This post is the fourth historical overview in my series Celebrating 125 Years of Utah and the Movies. Visit the series page for previous posts and reviews of films shot in Utah or by Utahns.
Dean Jagger waves to the Salt Lake City crowd at the film premiere for 1940’s Brigham Young.
On August 23, 1940, Salt Lake City hosted what was at that time the world’s largest film premiere. Governor Henry Blood and Salt Lake Mayor Ab Jenkins declared the date a one-time state holiday closing shops, businesses, and schools. Tens of thousands of people lined Salt Lake City’s Main Street to catch a glimpse of 20th Century Fox’s established star actors Tyrone Power and Mary Astor alongside newcomer Linda Darnell. Even Latter-day Saint leaders joined in on the celebration. Church president Heber J. Grant offered a public benediction prior to the event and hosted Hollywood luminaries like producer Daryl Zanuck at a special banquet at the Lion House one of Brigham Young’s personal residences.
The film was 20th Century Fox’s Brigham Young, a historical epic depicting Brigham Young’s succession to Joseph Smith and the Mormon trek across the American Frontier to settle in the Salt Lake Valley. Throughout the 1910s, Hollywood had depicted Mormons onscreen as sex-crazed theocrats and barbarous polygamists haunting the 19th-century American Frontier; yet, in the span of twenty years, Brigham Young had transformed from a tyrannic wife-snatcher into an exemplary American figure worthy of a sprawling, big-budget epic.
Brigham Young marks a significant turning point as the first major Hollywood studio film that sought to humanize Mormon characters. Subsequent depictions in classic-era Hollywood built upon Brigham Young’s tonal shift to create nuanced, empathic explorations and critiques of American and Mormon culture.
Cleaning Up Their Act
As the last of the Mormon exploitation films appeared onscreen in the late 1910s and early 1920s, both Mormonism and Hollywood struggled to maintain an acceptable, morally clean image in American public life. Hollywood brought in Will Hays to clean up after several notorious scandals inviting growing calls from morally minded consumers for movie censorship. Meanwhile Latter-day Saints, beset with a public image of backward, immoral, and dangerous polygamist religious fanatics, sought to modernize and become accepted by mainstream 20th-century Americans.
Heber J. Grant, who succeeded Joseph F. Smith in 1918 as the church’s president, made significant changes to modernize the church and its image. Grant strictly enforced the 1890 Manifesto by excommunicating any members who entered polygamous marriages after 1904. In 1927, Grant implemented the Good Neighbor policy that removed any anti-American violent rhetoric, including an oath of vengeance to avenge the blood of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in the temple endowment ceremony, from church scripture and publications. By the 1930s, it became clear that the church had publicly disavowed itself from polygamy and anti-American sentiment which had played an integral part in Latter-day Saints’ estrangement from American cultural life in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Hollywood’s efforts to self-censor their own movies would dramatically shape the Mormon screen image for the majority of the mid-20th century. The first attempt at self-censorship, adopted in 1921, the Thirteen Points was a list of shalt not’s that suggested topics and items for the film studios to avoid. Including rules forbidding nakedness, prolonged passionate love scenes, and positive depictions of the criminal underworld, the Thirteen points forbade any pictures dealing with sex trafficking or kidnapping, any stories which might offend any religious sect, and any incidents showing disrespect for any religion. These rules meant that the tried-and-true formula of wife-snatching Mormons was off-limits. Studios largely avoided depicting Mormons onscreen in the 1920s and 30s.
Mormons as Model Citizens
By the time 20th Century Fox executive Daryl F. Zanuck began production on what would become 1940’s Brigham Young, the Fourteen Points had evolved into the Production Code Office, a self-appointed censorship office that had the power to withhold films from distribution if they did not follow the office’s updated censorship guidelines. To address polygamy in a way that would please both the Production Code Administration and the Latter-day Saint church, producer Daryl Zanuck sought input from multiple writers before shooting Brigham Young in April 1940. Worried this new film would ignite a new round of negative Mormon film representations, church president Heber J. Grant and apostle John A Widstoe lent their support and met with studio executives numerous times to ensure their views appeared in the final version of the film.
The end result is something of a mixed bag. The film starts in the Mormon settlement of Nauvoo, Illinois as Joseph Smith, played by a young Vincent Price, is murdered in awaiting trail in prison by a mob. From there, the film centers on the budding romance between Jonathan Kent, a young Mormon man, and Zina Webb, a friendly non-Mormon who lives outside of Nauvoo, as they trek west following the saints’ expulsion from Illinois. Running alongside this romantic plot, Brigham Young struggles with filling Smith’s shoes all while questioning whether he is the man who God wants to lead his people west.
While Brigham Young does create sympathetic and dynamic Mormon characters, the film’s historical inaccuracies are aplenty. Several characters are an amalgamation of two or three historical figures to cut down on time. Dean Jagger’s Brigham Young is almost nothing like the historical figure. You can say many things about Brigham but humble, shy, and unsure of himself aren’t fit descriptors; yet, this is how the film characterizes the ‘Lion of the Lord’.
Who are those women in the back of Brigham Young’s wagon?
