When Darryl F. Zanuck’s Brigham Young was first released in 1940, President Heber J. Grant of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints praised the motion picture as a “friendmaker.”1 The prestigious Hollywood studio Twentieth Century-Fox had spent more money on it than most motion pictures made up to that time. Its simultaneous premiere in seven theaters in one city (still a world record) was preceded by a grand parade down Salt Lake City’s Main Street. Businesses closed for the event, and the mayor proclaimed it “Brigham Young Day.”2
Not all reactions to the film, however, have been so favorable. A prominent biographer of Brigham Young called the movie merely an “interesting romance” when a more authentic treatment of Brigham Young’s life could have made it “one of the greatest epics in the history of the [motion picture] art.”3 In the 1970s, President Spencer W. Kimball echoed the criticism of past and present LDS church members. He had little use for the film’s portrayal of Brigham Young as a “weak, vacillating prophet.”4 Many members of the Church today look at the film with amusement; at BYU it has been used to quiz students on historical inaccuracies. Indeed, in order to view Brigham Young today, one would either have to tune in to a Utah television station during the July twenty-fourth Pioneer Day commemoration or stay up for a late-night broadcast. The film is rarely shown theatrically even in Utah. To understand the rise and apparent fall in the film’s appeal, we must examine it in the context of its time.
Movies in the Thirties
The 1930s were a bifurcated decade. During most of the decade, America was struggling to emerge from the Great Depression under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs; the last three years, impacted by international events, witnessed a gradual preparation for participation in World War II. The American motion picture industry was similarly divided, but for different reasons. Beginning in 1934, the industry finally bowed to public (and especially governmental) pressure, stemming from as far back as the 1920s, and created the Production Code, administered by the Production Code Administration, whose chief leader was Will Hays, former postmaster-general under Calvin Coolidge. Known popularly as the “Hays Office,” although actually administered during the decade by Joseph I. Breen, the Production Code Administration, in concert with the major motion picture producers, established an intricate set of requirements. Prior to release, every film was required to obtain the Production Code Seal (or clearance).5
With over 61 percent of the nation attending each week, the movies appeared to be virtually Depression-proof. Schlesinger observes that in the thirties, “Hollywood possessed the nation. It formed our images and shaped our dreams. . . . The movies were near the operative center of the nation’s consciousness. They played an indispensable role in sustaining and stimulating the national imagination.”6 The enormous popularity of motion pictures and radio led Warren Susman to his description of the thirties as a developing culture of “sight and sound that was of profound importance; it increased our self-awareness as a culture; it helped create a unity of response and action not previously possible; it made us more susceptible than ever to those who would mold culture and thought.”7
The all-pervasive influence of movies might have been what concerned President Heber J. Grant when he heard in early 1939 that Twentieth Century-Fox planned a grand scale movie biography of the Church’s second and perhaps most colorful leader, Brigham Young.8 Up to the late 1930s, Mormons had been the object of often cruel caricature in the nation’s theaters. Beginning in 1905, the American Mutoscope-Biograph Company had produced a nickelodeon show entitled A Trip to Salt Lake City, depicting a henpecked polygamous husband trying to give his many children a drink of water in a jostling Pullman car. Cecil B. DeMille, later a friend of Heber J. Grant and David O. McKay, was the director-general of Famous Players-Lasky studio, which in 1917 released A Mormon Maid, a depiction of Danite bands intent on blood atonement and sneering Brigham-led Mormon Apostles attempting to add to their Utah harem.9 Trapped by the Mormons, a 1922 British movie prevented from reaching American screens, capitalized on imaginative amorous exploits of Mormon missionaries in the British Isles, portraying them as mesmeric vampires preying on England’s innocent women.10
Even though in the mid-thirties the Production Code strictly prohibited any ridicule of religious denominations or their clergy and adherents,11 some expressed interest in producing motion pictures based on historical aspects of Mormonism.12 Such productions were never approved because a depiction of polygamy, an illegal and socially unacceptable practice, would necessarily be involved.13 In efforts to stave off further governmental regulation of the industry because of its all too frequent depictions of “loose sexuality,” Hollywood studios opted instead for a resurrection of literary classics such as A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
In the later thirties, despite lingering American isolationism, the threat of war abroad began to have its impact on the types of films produced, especially historical films. “The impact of the war may cause the spate of period works to increase,” wrote one feature writer in the New York Times. “The past, whether disrupted or serene, is secure.”14 Historical movies seemed to comfort viewers in their feelings of nationalism and patriotism in a world that appeared to be crumbling. There was also a tendency during this period towards expanding beyond the traditional treatment of topics as proscribed by the Production Code. Regarding Hollywood’s new approach to potential movie material, Variety noted:
No matter how censurable, how depressing, how likely to tread on the toes of political, industrial, or racial groups they are, books and plays are being dug out and gone over with an entirely different eye than in the past. This liberality is not self engendered in these lookers-after the nation’s morals, one story editor of a major studio declared this week, but merely the reflection of a greater liberality in the mind of the public itself. It’s not, in fact, as has been said, the movies are growing up, but the American public is growing up.15
