by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The movie Charles and I watched last night was Brigham Young, a movie Darryl F. Zanuck put into production in 1940 as 20th Century-Fox studio head because he figured America’s fast-growing Mormon population would be interested in a story about the founding of their church and in particular their exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois (where the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., was convicted of treason on trumped-up charges and then lynched before he could be sentenced) to the valley of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where they ultimately set up their community and (mostly) thrived. He also trusted on his own instincts to hew closely enough to the usual movie formulae that non-Mormon audiences would like it, too. He was spectacularly wrong on both counts — the film was a resounding box-office flop and, in a last-ditch attempt to resuscitate it with ticket buyers Zanuck changed its title to Brigham Young — Frontiersman and tried to pass it off as an ordinary pioneer Western.
It’s actually quite a good movie within the conventions of Hollywood in 1940, though it’s neither a “white” enough version of the Mormons’ founding story to attract Mormon audiences then or now (it’s still probably a lot better than the tacky versions of the Mormons’ early days the church has produced itself) nor a dark enough one to get the maximum interest out of the tale. The film opens in Carthage, Illinois, where a group of townspeople have put up signs advertising a “wolf hunt” at 7 that night — only our first suspicion that dirty deeds are afoot comes when the “wolf hunters” blacken their faces (they wouldn’t have had to do that if they were really hunting wolves because — like their descendants, dogs — wolves can’t see for shit and rely mostly on their senses of hearing and smell). They’re really after Mormon families in a sort of homegrown pogrom that the Mormons themselves, accustomed to such things, know all too well.
The raiders invade the home of the Kents and kill father Caleb Kent and also their friend Mr. Webb (Frederick Burton), a non-Mormon. Caleb’s son Jonathan (Tyrone Power, top-billed — this is one of those movies in which the stars play fictional characters and the down-cast character actors play the real people) narrowly escapes and protects his mother (Jane Darwell) and younger brother Henry (Dickie Jones), then reports to the council of Mormon elders and sparks a debate on how best they can protect themselves against their neighbors’ intolerance. (The sequence in which Caleb Kent is lynched is full of dark, dramatic images that no doubt had heavy resonances to audiences in 1940 who’d seen similar events happening in newsreel footage from Europe; as Caleb is tied to a tree his tormentors order him to spit on a copy of the Book of Mormon, and later there’s a closeup of the book burning on one of the fires the lynch mob set.)
Joseph Smith (Vincent Price) notes that until then he’s turned the other cheek and instructed his followers not to resist (a depiction considerably at variance from the Mormons’ actual history — the real Joseph Smith was quite ready to take up arms against their tormentors, and more than once he warned his real or perceived enemies not to confuse Mormons with Quakers). Porter Rockwell — played by John Carradine in a weird get-up that makes him look like a frontier version of Jesus — says he’s always urged armed resistance, and Smith reluctantly issues instructions to the Mormons to arm themselves and fight back the next time they’re attacked. For this he’s indicted and tried in a crude court on charges of treason — the great character actor Tully Marshall, veteran of Stroheim’s The Merry Widow and Queen Kelly, is the judge — and the only person who speaks in his defense is Brigham Young (Dean Jagger), who recounts the story of how he met Joseph Smith (it’s shown in flashback, the only time in the film we see Smith’s first — and only legally recognized — wife, Emma) and challenges the jury to acquit.
The jury convicts, of course, and Smith is lynched that very night (he’s shot to death on the second floor of the jail and his body falls through the jailhouse window to the ground below — which tallies with witness descriptions of how Smith’s murder actually went down), but before he’s killed he tells Young he wants Young to take over the Mormon church. Young has to deal with a rival successor, Angus Duncan (Brian Donlevy, a villain as usual), who wants to compromise and conciliate with the Mormons’ townie enemies. Young falsely claims he’s had a visit from God Himself entrusting him with the leadership of the church, and he’s told by a friend in the U.S. army that the Mormons will be set upon and lynched en masse by the townspeople unless he gets them the hell away from there.
