darwell refusing to have the wagon train stop for her as she’s dying is eerily similar to her scene in The Grapes of Wrath in which she doesn’t tell the Joad family that grandma has passed in the car, because she doesn’t want anything to stop them from getting to California. The picture depicts some of the hardships of frontier life, climaxing in a locust swarm right out of 1937’s The Good Earth, before ending rather abruptly, and flashing forward to present-day 1940 Salt Lake City.
Contrary to what some people think about Hollywood’s golden age, studios did make flops back then, and this is one of the big ones. It’s purported that the movie was rejected everywhere, even in Utah. While it’s a well-produced movie, definitely a step up from a typical western programmer, it’s evident the producers thought they were making the next Gone with the Wind, and therein is perhaps why the budget exceeded its prospective audience by so much.
While critics today still haven’t been so kind to Brigham Young, Mormons have since come to embrace it. Of course, Mormons have now embraced theater-going much more than they did back in 1940, so in retrospect its failure could also be comparable to expecting the Amish to carry a film about their community’s history. Brigham Young is entertaining and watchable, although the reasons for this, such as the casting of Vincent Price as the prophet Joseph Smith, were not really intentional, so more of its entertainment value is in the “so bad it’s good” category. It’s not a movie I would recommend for an accurate portrayal of Mormon history, or for a fun time, but rather as a curious oddity in cinema history.