Nevertheless, historical movies of this era were generally not innovative. Formula reigned supreme.16
Brigham Young—In the Beginning
The idea for Brigham Young came to Darryl Zanuck, vice president in charge of production at Twentieth Century-Fox, from junior writer Eleanor Harris. Her twenty-eight page treatment entitled “Prophets of Empire,” submitted to Zanuck through executive producer Kenneth Macgowan in May 1938, began with raids on Nauvoo citizens, the assassination of Joseph Smith, and the evacuation of Nauvoo. Her story concluded with the rounding of Salt Lake City and the seagulls saving the Mormons from the total ruin of their first crop. Since the script dealt with Brigham Young’s plural wives, Zanuck, knowing the potential difficulties the Production Code would pose, turned down the suggestion. Harris continued to develop the story on her own time and resubmitted it, only to receive the same criticism from Zanuck—the unfeasibility of portraying polygamy:
There is no way that you can conceivably excuse to audiences of the world the idea of one man having eight or nine bed companions. . . . Brigham Young has been used as a standard vaudeville joke for years and it is going to be awfully tough to try to explain to the public that he slept with more than one woman because of religious or economic problems.17
Sometime in the few months spanning late 1938 and early March of 1939, a theater owner in Kansas with “considerable influence over exhibitors” and claiming to have ties to LDS church leaders sent Zanuck a nine-page treatment of the Mormon story. This treatment apparently convinced Zanuck that such a movie could be done successfully in spite of the fears over polygamy.18 Immediately, Zanuck’s mind focused on his new project. He assigned Eleanor Harris and another writer in Fox’s employ. James Woolley, “not now a Mormon,”19 to work up a treatment, until a “big name” writer could do the final screenplay. Two other studio writers were also temporarily assigned. Zanuck apparently liked the writers’ treatment of polygamy, once thought too censurable, and further instructed Macgowan:
The polygamy angle should not be ducked. To do so would rip all semblance of authenticity from the story. It should be hit hard and deliberately. To make the story of Brigham Young and Mormonism and dismiss or timidly handle polygamy would be like making Alexander Graham Bell without the telephone, Jesse James without guns, or a Columbia picture without [director Frank] Capra. Fifty percent of the young potential audience would go to see the picture hoping to be able to nudge their companions and giggle a bit over their own knowledge of pornographic implications. To deny them this would be to cheat them, defraud them of something savory.20
Zanuck became cautious again about the story’s approach to polygamy, particularly after reading a letter sent to Sidney Kent, president of Fox, by President Heber J. Grant, who had read the announcement of the film in the newspapers. President Grant indicated that he was ready and willing to offer assistance to the studio, if only to avoid another slanderous Hollywood fictionalization:
Where an historical character has been so colorful as was Brigham Young, and where so much lurid untruth has been written about such an one, it is not always easy to get at the exact truth which underlies his life—truth which such a Company as your own would wish to have at its disposal before making a film.21
The same day he wrote to Kent, President Grant also sent a letter to Will Hays, whom Grant had invited to Salt Lake City in 1918 to sell war bonds when Hays was an official of President Wilson’s Liberty Loan drive. Grant confessed that he was “not at all sure as to how you are really connected to the production of pictures,” but thought that Hays’s
high sense of justice and fair play will see to it that the slanders and vilifications of the past are not dished out again to a public that is sometimes not very discriminating and that is too frequently receptive and even gullible in the matter of unsavory and sensational stories however baseless they may be.22
In a return letter, Hays assured President Grant that Twentieth Century-Fox had a high reputation and that Kent and Zanuck would receive his suggestions with “sympathy.”23
Meanwhile, it was decided that Louis Bromfield, a novelist of note at that time, would write the original story on which the script would be based. Bromfield, whose Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Rains Came (1937) became a hit Zanuck film in 1939 starring Tyrone Power, was a logical choice.24
Vardis Fisher and Children of God
While Bromfield was on his way by train from Ohio to meet Zanuck in Hollywood, he read a stack of unsigned book manuscripts in connection with his position as one of three judges for the Harper Brothers Prize for 1938–39. One of the manuscripts was a lengthy saga of the Mormons, encompassing somewhat the same period as Zanuck’s new film project. The novel, which Bromfield judged the winner and persuaded Zanuck to buy screen rights to, was Children of God by Mormon-born Idahoan Vardis Fisher, who was later judged by Alfred Kazin to be America’s last authentic novelist of the frontier.25 Acknowledged to be the “most widely read of Fisher’s books,”26 Children of God, subtitled An American Epic, carried the Mormon story from Joseph Smith’s boyhood up to Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 Manifesto and the official end of plural marriage. The book earned considerable praise on its release; Carl Van Doren wrote that it “neither exalted the Mormons as their own pious tradition did nor abused them in the tradition of their ignorant enemies.”27 It was also criticized in later years for being historically inaccurate.28 Children of God enjoyed prodigious sales upon publication in 1939 and was abridged in two installments in Reader’s Digest in 1940. The alleged connection between this book and the developing script for Brigham Young was of great concern to President Grant and his handpicked liaison with the studio, Elder John A. Widtsoe.
