“I endorse it with all my heart,” Heber J. Grant said. “This is one of the greatest days of my life.”
That’s oddly strong support for a commercial movie featuring a not-entirely-accurate version of Mormon history – but that’s probably because President Grant remembered 1922’s viciously anti-Mormon propaganda film Trapped by the Mormons. In fact, he had been so concerned over the possible direction of 1940’s “Brigham Young” that he assigned Apostle John A. Widtsoe as a special ambassador to the project. Elder Widtsoe hosted Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield on an automobile tour through Utah with emphasis on Temple Square and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Such good relations were established that when church leaders suggested corrections to the storyline, their views were considered and sometimes implemented.
What follows is “Brigham Young” publicity material released by the studio for use in movie magazines before the movie’s premier in Salt Lake City and its national release in August 1940.
Ninety-three years ago Brigham Young and his little band of outcast Saints trekked across the vast plains, over the rugged mountains to the shores of Great Salt Lake. Today their unparalleled story is considered so important it is being reproduced by one of the world’s greatest agencies – the motion picture.
Time has been turned back in its flight on the verdant meadows at Big Bear, California.
The year, says the calendar, is 1940 and the month is May. But as far as the eye can reach and as far as all the physical elements are concerned, it is 1846. The Mormons are on the march. The rich green valley, situated seven thousand feet above sea level and hemmed in by tall mountains, represents a milestone in the epic trek of twenty thousand Latter-day Saints from Nauvoo, Ill., to a new land and a new home in what is now Utah.
The miracle-makers of the movies have done their work well, as usual. They have recreated the past in amazing detail for one of the greatest historical dramas ever undertaken by the films. The “Brigham Young” company from Twentieth Century-Fox is on location – and in action.
Stretched out in a seemingly endless line that reaches to the horizon are scores of covered wagons drawn by horses, mules and oxen. Several hundred horsemen gallop up and down that never-ending line as it moves steadily and remorselessly forward. At the head of the long train rides Dean Jagger, who plays the title role in “Brigham Young,” Tyrone Power, the chief of the Mormon scouts, Brian Donlevy, John Carradine, Moroni Olsen, Frank Thomas and Willard Robertson, all portraying Mormon leaders.
It’s a warm day, even though in the distance snow lies on the mountain caps and the slopes. Because the time of the action is early Spring, however, most of the actors and actresses are garbed in heavy, warm woolen clothing. The players perspire freely as they tramp and ride along and the make-up men, a dozen of whom are working with the company, have their hands full in repairing the damage done to the faces of the stars and supporting cast – faces furrowed by the rivulets of sweat running through the coating of grease paint.
Director Henry Hathaway has just completed one of the scenes and is discussing the next one with the principals of the cast when Cameraman Arthur Miller squints at the sky through a glass and notices that clouds are forming and slowly spreading over the sky.
Years of experience have taught Miller to judge cloud movements to a nicety. He turns to Director Hathaway and casually informs him that they will have approximately twelve minutes of sunlight before the clouds close in.
The director wastes no time. He turns to the loud speaker at his side and barks a rapid series of orders. The crew begin a frantic race against the clouds. The camera is shifted. Horsemen, wagon drivers and those on foot fall quickly back into line, three assistant directors herding them. Reflectors are adjusted to capture every last possible bit of light through the clouds.
The scene is shot and Hathaway shouts “Cut!” At about the same moment, the clouds finally close in. The sun is obscured.
Cameraman Miller takes another squint at the sky, turns to the director and says:
“Why don’t you call lunch. It’ll be just about an hour until the clouds roll away and we can resume shooting.”
“Right,” says Hathaway promptly, motions to an assistant and the latter bellows: “One hour for lunch.”
In a twinkling of an eye, the formation is broken. Singly and in groups, the entire company troops to the long, deal board tables set up several hundred feet from the scene of action. The tables are loaded with steaming pots of meat, vegetables, fruit, pie, cake and other foods.
They eat well and the food is of the best, for Director Hathaway believes like Napoleon that an army, even though a movie troupe, travels on its stomach.
The lunch hour ends and the sun, as if taking orders from the movie makers, emerges from the clouds. If the company had waited for the sun, instead of taking their lunch hour when they did, an hour’s production time would have been lost. That would have meant a loss of $5,000, for that’s what it costs to keep a company of the magnitude of the “Brigham Young” troupe on location.
Almost a quarter of a million dollars has been spent by Twentieth Century-Fox in building sets for the picture not only on the studio lot but also at Big Bear and Lone Pine, Cal., where the company will move as soon as it finishes work on its present location.
The cities of Nauvoo and Carthage, Ill., already have risen on the studio’s back lot at a cost of $40,000. Nauvoo, which spreads out for movie purposes over three streets and includes thirty good-sized buildings, will be partly burned for one of the big spectacle scenes. Brigham Young’s home, the Latter-day Saint Temple and other historic places have been copied in exact detail from old photographs by the art director, William Darling.
Carthage includes a two-story jail where Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, was shot to death during a night attack by a mob. The jail, too, is an exact reproduction.
The Mississippi river, over which the Saints fled after the people of Carthage had set fire to Nauvoo, will flow for five hundred feet where once the studio laid out a desert for the picture “Suez.” The river, which will cost $25,000, will be two city blocks wide and six feet deep. The top will be frozen to a depth of six inches by employing the same ice machinery used by the studio in creating sets for Sonja Henie, the skating star.
Salt Lake City, as it was originally built, has also risen at Lone Pine. It covers twenty acres, includes fifty-five buildings and is complete even to streets and gutters. It was brought into being at a cost of $85,000. Brigham Young’s home, the Mormon Temple and tabernacle and the United Order storehouse all have been duplicated from old sketches.
Not far from the cinematic Salt Lake City is Council Bluffs, Iowa, which includes a stockade and a trading post. At least ninety per cent of the picture will be filmed outdoors.
It is claimed that Dean Jagger, the famous New York stage star who plays the role of Brigham Young, is remarkably like that great leader. The resemblance, too, of Vincent Price to Joseph Smith is said to be very striking. It is hoped the film will do full justice to both their memories.
The script was written by Louis Bromfield, famous American novelist.
photographs, top to bottom:
Vincent Price, as Joseph Smith
Dean Jagger as Brigham Young
Wagon train scene
Linda Darnell as “Zina Webb”
Dickie Jones as “Henry Kent,” Ann Todd as “Mary Kent,” and Jane Harwell as “Eliza Kent”
Mary Astor as “Mary Ann Young”