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Utah Movies

Brigham Young
the DVD


Released in 1940, Brigham Young is the only film dealing with Mormonism ever made by a major studio. The brainchild of 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, Brigham Young was one of the biggest budget films released that year. Coming in at a mammoth $1.4 million (huge for the 1940s), it starred Fox’s main box office draw, Tyrone Powers.

In this publicity photo, Brigham Young's numerous wives get major play. The movie is much more coy in dealing with polygamy

Though it had the largest premiere attendance in history, opening in Salt Lake City in a record seven theaters with 215,000 moviegoers attending, it was a huge box office failure. The movie disappeared from theaters and dropped into limbo. Fox has recently released the DVD loaded with tons of cool extras, especially an audio commentary by BYU film historian James D’Arc.

The big question is, does this movie really deserves the royal treatment? The answer; not really. Three words sum up a big studio’s one and only look at Mormonism –- bland, bland, and bland. Despite a top notch cast of Fox biggies, including the delicious casting of Vincent Price as Joseph Smith and John Carradine as Porter Rockwell, this is one blah retelling of early Mormon history.

Zanuck and crew avoid revealing anything interesting about Mormons. Mormon doctrine is barely mentioned. Nothing about Lamanites or Nephites. Nothing about temple ceremonies. Nothing about Kolob. Nothing about anything that makes Mormonism fun.

The filmmakers tip toe around Brigham Young’s numerous wives. The Hay’s office allowed him to have interaction with one wife, Mary Astor as Mary Ann. Only a second wife is shown with regularity. Jean Rogers has the thankless role as second banana wife, Clara. She doesn’t say word one to her husband. Also in a couple of wagon trek scenes you see a few women riding with Brigham, but they are never explicitly identified as Brigham’s beehive.

In fact, the only references Brigham makes to his practice of plural marriage comes into two scenes. One has Jim Bridger asking Brigham “how many…” where the patriarch testily cuts him off before he can say wives, with the answer “twelve.” The other mention comes in a conversation with Mary Ann, where Brigham commends her for never being jealous of the “others.” Pretty anemic, considering that his 27 or so wives are what interest most non-Mormons about Brigham. I suppose it is a tad wishful hoping that 1940 Hollywood would ever show the church patriarch gleefully cavorting with a bevy of wives. I guess we have to wait for the Playboy channel for that.

The three main leads give bland performances. Especially disappointing is John Carradine as Porter Rockwell. Caradine, an actor famous for embodying menace, plays his role mainly for laughs.

However, this limp showing of the plural marriage is only a minor part of Brigham Young’s failure. The true fault rests solely with Zanuck, director Henry Hathaway and screenwriter Lamar Trotti. With such powerhouses backing the project, Brigham Young could have truly been the epic telling of the Mormon saga. Instead, it is a paint-by-numbers wagon train movie, not much different than a zillion other westerns ground out at the time. To make matters worse, a totally boring and fictitious love story involving stars Tyrone Powers and Linda Darnell is tacked on to the plot.

One surprising element is the leftist leaning of the film. Much is made of Joseph Smith’s rather communist great plan, where everyone turns in their goods to the community so all are fed and no man gets too rich. At one point Brigham rails against the U.S. for allowing intolerance to be visited upon his people without any interference from the authorities. This isn’t too surprising considering Hollywood’s romance with communism during World War II before the horrors of Stalinism became common knowledge.

Vincent Price comes off much better as Joseph Smith. Price imbues his Joseph with an ethereal quality that screams holy man.

Is it worth having on DVD? The answer to that is a big yes. In the modern day of DVD extras, sometimes all the stuff they pack onto a disk is enough to make up for a lackluster movie. Brigham Young is just such a DVD. Included in the DVD are a great Movietone reel about the SLC premiere (it is wonderful to see footage of downtown Salt Lake circa 1940), a staggering collection of production stills and promotional material, and best of all, an informative commentary by BYU film professor James D’Arc. Unlike most air-headed commentary tacked onto DVD releases, D’Arc provides interesting facts about the Mormon Church, the film’s production history and points out the many historical inaccuracies in the movie. He points out the trial sequence and Brigham Young’s defense are all Hollywood invention. He does neglect to mention that Joseph Smith was jailed because he ordered the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor’s printing press because the newspaper exposed the secret practice of polygamy. D’Arc also lamely tries to differentiate between Joseph’s collective and communism by saying the Smith version was “voluntary.” Yea, right. He can be forgiven such lapses. He is a Mormon scholar after all.