Elder Widtsoe, in a letter critiquing one of the seven major drafts of the screenplay, wrote to executive producer Macgowan that Children of God was
well written, entertaining and often brilliant, [but that its] mixture of facts and fancy, of sober knowledge and imagination, of attempts at fairness and acceptance of exploded myth, leaves with the reader a complete misunderstanding of motives, events and accomplishments. Intended to be an historical novel about Mormonism, it has become a biased and incomplete novel about polygamy.
Elder Widtsoe concluded that Fisher’s portraits of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were “caricatures” and that the “job [of writing the book] was too big for the author, especially after his series of neurotically-impelled writings.”29
Even though Elder Widtsoe kept him apprised of the script developments. President Grant expressed frequent concern in his journal and in correspondence about the potentially unfavorable influence of Fisher’s book on the film’s story. In August 1939, he wrote in his journal, “I thought I would buy a copy of it [Children of God], but Brother [Alfred E.] Bowen said he didn’t think it would be worth my while to even read it, that it is simply rotten.”30 Two months later, President Grant confided in a letter that “I have lived in fear that perhaps there might be something in the picture that would be unfavorable to Brigham Young, because of the man who has been writing the scenario [Louis Bromfield] has endorsed a book that I think is about as mean as the devil.”31
In late October 1939, President Grant, J. Reuben Clark, and John A. Widtsoe journeyed to Los Angeles for a reading of the script by Lamar Trotti. President Grant’s journal entry for 27 October records in a hopeful vein that “Brother Clark, Brother Widtsoe and I were well pleased with the Script. We think there should be slight changes made, all of which they agreed to make.”32 However, just three months later Children of God still haunted him: “I had a miserable night’s rest last night. I didn’t get to sleep until after twelve o’clock and then slept only a short time. I got up and then went back to bed, but couldn’t go to sleep. I felt ashamed of myself that I would allow such a thing as the book Children of God to keep me awake.”33 John A. Widtsoe, similarly concerned over the effect Fisher’s novel might have on the script, noted to Trotti at the conclusion of a detailed three-page critique of one of the script drafts:
I wonder a little, if Mr. Bromfield who helped adjudge the Harper prize to the indecent book known as Children of God, was Fisher’s picture of the Mormons. Literature needs its Will Hays, also. Decent people even in this century cannot be fooled into believing that true literature blossoms from indecency. Man’s many centuries proves the contrary. This, however, is but a passing expression. . . . Should you wish to discuss any of these matters with me, I shall be glad to run down to Los Angeles; unless you come up here and beard the Mormon lions in their own den.34
While President Grant and Elder Widtsoe repudiated the book, Weston Nordgren, writing in the Church missionary publication Liahona: The Elders’ Journal, suggested that “in spite of its anti-Mormon character, the book has stirred up considerable interest in Mormon doings, which will probably be useful publicity for the present picture.”35 In fact, Fisher’s book had little impact on the final story or characterizations of the film.36
The studio kept in close contact with Church representatives during the production stages. Only a week after arriving in Los Angeles, Louis Bromfield journeyed to St. George, Utah, where he met John A. Widtsoe, who took the novelist on a four-day motor tour through Utah. In Salt Lake City, Bromfield was treated to a lunch with three then-living daughters of Brigham Young and an evening organ recital in the Tabernacle. The pair were joined by President Grant on the last day as they visited Emigration Canyon. Widtsoe’s diary records as the topic of discussion each day: “B. Young all the way.”37
In April 1940, after five full months of work on seven major revisions of the script, Brigham Young was before the cameras for more than two months of extensive shooting, mostly on location in California but also in Utah.38 Veteran action director Henry Hathaway directed the film, which included a very expensive cast of Fox’s top stars: Tyrone Power as Jonathan, the young Mormon scout; Linda Darnell, a studio newcomer, as Zina, the non-Mormon “outsider”; Vincent Price, recruited from Broadway, as Joseph Smith; Dean Jagger, also from the stage, as Brigham Young, the title role that launched a successful Hollywood career; Mary Astor as Mary Ann, Brigham’s “main” wife; John Carradine as Porter Rockwell; veteran movie villain Brian Donlevy as Angus Duncan, Brigham’s continual adversary for power; and Jane Darwell, who earlier that year had played Ma Joad in Zanuck’s The Grapes of Wrath, as Eliza Webb, a Mormon killed by a mobber’s bullet. Nine-time Academy Award winning musician Alfred Newman wrote an atmospheric score that tastefully used the Mormon hymns “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning” and “Come, Come, Ye Saints” in key scenes. The finished film, nearly two hours long and costing $1,485,000, was among the most expensive motion picture made by Twentieth Century-Fox up to that time. The subtitle Frontiersman was added to attract eastern audiences who might otherwise consider the movie to be entirely religious (see advertising mat illustration).39
