Just watched the 1940 film, “Brigham Young”: Two major observations; It was a pleasant surprise to see how favorably a major Hollywood studio would treat the Mormons less than 20 years after “Trapped by the Mormons” scared British audiences. The anti-Mormon mob characters were as evil as any bad guy in an action film.
Second, the film is a bland, sugar and spice look at the LDS’s Church’s second prophet — it’s chock full of historical inaccuracies. But celluloid license was not unusual in that era. Better films, including “The Good Earth,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Of Mice and Men” were harmed by irresponsible changes by directors. Examples: Joseph Smith is convicted of insurrection just prior to being murdered; The Saints abandon Nauvoo, more or less entirely, in just a few hours!; the prophet Young doubts his calling through most of the film; polygamy is barely discussed, most notably in playful dialogue between romantic leads Tyrone Power (a young Mormon man) and Linda Darnell (a non-Mormon woman accompanying his family to the Salt Lake Valley).
The film entertains at times, although Henry Hathaway’s direction is sluggish and overwrought. The plot is derivative, and Mormonism’s historical eccentricities and religious uniqueness are not explored. Though in black and white, producer Darryl F. Zanuck used many film strategies that were used in “Gone With the Wind,” such as large text with grave music to transfer scenes and settings, melodramatic characters, such as a Mormon grandma who dies on the plains, and there are impressive high-budget special effects, such as the burning of Nauvoo, framed beyond a freezing lake the Saints use to escape, and the miracle of the seagulls eating grasshoppers threatening Mormon crops in the Salt Lake valley. The latter scene is particularly effective.
The cast is great, even cultish. A young Vincent Price plays Joseph Smith, a wild-looking John Carradine is great as Mormon vigilante Porter Rockwell. Dean Jagger not only plays Brigham Young well, he looks a lot like him as well. Mary Astor is great as Young’s first wife, Mary Ann. Another interesting cast member is Brian Donlevy as “villain” Angus Duncan. Those familiar with Mormon history will notice that “Duncan” actually is a composite of three real characters: John C. Bennett, who turned against the church for financial and prurient reasons; Sidney Rigdon, who left the church after losing a power struggle to Young after Smith’s death; and finally, “Duncan” is also Samuel Brannan, an early church leader who apostasized after failing to convince Young to move the Saints to California.
The film is easy to find on VHS or DVD, but I have not seen it on TV. It seems a natural to be scheduled on Turner Classic Movies. According to the book, “The Hollywood Hall of Shame,” written by the Medved brothers,, Harry and Michael. the film was a financial flop at the box office. However, Medved-authored film books have not always been completely reliable. Moroni Olsen, an Ogden-born actor who played “Doc Richards,” was a faithful Mormon. Jagger, by the way, was so impressed by then-LDS Church President Heber J. Grant’s praise of his performance that he began a long interest in Mormonism that resulted in his baptism to the church in 1972. A recent DVD release of “Brigham Young” includes newsreel footage of the film’s premiere in Salt Lake City.
A Variety review published on Dec. 31, 1939, included this paragraph: “Jagger brings to the character of the Mormon leader a personable humaness and sympathy. Astor turns in one of the finest performances of her career. Power and Darnell are overshadowed by the above twain.”