In 1940, 20th Century Fox released Brigham Young, an extravagant epic starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, a 29-year-old Vincent Price (as Joseph Smith), and Dean Jagger as the title character. The film’s world premiere was in Salt Lake City, and the studio spared no expense in promoting the film. The stars were flown into Salt Lake, took part in a parade down Main Street, and dined with President Heber J. Grant in the Lion House. The film premiered simultaneously in seven theatres in Salt Lake — unheard of at the time — and each was filled to capacity. When released to the rest of the nation, the title was changed to Brigham Young, Frontiersman, and it did fairly well at the box office. Last year, the film was released for the first time on DVD, with a great commentary by BYU professor James D’Arc, and other interesting features. I watched it last night.
There are two distinct threads to the film’s plot: one involving a young, stalwart believer (played by Power) and his gentile sweetheart (played by Darnell); and the other being Brigham’s determination to lead the saints to a safe new home in the aftermath of Joseph’s martyrdom. This latter thread has some interesting wrinkles, as it plays up Brigham’s self-doubt as a prophet. As portrayed by the filmmakers, Brigham is not assured that God is truly on his side until the climactic moment when the seagulls blacken the sky to preserve the pioneers’ first wheat. Understandably, the film takes many other liberties with the facts. According to D’Arc, however, this was with the full blessing of President Grant and Elder John Widtsoe, who were consulted by the studio before production, and who understood the requirements of a concise, engaging narrative. So we have Joseph Smith on trial in Nauvoo, and Brigham Young rising to offer the closing argument to the jury. (The filmmakers obviously slept through their constitutional law classes, as Brigham’s stirring defense relies heavily on the First Amendment, which did not apply to state governments at the time.) Polygamy is addressed only tangentially, with Orrin Porter Rockwell citing the need to quickly populate the Great Basin as the matter of fact explanation for the practice.
To me, the most interesting thing to me about the film is its use of Mormon history to make a point about religious liberty in general, and, more obliquely, about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. At the time the film was released, Britain and France had declared war on Germany, and the U.S. was still on the sidelines. Kristallnacht was a recent occurrence, and the Nazi campaign against the Jews was becoming more and more brutal. The producers acknowledged that the film was a comment on these events, and even referred to the mob violence against Mormons as “pogroms.” There is also a subtle denunciation of Neville Chamberlain’s compromise at Munich, as Brigham’s chief rival for Joseph’s mantle (a fictitious “Angus Duncan”) dastardly suggests that Mormons try to negotiate with the mobbers, rather than fight or flee.
Along those lines, Brigham Young is a terrific documentation of one way in which Mormonism became realigned with mainstream America in the first half of the 20th century. By retelling our history using the emerging language of rights and liberty, as well as by focusing on the up-by-the-bootstraps industriousness required in settling Utah, Mormons become the paradigm Americans, rather than revolutionary theocrats undermining the traditional family and defying Federal power. By portraying Mormons sympathetically without exception, and showing the opposition as one-dimensional stock villains animated solely by irrational prejudice, the film works as a rather forceful rebuke of extant hostility toward Mormonism, and a rebuttal of the many movies released during the silent era in which Mormons were the stock villains. It would be fascinating to see how a big Hollywood studio would deal with this material now, or if it could at all.