The depictions of polygamy in the movie were brief, limited to the occasional appearance of four wives of Brigham Young and to Zina taunting Jonathan when he proposes marriage: “How could you get to loving one wife more than all of the others?” In another brief scene, while on their way back to Council Bluffs for the remaining settlers, Porter Rockwell and Jonathan compute how large Salt Lake City would be if every man had a certain number of wives. When Jonathan asks, “How will we get that many women?” Porter replies, “Oh, that’s no problem. Women convert easy.” Time magazine’s review summed up the film’s lack of emphasis on polygamy when it captioned a studio-generated photograph of Dean Jagger surrounded by twelve women in pioneer dress with “Brigham Young: only the publicity department gave him his fair share.”40
Fox public relations head Jason Joy journeyed to Salt Lake City for a 13 August 1940 private screening for President Grant and his counselors. Following the screening, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that President Grant said, “I thank Darryl F. Zanuck for a sympathetic presentation of an immortal story. I endorse it with all my heart and have no suggestions to make for any changes. This is one of the greatest days of my life. I can’t say any more than ‘God bless you.’”41 The star-studded premiere in Salt Lake City on 23 August seemed to ratify that endorsement. Zanuck, Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Dean Jagger, Louis Bromfield, and other Fox dignitaries hosted the seven-theater premiere.
The national release of Brigham Young occurred one month later in New York City’s prestigious Roxy Theatre, in Los Angeles at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and at San Francisco’s Paramount Theatre to essentially favorable, if not enthusiastic, reviews. “It is the major picture of the year,” wrote the critic for the Los Angeles Times.42 Popular movie columnist Louella Parsons praised it as “the best picture ever to come out of the 20th Century-Fox Studio and one of the best pictures this reviewer has ever seen.”43 “Brigham Young,” wrote a critic in the Los Angeles Daily News, “is one of those rare distinguished motion pictures which makes up in two hours for every sin of mediocrity committed in Hollywood. . . . [It] is the best Twentieth Century-Fox production since Grapes of Wrath and a credit to the entire industry.”44 Of the sixty reviews I have surveyed from daily newspapers, industry trade publications, and national magazines, not more than five could be classified as negative. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was the only dissenter among the highly profiled film critics, declaring, “[The] picture is much more tedious than Brigham’s life must have been.” The lack of screen time on polygamy caused him to conclude that “it’s too bad that Brigham Young had to be so monog—we mean monotonous.”45
The film industry trade papers were nearly unanimous in praising the film, citing it as “a stirring saga of the Mormon people that has epic sweep and is gripping screen fare”46 and “one of the really worthwhile pictures of the year.”47 Both Newsweek and Time carried positive reviews and Life chose Brigham Young as its “Movie of the Week.”48 A half-hour radio adaptation (performed by Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Mary Astor, and Dean Jagger, all of whom flew to New York for the film’s east coast premiere) was aired nationwide as the season opener for the Kate Smith Show.49
The commercial success of the film is not easy to determine because of conflicting box office records and wartime conditions in Europe that restricted film distribution abroad.50 Traditionally, the trade paper Variety tracks a given film at key theaters for the first few weeks of its initial run. During that time, trends are established and a reasonable estimate can be made of the success of a picture. On the West Coast, Brigham Young had an average first week’s gross but fell considerably during the second week. Seattle’s opening was deemed “very disappointing” by Variety, but Portland’s reception was “very strong.” San Francisco’s earnings were judged “fair,” and Denver’s receipts were “well above average.”51 Chicago’s grosses were very low and Omaha’s “average.” The reception in Memphis prompted the paper to say, “Mormon leader has more wives than customers in these parts.”52 On the East Coast, opening engagements earned average returns in Boston but were very low in Providence, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. New York City’s box office grosses were average, but in Baltimore Brigham Young received “consistent day and night trade, pointing to a most satisfying figure.53
Subsequent published references to the box office take for Brigham Young have reflected the disappointing trend suggested by the first two weeks of Variety’s initial reports.54 Yet Maynard Smith, who wrote a 1953 dissertation on the films of Lamar Trotti, claimed to have had access to Twentieth Century-Fox financial records (no longer available at the studio) and reported that the total box office returns from Brigham Young exceeded four million dollars.55 This figure would indicate that the movie was a better than average success for the studio.
