Weird and Wonderful Utah



Utah Film

the making of
Brigham Young




One of the more interesting aspects of the of 20th Century Fox's DVD release of Brigham Young, more interesting than the movie itself, is the commentary provided by BYU film historian, James D'Arc. Unlike most DVD commentary, D'Arc provides a lot of enlightening facts about the trials and tribulation the filmmakers went through in bringing Brigham Young to the screen.

Historical Tidbits provided by D'Arc

In 1939, when 20th Century Fox announced it was making a big budget movie about Brigham Young, Mormon Church president Heber J. Grant and his officials were worried. After all, movie portrayals of the Mormon experience in the past cast a less than stellar view of the Church. During the silent era, Hollywood ground out over 30 exposes such as Trapped By The Mormons which depicted young innocent girls lured into polygamous weddings with lecherous Mormon patriarchs. As entertaining as these ventures might be, church officials felt they were a less than fair representation. I mean, the orthodox Mormons hadn't been practicing polygamy for damn near 50 years. To make sure the Church had some input in the story of it’s second greatest icon, Grant assigned Elder John A. Widtsoe to influence the outcome of the film. Good flack that he was, Widtsoe began by inviting the screenwriter to Utah to see Mormons first hand. He got the deluxe treatment, a four-day tour of Utah including Temple Square. As a result, church officials proudly said the movie makers incorporated a lot of their suggestions.

Brigham Young gets the Royal Treatment

Brigham Young was budgeted at a lavish $1.4 million. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck also took a personal interest in the film. He saw it as a parallel to the modern day plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany. At the time of release many reviewers commented the story was more “about the 1940s than the 1840s.” To get the most bang for his buck, Zanuck brought on Henry Hathaway to direct and Lamar Trotti to turn Louis Broomfield’s story into a script. Zanuck cast his biggest stars, Tyrone Powers and Linda Darnell, to play the romantic leads. For the role of Brigham Young, unknown Dean Jagger was selected.

Despite the support of the Church in the film’s making, Brigham Young plays fast and loose with historical facts. As is Hollywood’s tradition, historical accuracy took a backseat to dramatic convention. The Powers and Darnell characters were a creation of the screenwriters. Powers playes Jonathan Kent, a devout follower of Brigham Young. Darnell is non-Mormon, Zhina, who is thrown reluctantly in with the Mormons. Zanuck designed the Darnell character as a surrogate for the audience. We learn along with her that Mormons aren’t such bad folk after all. Originally the roles of non-Mormon and devout follower were reversed by scriptwriter Trotti and he was none too happy when Zanuck decided to flip the roles. Another writer had to be shipped in to make the changes. To round out the fictional characters is Brian Donlevy as Angus Duncan, a kind of composite of Sidney Reardon and others who broke off from the church after the death of Joseph Smith. Donlevy’s sole purpose is to question and undermine Brigham Young in a role that prefigures Edward G. Robinson’s Dathan to Charlton Heston’s Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”

The scriptwriters also condensed elements of the Mormon trek to get the story rolling. The massive migration from Nauvoo is condensed into a one-day surprise evacuation. Writers also added a trial room scene, with Joseph Smith being convicted of treason despite an impassioned plea by Brigham Young. Smith was murdered in his Carthage jail cell before he could stand trial and Brigham Young was out of state recruiting members at the time. Zanuck felt such fictions were necessary to get the audience on the Mormons side and keep the story rolling. However, D’Arc says the first meeting between Brigham Young and Joseph Smith and the details about Smith’s murder at the hands of a mob are fairly accurate.

More distressing to rank and file Mormons must be the depiction of Brigham Young as an conflicted leader who isn’t sure God is speaking to him. He lies to his people to gain leadership of the church and take his people to the new Zion. President Grant was surprised at negative reaction by some members. A staunch supporter of the film, he recalled the release of Brigham Young as “one of the greatest days of my life.” And who can blame him. Given Hollywood’s history of showing Mormons as depraved seducers of women, Brigham Young was very sympathetic.

To round out his film, Zanuck took great care in casting the secondary roles. Vincent Price was an inspired choice to play Joseph Smith. Price gives an earnest performance, capturing both Smith’s backwoods nature and reverence as church leader. D’Arc has a letter from Price who admits how much the role meant to him and his admiration for Smith and the Mormons. Zanuck also cast John Carradine, Jane Darwell and Charles (Ming the Merciless) Middleton in supporting roles.

Big Budget Film about Utah, Not shot in Utah

Surprisingly, considering how many western were made in Southern Utah, none of the principal photography of Brigham Young was shot in Utah. It was lensed almost entirely in the studio and at California locations. The Sierra Nevadas stand in for the Wasatch Mountains during the famous “This Is The Place” scene. Most of the wagon train footage was stolen from a couple of Hollywood westerns. The famous Mormon handcarts are conspicuously absent, replaced instead by traditional covered wagons, probably so Hathaway could match his shots with the stock footage.

In contrast, the scenes of Nauvoo and early Salt Lake City are lovingly recreated. Zanuck spent a lot of cash to build these sets. To add to the authenticity, composer Alfred Newman used real Mormon hymns to underscore the music he wrote for the movie. In particular, “The Spirit of God Like A Fire Burns” by Mormon composer William W. Phelps is an important motif in Newman’s score. An odd footnote is that Jagger, whose acting career was pretty much launched by Brigham Young (he would win a best supporting Oscar for Twelve O’clock High), married a Mormon and converted in 1972.

With high hopes for his epic, Zanuck spared no expense for the world premiere. He showed it for the first time in Salt Lake City. Demand for tickets was so great that showings were expanded to seven theaters. 214,000 people showed up for screenings. Shortly after the premiere, marketing feared that the title would lead moviegoers to think it was a religious picture and the name was change to Brigham Young Frontiersman on all posters and promotional material. Despite the name change and auspicious start, Brigham Young pretty much tanked it at the box office. It disappeared from theaters and (with the exception of rural Utah theaters where it was a mainstay) was rarely screened.

Film Historian Saves Brigham Young from Obscurity

Enter BYU film historian James D’Arc. In 2002 he persuaded 20th Century Fox to give the film a deluxe DVD release. Considering the number of Fox classics still unreleased on disc, this was a pretty amazing feat for a lackluster performer like Brigham Young. Maybe it helped that D’Arc brought a copious amount of supplemental stuff to the table, including a Movietone reel of the Salt Lake premiere. Fox might have also had its eye on the modest success of the new wave of Mormon cinema such as Army of God and Brigham City. The question remains whether the retooling of Brigham Young will reach wide acceptance among the home video crowd. With 12 million Mormons worldwide, maybe Brigham Young will finally become a moneymaker 60 years after its release.