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From Our Exchanges: Commercial Propaganda in the Silent Film: A Case Study of “A Mormon Maid” (1917)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 01, 2009

The administration regrets that due to the faulty memory and poor filing skills of its editor, the post announced for this morning has been indefinitely delayed. All other posts promised for this week should appear as scheduled.

Richard Alan Nelson. “Commercial Propaganda in the Silent Film: A Case Study of ‘A Mormon Maid’ (1917),” Film History, vol. 1, no. 2 (1987), 149-162.

“A Mormon Maid” was one of those stories with such an unbelievable and unattractive plot that you have to wonder how it ever found an audience, regardless of how anybody felt about the Mormons:

Dora and her parents, non-Mormons, pioneered the West during the time of Brigham Young. A party of Mormons goes out to greet newly arrived converts who are coming by a route that passes the cabin of Dora and her parents. The Mormons become aware that Indians are about to attack the cabin, and one of their number, Tom, is sent to warn Dora’s family. Dora (who instantly falls in love with Tom) and her father are willing to accept the protection of the Mormons, but her mother refuses: “I’ll take my chances with the Indians, not with Mormons.”

Tom and the other Mormons follow the progress of Indian plans to attack the cabin by reading smoke signals conveniently broadcast by the Indians and are able to come to the rescue of Dora’s family and drive off the Indians, although not before the family cabin and crops are burned. With no choice left to them, Dora’s family takes up residence in Salt Lake City.

An evil apostle, Darius Burr, looks with lust upon the beautiful Dora. Burr, who is really the power behind the throne occupied by a weak and suggestible Brigham Young, tells Brigham that he must destroy Dora’s father and clear the way for Burr to seize Dora for his harem. Brigham gives the order for the Danites (clothed in weird hooded robes which, the audience is told, are the models for the Ku Klux Klan robes) to bring Dora’s father to a council. There Dora’s father – a non-Mormon – is ordered to take a polygamous bride (the audience is left to wonder why the lustful Mormons would spare an extra bride for a non-Mormon), or else give Dora to Burr – “Give your daughter in celestial marriage publicly and heaven will be satisfied. You or your daughter. Choose!”

Dora’s father chooses to sacrifice his own honor by marrying polygamously, rather than condemn his daughter to the same fate. An angry Burr, who had been certain Dora would be forced by her father to marry Burr, makes plans to kidnap Dora. Dora’s mother, distraught by her husband’s betrayal, commits suicide.

Burr and his Danites kidnap Dora from her mother’s funeral. While in captivity, Dora picks up a convenient copy of a book on plural marriage and discovers that the revelation says “if any man espouses a second wife and she is a virgin then he is justified …” So, when Burr begins his forced wedding ceremony, Dora announces – falsely – that she is no longer a virgin, again thwarting Burr’s evil plans when Brigham tells him that he cannot marry a fallen woman. Nevertheless, Burr retains Dora in captivity, planning to rape her.

Before he can carry out his evil designs, however, Dora’s true love Tom arrives, accompanied by a mysterious masked Danite. Dora tells Tom that she has lied to escape marriage to Burr; she remains a virgin, fit to marry Tom. Tom and his mysterious companion attack Burr, who drops his gun; it is Dora who picks it up and kills Burr with it. Then Tom and friend handily whip all the Danites. The mysterious man removes his hood, revealing himself to be Dora’s father. Having subdued all threat from the wicked Mormons, Tom, Dora, and Dad all ride off into what the caption identifies as “a land of golden promise.”

Even before the film was released, Mormons protested its anticipated calumny. In a letter not published by the New York Times to which it was sent, along with other protests, Eastern States Mission President Walter P. Monson asked “Why must this wholesale slandering of a people go so merrily on?” And it did go on, in a long list of films identified by the author of this article (whom, by the way, I could not identify as either Mormon or non-Mormon despite the sensitive of my mo-dar).

The author examines why this particular film, of so many similar ones produced at approximately the same time,  was even more successful than the rest and deserves special study. He describes the extremely high production values, the talents of the director, cinematographer, and editor – a powerhouse crew of early movie talent which included Cecil B. DeMille. The skillful direction, filming, and editing of A Mormon Maid created practically a new genre, the docu-drama, which made the tale it told especially believable to a national audience and especially distressing to the Saints. One contemporary review described this aura of verity:

Producer Leonard has worked the thread of the Mormon attack theme into a story of melodramatic action so intelligently that this never impresses as preachment, but rather holds all the better because of the strength of the underlying thought standing back of the melodramatic action.

The docu-drama feeling was enhanced by a prologue consisting of extracts from U.S. Senate reports on negative (to Mormons) aspects of the hearings regarding the seating of Senator Reed Smoot. Promoters of the movie also stressed its “accuracy”:

This picture gives an insight into the practices of Mormonism by depicting a covetous pursuit by one of the elders of a daughter of a pioneer who has come under Mormon influence … Forced marriages, under pressure of the Mormon Council and the well known system of Mormon spies, are also pictured realistically. “the Mormon Maid” is an accurate and truthful narrative of Mormonism in early Utah … The faithful reproduction of the early Mormon as he was, cold and stolid, with his religion, is given throughout.

The article also evaluates the talents of the various actors: Mae Murray, as Dora, although not much of an actress, was still very popular at the time. Noah Beery (father of Noah Beery, Jr., perhaps best known to today’s generation as the father of James Garner’s Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files) played Apostle Darius Burr, and was perhaps the best of the small cast.