While the national and regional press, including editorials in the Salt Lake City papers, were predominantly enthusiastic about Brigham Young, President Grant worried about the reactions of the general Church membership. Truman Young, a San Francisco attorney and a great-grandson of Brigham Young, voiced a general criticism of many in the Church:
It is a sympathetic and entertaining film, if not an epic. [However,] Brigham Young is characterized as altogether too vacillating in the screen portrait. He may have had some doubt of his ability as the perfect leader. But he felt called to aid his people, first in saving their lives and then in finding a peaceful haven for settlement.56
In the film, for example, when asked if his decision to leave Nauvoo was a revelation, Brigham’s reply in the affirmative contradicts his discussion with Mary Ann minutes earlier when he complained to her that when he asked the Lord if he was to be head of the Church “The Lord didn’t say anything.”57 In another scene when the Mormons are packing up to leave Nauvoo, Mary Ann utters a prayer complaining that “this is an awful thing he’s asking us to do. And right now, in his heart he’s not half as sure as he makes out to be.”58 In yet another scene, when Duncan’s subversive efforts get the best of him, Brigham confesses to his wife, “Sometimes, I wonder if I’m being punished for saying the Lord told me to take charge.”59 Despite such scripted dialogue, however, the visual images throughout the film and the favorable linking of Joseph Smith to Brigham Young convey the impression that Brigham is unquestionably Joseph’s successor (see frame enlargements).
At the October 1940 general conference of the Church, President Grant responded to what he felt was the prevailing criticism:
I have heard some little criticism of it, but we cannot expect the people who do not know that Brigham Young was in very deed the representative of God upon the earth, who do not know of his wonderful character, to tell the story as we would tell it. There is nothing in the picture that reflects in any way against our people. It is a very marvelous and wonderful thing, considering how people generally have treated us and what they thought of us. Of course, there are many things that are not strictly correct, and that is announced in the picture itself. It is of course a picture and we could not hope that they would make a picture at their expense, running into a couple of million dollars, to be just as we would like it.60
Heber J. Grant and Mormonism in the Thirties
President Grant, of course, had agreed to the now criticized Brigham Young vacillations during the various stages of script development. That he did so is revealing about the nature of the man who led the Church for twenty-seven years and who attempted (largely successfully) to build bridges between the broader American and the Mormon cultures. Heber J. Grant succeeded to the presidency of the Church in 1918, upon the death of Joseph F. Smith. At that time, the Church was experiencing the changes that came with the new century, its culture, and more recently the difficulties in obtaining a senatorial seat for Reed Smoot. In the words of Frank W. Fox, President Grant’s task was to “transform the Mormon Church from a small sect cloistered away in the Rocky Mountains to a national, and eventually international, religious movement with a universal message.” This transformation would be effected by the Church’s “coming to terms with the United States politically, socially, culturally (to some degree), and above all spiritually. It had to reconcile its own sense of mission with the existing sense of national purpose, to the end that it might become a working force in American life.”61 By the 1930s this transformation had largely been accomplished, with results that Thomas Alexander characterizes as “nothing less than miraculous, Mormons were now working together in social and community betterment causes such as prohibition, non-partisan government, the development of parks, and a multitude of other social and cultural causes.”62 The Church Security Plan (or Welfare Plan, as it became more popularly known) provided a great boost to the Mormon image of thrift, industry, and traditional American values. National magazines reflected this changing attitude in the late 1930s, largely to the credit of President Grant, Henry D. Moyle, Reed Smoot, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., and others whose business and civic involvements brought the Church closer to the American mainstream.63 By the time Brigham Young was released, readers of America’s newspapers and magazines were offered pages of information on the Church and its history. In addition to the Reader’s Digest condensation of Fisher’s Children of God, the seven million readers of the American Weekly were treated to a twelve-part biography of Brigham Young.64
President Grant’s efforts to accommodate the needs of the filmmakers is evident in the diplomatic tone of a letter he wrote to Kenneth Macgowan in August 1939, before the first draft screen-play was completed:
I hope we shall not appear to you to be overanxious, and we have no disposition to be oversensitive, but we are tremendously concerned that this picture shall be a true picture, and while we are not, any of us, playwrights, or dramatists, or Movie technicians, we can appreciate the war which must constantly go on in one preparing a picture, between the highly dramatic and the sober fact.65
On a similar note, John A. Widtsoe wrote to Macgowan: “We [Widtsoe and Lamar Trotti] have worked very carefully on the script, and hope that the suggestions on the copy may be considered favorably by you. However, we shall support you in the final decision, whatever it may be.”66