The rest of the film is the story of the Mormon Trek, on which all the principals travel — including non-Mormon girl Zina Webb (Linda Darnell), daughter of the Kents’ ill-fated house guest, who goes on the trek because she’s in love with Jonathan Kent (well, they are the top-billed romantic leads, after all) — which begins excitingly with the Mormons’ successful crossing of a frosted-over river into Iowa, continues with their encounter with Jim Bridger (Arthur Aylesworth) at the fort named for him, their alliance with the Pawnee Indians (who help them at a time when all the white people they encounter are snubbing them) and their final crossing of the Rocky Mountains and Young’s decision to settle them in Utah — rather than continuing on to gold-rush California, as Angus Duncan and many of the others had wanted — on the reasonable ground that the only way the Mormons will survive is if they settle in a place no one else would want, and therefore they will be left alone long enough to build the community Joseph Smith called for, in which everyone would work and be rewarded equally; no one would starve but no one would have more than their share, either; and greed would be a punishable sin. (In this film’s script by Lamar Trotti — Zanuck’s pet writer, who wrote virtually all his most personal projects — based on a story by Louis Bromfield, the Mormons’ ideal sounds even more than usual like the socialist dream.)
Their first winter in the Great Salt Lake is viciously hard — Brigham Young is forced to reduce his people’s rations over and over — and the winter wheat crop they were counting on to bail them out is set upon by crickets, but then salvation occurs in the form of a flock of seagulls from the salt lake itself, who eat the crickets, save the wheat crop and give Young the evidence he wanted that God did indeed ordain him as the true successor to Joseph Smith. (Charles said he’d seen this movie on TV as a boy and remembered the final scene vividly.) One can notice the borrowings from other movies — the insect plague from The Good Earth, the overall conception of an effects-driven ending from The Rains Came (which also had Louis Bromfield as story source and Tyrone Power as star), and even a direct crib of the famous final scene in San Francisco where the pioneer version of Salt Lake City dissolves into the real one as it existed in 1940.
Brigham Young shoehorns a potentially interesting story into the usual Hollywood conventions — though Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell have surprisingly little to do and their romantic story seems only a distraction from Dean Jagger as Young, who (not surprisingly) dominates the film — but it’s also a well-done movie. The cinematography by Arthur Miller is phenomenal, featuring the sort of rich, dappled, contrasty lighting that brings this long-ago world to vivid life in black-and-white and makes one wonder why anyone ever thought the movies needed color. The direction by Henry Hathaway (who was 20th Century-Fox’s usual go-to guy for the scripts John Ford turned down — though his work here is very Fordian, down to the use of “Oh, Susannah!” and other songs of the period to goose up Alfred Newman’s impressive score) is surprisingly (for him) quiet and understated, even in the action scenes.
So is the acting; Vincent Price is also powerfully understated as Joseph Smith — I couldn’t help but chuckle over the irony that he played both Joseph Smith and Oscar Wilde (the latter in a 1977 one-person stage show called Diversions and Delights I saw live in San Francisco), but what’s more impressive is that an actor known later for campy scenery-chewing here played the part of a self-proclaimed prophet, the sort of part that usually sends performers an engraved invitation to overact, in a quiet and beautifully restrained manner. Alas, his good efforts are largely neutralized by John Carradine, who does chew the scenery unmercifully — and who does more damage to this movie than Price did good because Price is killed 23 minutes in. The film really belongs to Dean Jagger, who manages to make Young the conflicted character he most likely was in real life — determined and just but also severe and impatient with his people when he doesn’t live up to their expectations for them.
One of the obvious minefields in making a movie about the early Mormons — especially in the Production Code era — was how to deal with the polygamy issue and be historically honest while still keeping the Mormons as the good guys. Trotti’s solution was to treat it as a joke; there are only three references to polygamy in the script, and they all have elements of humor. The first is when one of the townspeople in the original lynching party in Illinois jokes, “What’s the difference between a white man and a Mormon? About 50 wives!” The second is when Brigham Young meets Jim Bridger and Bridger asks him, “How many do you have?” — he doesn’t say how many what but it’s not hard to figure out -— and Young answers, “Twelve.” The third, and longest, is when Zina Webb fends off Jonathan Kent’s marriage proposal by joking that she’s not going to be just one of 20 wives, and asks why he doesn’t just propose to all of them at once to save time. At the same time, we’re not shown anybody living the plural-marriage lifestyle; the only one of Young’s wives who’s actually depicted is his first one, Mary Ann (a rather wasted Mary Astor, waiting out the time until her spectacular comeback the next year in The Great Lie and The Maltese Falcon).
Brigham Young doesn’t delve into the darker aspects of its story — nor could it have been expected to under the Production Code-era restrictions and with Darryl Zanuck’s commercial hopes for the movie contingent on the Mormons of 1940 liking it — but on its own terms it’s surprisingly entertaining (even if Tyrone Power sometimes seems like an extra in a film in which he’s supposedly the star!) and even moving … if you can accept the Mormons as good guys and forget about everything they’ve done and stood for since!