The most awkward aspect of the film is its portrayal, or lack thereof, of polygamy. While Brigham Young travels with a handful of women in his wagon, only one is referred to as his wife (played by Mary Astor). This lack of directness towards polygamy in the film led New York Times critic Bosley Crowther to quip that “it’s too bad that Young had to be so monog — I mean monotonous”. In one of the best parts of the film, however, polygamy is directly, if briefly, addressed as Zina admits to Jonathan she does not want to convert to Mormonism and marry him if she will have to share him with other wives.
While Brigham Young is a watered-down, white-washed, inaccurate historical account, its empathetic portrayal of Mormons cemented the religion’s growing acceptability in American entertainment and culture. Many reviews of the film connected the sympathetic story of a religious minority to the current events in Europe to drum up American support to intervene in Germany to protect Jews. Subsequent films in the classic era stayed away from specific events in Mormon history but followed Brigham Young’s lead and included likable, sympathetic Mormon characters.
Mormon pioneers dancing after setting up the night’s camp in John Ford’s Wagon Master.
Mormons in the 1940s and 50s almost exclusively showed up in Westerns set on the 19th-century frontier. The best of these classic Westerns is John Ford’s 1950 Wagon Master, a tale of a Mormon wagon train that hires two scouts to guide them in traversing a difficult westward-bound trail. The Mormons are portrayed much like any other pioneers of the era, dancing to folk music at night and struggling through the harsh terrain in hope of a new life in the West. Their faith is referenced several times as a source of strength to the travelers. While their theological beliefs are downplayed (for instance polygamy is only referenced once in a humorous manner), the film does not shy away from their specific culture. For instance, the iconic Mormon hymn Come, Come, Ye Saints plays on the soundtrack in several key scenes throughout the film.
Placing Mormons in the Wild West affirmed their position in American society. Instead of depicting Mormons as ‘the other’, films like Brigham Young and Wagon Master asked Americans to identify with Mormons’ struggles settling the frontier instead of hissing or gawking at their idiosyncratic beliefs and polygamous social structure. In essence, these films signaled a wider acceptance of Mormonism, albeit a watered-down version devoid of specific theology or polygamy, in the American mainstream culture.
The Nuanced Mormon
Just as the Production Code’s arrival opened the door for more sympathetic portrayals of Mormon characters, the loosening of and eventual retirement of the Production Code in the 1960s allowed filmmakers to tackle the complexities of Mormonism. Depictions of Mormons became more nuanced as America’s post-war optimism gave way to revolutionary distrust of institutions and religion. Instead of reverting back to silent era depictions of bloodthirsty Danites and coercive polygamists, Mormons in the newly liberated Hollywood straddled a middle ground. No longer the idyllic picture of romanticized American settlers, Mormons became a backdrop to investigate the contradictions of 1960s and 70s American culture.
The most pronounced of these films is Otto Preminger’s 1962 political drama Advise and Consent. Based on a best-selling novel of the same name, the film follows behind-the-scenes political infighting during the nomination process of a controversial new Secretary of State candidate. A key plot point in the film revolves around Senator Brigham Anderson of Utah. Serving as the head of the committee to interview the nominated Secretary of State, Senator Anderson is blackmailed on incriminating evidence of a love affair he had with a fellow male navy officer during his service in Korea.
If a Utahn named Brigham wasn’t enough to clue viewers in on his religious faith, the fact that he is a family man who turns down alcohol, coffee, and even tea should give it away. In the novel, he is the son of a Latter-day Saint apostle.
Following the heels of 1961’s The Children’s Hour, Advise and Consent was one of the first Hollywood pictures in the dying days of the production code to directly address homosexuality. Otto Preminger, an outspoken leftwing filmmaker, doesn’t comment on Mormons’ prejudiced views on homosexuality but uses the otherwise idyllic perception of a mid-20th century happy, Mormon family man to criticize Americans’ hypocritical attitude towards homosexuality.
Anderson is a charismatic, trustworthy politician and the only senator in the film who doesn’t get bogged down in unsavory party politics. Anderson’s coded Mormonism sets him up as a symbol of the ideal American man of 1950s conservatism with a loving family, burgeoning political career, and strong devotion to his country; yet underneath all these exteriors, his homosexuality threatens to ruin his, according to outsiders, perfect social and political life. Anderson’s tragic end contrasts with the continued success of his fellow senators who sacrifice moral purity for political success.
Preminger’s use of Mormonism in Advise and Consent highlights how later depictions of Mormon characters were willing to undercut the previously created image of an ideal American while still creating sympathetic Mormon characters. The Hollywood studios’ abandonment of the strict Production Code for today’s MPAA ratings allowed other filmmakers to create both nuanced and critical depictions of Mormons. Although filmmakers were freed from Hollywood’s strict censorship, modern mainstream Mormon depictions of the last fifty years continue to heavily rely on both the model citizen and nuanced portrayals of Mormons onscreen in the classic Hollywood era.
Part Five will discuss Hollywood’s relationship with the state of Utah and how it became a mainstay for Western filmmakers in the classic Hollywood era.