Very early in the story-treatment stages, Church officials seemed very flexible in adapting history for the needs of the film, even to the extent of inserting the Hole in the Rock episode into the crossing of the plains.67 President Grant also quelled potentially embarrassing moments. When George D. Pyper, the eighty-year-old Sunday School president and historical advisor on the set, intruded once too often with suggestions on historical accuracy, President Grant calmed studio executives saying, “Don’t pay too much attention to that brother. We’ve got to have box office in this picture.”68
The picture of Brigham Young as a man uncertain about his calling was evidently part of the idea of the film from the beginning. In connection with a suit lodged against Twentieth Century-Fox by Eleanor Harris (a junior writer assigned to work with Bromfield on the story), the credited writer of the film, Lamar Trotti, recounted in his deposition that Brigham Young was
a story of a man, an individual, who started out to found a religious community, who sought the help of God to do so, and who didn’t find the physical answer to his prayer but who said that he had done so and an the strength of that led his people in to this valley where they almost starved to death and then he sought forgiveness, and finally found his people saved by what the Mormon people believed to be a miracle in the form of the sea gulls that came and killed the crickets that were eating their food.69
Louis Bromfield, in his deposition, took credit for the “structure and basic ideas” embodied in the final screenplay as filmed, “including the basic dramatic idea on which the whole story is rounded, that Brigham Young, without consciousness of revelation or divine assistance assumes control and leadership of his people and finally appeals to God when he is defeated and his people are in danger of death by starvation.”70
Darryl F. Zanuck, in his deposition, confirmed that President Grant, for dramatic reasons, had approved the fictional characterization of Brigham Young that had disturbed so many of his Church members:
So, as a matter of fact, President Grant of the Mormon Church, when he saw the film and as to this particular line in the characterization of Brigham Young, said that while it was not true to the life of Brigham Young, however, it seemed to him it was essential to the situation which Brigham Young knew, and while it was not true he felt that it was a thing that was dramatically essential and so the Mormon Church permitted us to keep it in the picture.
The whole issue of whether the film was true or not in their minds—in the minds of the Mormon Church, was based upon one rather illuminating quality in his character. In other words, Bromfield created the approach and the basic idea of the whole film was built around the character of the man who consciously misleads his people, leading them to believe he is constantly in touch, and he knows, he knows all the time that he is not in touch with God, but at the finish when everything is lost and he faces failure he appeals once more to God and God answers his appeal, and the theme being that all the time he was actually in touch with God although he didn’t know it.
That was the big side of the whole film and that made the picture.71
The question of the film’s “truth” and the attitude of Church officials toward historical accuracy help us to understand the forces that finally formed and developed the story as presented to the public. M. R. Werner noted at the film’s release that the film either telescoped key events in Mormon history (such as the expulsion from Nauvoo) or clearly fabricated episodes (Brigham Young, at the time of the cricket infestation and arrival of the seagulls, was in Council Bluffs, not in the Salt Lake Valley, as portrayed in the film; gold was not discovered in California in 1846 as the film maintained, but two years later).72 Apparently, President Grant and other Church officials working with Twentieth Century-Fox were satisfied as long as a positive image of the Church emerged through the fiction.
Brigham Young and World Affairs
Seen in the context of the late 1930s, the image of the Mormons as a persecuted people was a timely parallel to the persecution of the Jews in Europe, particularly in Hitler’s Germany. The creative artists directly and indirectly responsible for the storyline of Brigham Young were each, in one way or another, not only acutely aware of the persecutions abroad, but vocal if not active in favoring some kind of involvement by the United States in alleviating those conditions. Just prior to Fox’s purchase of the screen rights to Children of God, Vardis Fisher wrote a lengthy letter to his literary agent encouraging her to approach Zanuck on his behalf for the job as technical advisor on the film:
I don’t believe any other person is more familiar with the essential facts of Mormon history and especially with the spirit of it than I am. Above all I should wish to point out to Mr. Zanuck the remarkable opportunity not only to portray one of the most dramatic chapters in American history, but also, and more importantly, to make the portrayal implicitly an antidote to the increasing spread of Fascism and anti-Semitism in this nation. Practically everyone who has written of Mormonism has, in my opinion, missed the spirit of the movement. Above all else, that movement was an almost century-long struggle to find a refuge for conscience and human liberties. My novel is the only book that has made that the theme and driving force of the movement. As one actively interested in the Committee for United Action against Fascism and anti-Semitism in this country, I am deeply interested also in the opportunity to make of the Mormon motion picture a powerful, even though implicit, agent in the defense of human liberties in this nation. . . . The theology was only the raison d’etre of that struggle.