Nelson’s article details his (failed) attempts to verify certain claims of the movie (e.g., that there was any connection between Danites and Ku Klux Klan, or that the movie was filmed in Utah where the scenes it “documented” occurred, learning that it was actually filmed in California). He reports on an unusual distribution method designed to avoid Utah boycotts of others of the producers’ films while gaining support and publicity from the National Anti-Mormon League and other organizations favorable to the exploitation of “Mormon crimes,” and includes detailed notes of his use of sources. He concludes,

The screen, like the lecture and the book, has acted as a handy forum from which opposing ideological forces have attacked one another. “A Mormon Maid” is only one of many films which have been eagerly utilized for propaganda purposes by enemies of the Mormon faith because of the impact of the moving image. Although more extensively and effectively employed than most such productions, its most lasting significance is as a monument to the often unthinking bigotry found when cinema is turned into a vehicle for hate.



10 Comments »

  1. Oh my goodness. That is an absolute hoot.

    I see an entry for the movie on imdb. Mixed reviews. The movie is unfortunately not on netflix, or I would be tempted to watch it. (The first movie that came up when I did the search was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — rather appropriate, since it’s another over-the-top production from Hollywood.)

    Comment by Researcher — June 1, 2009 @ 9:24 am

  2. I am reminded of another stirring docudrama that was just as factual: “Birth of a Nation.”

    Comment by Ugly Mahana — June 1, 2009 @ 11:42 am

  3. As for the part where Dora’s father chooses “to sacrifice his own honor by marrying polygamously,” rather than suffer his daughter to have the same fate, I could just hear Dora’s father intoning, “Oh, ohhh kay. I will agree to condemn myself to a fate of having additional opportunity for conjugal relations with a young, nubile Mormon lass. It’ll be tough, but someone has to do it.”

    On the serious side, though, the contemporary reviews ratifying the film’s message leads me to that same old conclusion: What other non-Mormon/non-Utah folks perceive of Mormons is real to them. The fact that their understanding might be deeply flawed doesn’t matter, really. That’s why I think the Church is smart to occasionally release media clarifications. The marketplace of ideas needs to be, well, a marketplace.

    Comment by Hunter — June 1, 2009 @ 11:47 am

  4. And if this silent film were to have live theatre organ accompaniment, might I, well, suggest this?

    Comment by Hunter — June 1, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

  5. Researcher, I’d have ordered it if I could have found it, too — the article is illustrated, showing “A Mormon Maid” to have predated “Big Love” in its screen depiction of fairly accurate temple dress.

    Ugly Mahana, you have a fine sense of cinematic history, evidently. The author claims that “A Mormon Maid” owes specific debts to “Birth of a Nation,” but since I am unfamiliar with BOAN I wasn’t certain I understood the debts.

    And Hunter, you can select the music for any silent movies I produce in future! The author (Nelson) would no doubt agree with your #3, too. The usual power of film was enhanced in this case by the new level of seeming realism brought to it by the skill of its artists. Add that to what the ignorant public already thinks it knows, and you have a juggernaut.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 1, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

  6. I’m feeling the vibes of the Catholic church, re Tom Hanks/Ron Howard/Dan Brown and “Angels & Demons”. We see the formula still applies.

    Comment by kevinf — June 1, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

  7. It’s interesting that polygamy was so central to the “plot” of the movie. When they made “Brigham Young” in the 1930s (20 years later) one of the primary concerns in making the movie was the issue of polygamy. They thought the subject of plural marriage would be too controversial so they down-played it. Instead, it BY was made as a criticism of religious bigotry (in response to the anti-Semitic policies of Germany in the late 1930s).

    Comment by Steve C. — June 1, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

  8. Re: Hunter If Clay Christiansen would play something like that for a “Music and the Spoken Word” segment, I’d become a regular listener!

    Comment by Clark — June 2, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

  9. Brigham Young, was released in September 1940, according to IMDB. So it could have been filmed in 1939 or 1940.

    A VHS copy of “Mormon Maid” is listed for sale right this moment on Ebay, $14.99, plus $2.99 shipping. B/W, silent.

    I own a VHS copy of the 1940 Brigham Young, staring Tyrone Power, Dean Jagger as Brigham Young, and Vincent Price as Joseph Smith.

    There are several copies of Brigham Young for sale on ebay, both DVD and VHS, starting at under $4.

    It’s actually quite favorable to the church, even though there are some glaring historical inaccuracies. I forget what exectly the inaccuracies were, but I remember thinking they were forgiveable given Hollywood’s normal treatment of events and the usual “creative license” that has to be granted.

    I know that radio shows of the 1930’s and 1940’s are now public domain according to US copyright laws. I wonder what the cut-off date or age for movies entering the public domain is. Or whether they are renewable.

    Comment by Bookslinger — June 3, 2009 @ 7:48 am

  10. Bookslinger: Brigham Young is pretty favorable to the LDS. The makers even consulted with the First Presidency on it and HJG gave his approval to the historical inaccuracies because it painted an overall better picture. BY was produced as a protest to religious bigotry, primarily in Germany with the Jews. Ironically, after Kristallnacht in 1938 when Germany was harshly criticized for attacks on the Jews, German newspapers responded by using Missouri’s persecution of the Mormons as justification for persecuting Jews. US newspapers such as the NY Times denounced this analogy.

    Sorry if I’ve gotten this post a little off track, though.

    Comment by Steve C. — June 3, 2009 @ 11:47 am

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