Fisher concluded the letter by offering to be employed in an anonymous capacity, “not because primarily of the money or because I have any ambitions toward Hollywood, but because I am vitally interested in the threat to human liberties in the world today and should like to see the Mormon story produced in a way to make it an implicit voice against persecution and reaction.”73
Louis Bromfield, who had a “lifelong interest in the Mormons,”74 was similarly concerned with the conditions of fascism in and out of the United States. “Whether or not Bromfield has political aspirations, few Americans have been more active in the anti-Fascist cause,” wrote an anonymous author for the 1944 edition of Current Biography. Bromfield was on the executive board of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe and a sponsor of the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born. Speaking of fascism, Bromfield said that “it cuts across all nations. We have plenty of fascist-minded people right here in the United States—the kind who think ‘the Fascist-Nazis would put the poor people in their place and protect my property and investments.’”75 Even Eleanor Harris, whose story “Prophets of Empire” had initially set Zanuck’s mind in motion on the eventual Brigham Young project, referred to world conditions in an early memo on her story: “With our eyes on today’s headlines, nothing could be more topical than the story of the persecuted people who left their country because they must . . . [w]hose only guide was hope . . . and who, in the midst of desolation, built a triumphant Empire!”76 (ellipses in original).
Darryl F. Zanuck was no stranger to topical stories that appealed to the public. In his first story conference for Brigham Young, he compared what he had in mind to two earlier films: The Covered Wagon, a pioneer epic made in 1923 by Paramount, and The House of Rothschild, one of Zanuck’s first productions at Twentieth Century Pictures. Released with great success at the box-office in 1934, The House of Rothschild dealt with the persecutions in Europe of the famous Jewish banking family. Veteran actor George Arliss, borrowed from Warner Brothers, played the lead role of Nathan Rothschild. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson wrote a hateful tirade against Jews for the part of the anti-Semitic rabble-rouser Ledrantz, played by Boris Karloff. Arliss, as Nathan Rothschild, in return, delivered a stinging denunciation as the high point of the film. At the time The House of Rothschild was in production, Hitler had come to power in Germany. In his book on Zanuck, Leonard Mosely writes:
From a purely commercial point of view, it was a controversial movie to be making at this time. But if Joe Schenck and the bookers at United Artists were apprehensive about this, Zanuck, on the contrary, was stimulated by the prevailing conditions, and felt that here was a page-one film if there was one, its story brought bang up to date by the happenings in Nazi Germany. . . . Zanuck believed that the controversial aspects of it would attract rather than repel movie-goers.77
Zanuck was right. The House of Rothschild was the biggest hit of the new company’s brief existence.
In his instructions to executive producer Kenneth Macgowan in the first story conference on Brigham Young, Zanuck established the connection between The House of Rothschild and his Mormon saga with one eye on history and the other on contemporary events: “Introduce your characters and the cause to which they are pledged. They have just finished the building of their Tabernacle. Then show the start of the persecution and the pogroms, paralleling the situation in House of Rothschild and what is happening abroad today.”78
Under the skilled pen of Fox’s top scriptwriter, Lamar Trotti,79 Brigham Young was furnished with a courtroom scene similar to the dramatic scene in The House of Rothschild denouncing intolerance, this time religious rather than purely racial. The courtroom scene is the highlight of the film and is followed by the assassination of Joseph Smith. In the final script, Brigham Young is introduced to the viewer in his stirring ten-minute defense of the Mormons in a scene which includes flashbacks of his first meeting with Joseph Smith. His concluding statement to the jury is a dramatic close-up with Joseph Smith visible over his shoulder:
Now, gentlemen, I’m not asking you to believe a single thing Joseph Smith said. But I do ask you, let him believe it—let me believe it, if we want to. Your forefathers and mine came to this country in the first place for one great reason—to escape persecution for their beliefs, and to build a free country where everybody might worship God as he pleased. That’s what brought the Puritans to Massachusetts, the Quakers to Pennsylvania, the Huguenots to South Carolina, the Catholics to Maryland. And when they’d found what they were after, they fought a war to hold onto it, and they drew up one of the noblest documents ever written—the Constitution of the United States—to govern free men. And the very first words they put on that piece of paper guarantees to every man the right to worship God as he pleases—and prohibits Congress, or anybody else, from ever doing anything to take away that right. You can’t convict Joseph Smith just because he happens to believe something you don’t believe. You can’t go against everything your fathers fought and died for. And if you do, your names, not Joseph Smith’s, will go down in history as traitors. They’ll stink in the records and be a shameful thing on the tongues of your children!80
The popular press did not miss the implications of Brigham’s speech, nor that the message of the film was a very contemporary one. “Religious liberty, with the U.S. Constitution as its backer, is made a serious and coherent theme in the film’s motivation,” wrote a California reviewer.81 Philip K. Scheuer, writing in the Los Angeles Times, commented that “[a]ll this happened but a century ago. Yet many of us, pausing to take stock at the close of Brigham Young, may well find ourselves asking, ‘Can such things have been? Did we do this?’”82 The Motion Picture News, a publication of the Women’s University Club of Los Angeles, concluded in their review of Brigham Young, “It is difficult for us to believe that they [Mormons] were persecuted in Missouri and Illinois with the savage bigotry of present-day Nazism, but such was the case.”83
The widely-received message of tolerance, and the courtroom scene that explicitly made the point, also reflected contemporary social and judicial attitudes. The trial scene, developed and written by Trotti, was wholly fictional and meant to send its message in a minimum of time, which is the essence of any dramatic presentation. Yet Trotti’s (and Zanuck’s) Brigham Young argued a defense that would not have been appropriate in the 1840s. The federal constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion was a legally recognized concept in the late 1930s, but not in the 1840s.
Comparing the fictionalized trial of Joseph Smith as portrayed in the film to the actual trial of Joseph’s alleged assassins in 1845 adds insight to the actual legal arguments of the time. According to Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, both Mormons and Gentiles in Hancock County contended in court primarily over “higher law” and “popular sovereignty” and not the First Amendment and its religious guarantees:
The murders and trial at Carthage exposed some basic issues that divided Mormon and non-Mormon in Hancock County. In its own way, each group was committed to the written laws of state and nation, yet each paid allegiance to another law they deemed higher than these. The source of the Mormons’ higher law was the revelation of God; its spokesman was their prophet. But with source and spokesman vested in the same individual, the anti-Mormons feared a potential tyranny. The anti-Mormons also appealed to a higher law, but its sources were diffuse and its spokesmen many. Their sources were the Bible, reason, and individual conscience—reliance on God but also “nature.” . . . As a minority in the state, the Mormons had to respond to the will of the majority, subject only to the limited and remote guarantees of the written constitution. In their case those guarantees proved insufficient to preserve either their prerogatives as the elected majority or their rights as a participating majority.84
Federal Constitutional guarantees were “remote” in states in the 1840s because First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom were not then binding upon the states and were interpreted as a protection from the possibility that the federal government would establish a national religion. The Fourteenth Amendment, originally ratified in 1868, “extended to states the limitations imposed on the federal government by the Bill of Rights,” among which were freedom of religion and of assembly.85 But it was not until the mid-1930s under the New Deal that the Supreme Court began ruling in favor of protecting minority individuals and organizations (religious or otherwise) against the power of the state.
The timeliness of the message of Brigham Young, particularly where contemporary court decisions were concerned, was discussed in a review in the New York Mirror:
And, incidentally, to all those officials of various towns who have been chasing out that fantastic sect known as “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” this department particularly recommends Brigham Young’s defense speech at Joseph Smith’s trial for treason. It’s the kind of Americanism that some of us are sometimes inclined to forget.86
Between the time early in 1938 when Brigham Young began serious story development and the eve of its premiere in Salt Lake City in late August 1940, war had been declared on Germany by France and Britain. Germany had invaded the Netherlands, and France had fallen. Bombs were falling nightly on London even as audiences in Salt Lake City, New York, and Los Angeles queued up to see Zanuck’s saga about Brigham Young.
Would Brigham Young have been produced if world conditions had not been what they were in the late 1930s? Perhaps. The story was inherently dramatic and was certainly qualified in terms of sweep and spectacle. Yet the matter of polygamy seemed to be an insuperable obstacle, even to Zanuck, until he was convinced that another element—the theme of religious or racial tolerance—outweighed the liabilities. Zanuck’s attraction to the theme of tolerance, in a world where its rarity made headlines, combined with his interventionist posture,87 provided fertile social soil from which Brigham Young emerged to be favorably received by its viewers.
The modern message of Brigham Young, then, addressed current concerns and anxieties about intolerance and persecution. To President Grant and his 700,000 Latter-day Saints, tolerance and acceptance were themes that needed underscoring, particularly in the theaters that had only a few years before projected the unfavorable stereotyped images of nineteenth-century polygamy. By dedicated, continuous involvement in the drafting and production of the film and through wise compromises, President Grant and other Church leaders did much to insure the eventual success of Brigham Young in its positive portrayal of the Church’s early history. With that objective having been accomplished, it was a relieved Heber J. Grant who declared after the preview showing of Brigham Young in Salt Lake City, “This is one of the greatest days of my life.”