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“Brigham Young” (1940): 20th Century Fox Studio Publicity

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 27, 2010

“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.

“Brigham Young”

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.

The kicker, you may already know, is that Dean Jagger converted to the church decades after the making of the movie. Really (scroll down). The movie is available on DVD from Netflix and from Amazon.

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”



27 Comments »

  1. I know I’ve seen this and of course the only thing I remember about it is Vincent Price as Joseph Smith. An interesting bit of casting, indeed.

    I’d like to see some stills of the sets, though, especially the recreated “Salt Lake City as it was originally built.”

    Comment by Mina — January 27, 2010 @ 7:35 am

  2. I loved this movie. I have it on DVD. James V. D’Arc wrote a wonderful article about this movie entitled “Darryl F. Zanuck’s Brigham Young: A Film in Context” for BYU Studies, Winter 1989. While the movie is somewhat lacking in historical accuracy, it is sympathetic to the LDS. Furthermore, it denounces religious bigotry. At the time the film was made there was growing concern about religious persecution, especially in Germany and the Nazi anti-Semitic program. Brigham Young was made, in part, as a response to that. The whole irony of this connection is that in the United States, the persecution of the Latter-day Saints was used as a way to denounce Jewish persecution in Germany. In Germany, the Nazis published an article after Kristallnacht in which they justified their actions by comparing it to Americans persecuting the Mormons.

    Great post, Ardis.

    Comment by Steve C. — January 27, 2010 @ 7:42 am

  3. Interesting, Steve. I didn’t know that.

    Another German connection to the movie… I had two missionary companions from Germany. One of the two saw the Brigham Young movie on television as a young teenager. It piqued her interest, and several years later she joined the church. (Thanks, Dean Jagger et al. She was a wonderful missionary companion.)

    Her parents were a bit older when she was born, and her father had been a member of the Nazi party during the war. They were not members of the church and they evidently still held anti-foreigner viewpoints, which was a bit strange since she finished her mission and went home and married a Persian member of the church.

    Comment by Researcher — January 27, 2010 @ 8:25 am

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen this movie, and I had the link to Amazon.com handy because I just ordered myself a cheap used copy. I’ll be watching it with special attention to sets and allegories to WWII history.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 27, 2010 @ 8:28 am

  5. What’s interesting is that part of the narrative in the press materials echoes faith-promoting stories about general authority visits and weather — the sun’s rays breaking through the clouds just in time.

    Also notice the use of the phrase “In a twinkling of an eye.”

    Neither is unique to Mormonism, of course, but it’s still interesting to run across them.

    This is from the age when advertising and marketing focused a lot on specific details and stories rather than on branding and emotional connections (or at least direct aspirational-yet-still-rather-vague emotional connections). It’s cool to see real details being presented rather than just a bunch of buzz words being deployed.

    Comment by Wm Morris — January 27, 2010 @ 8:55 am

  6. BTW: Vincent Price was great at Joseph Smith. :-)

    Comment by Steve C. — January 27, 2010 @ 8:56 am

  7. I’ve seen bits and pieces of an old 1940’s- something movie depicting Brigham Young re-played on TV over the years — not sure if it’s this one or not. But the one I remember seeing was in color, so maybe it’s not the same film. After reading this post, and the info at iMDb, I want to see this film.

    I’d like to know how the movie did in the box office? Was it widely distributed and viewed?

    By the way, great attention-grabbing first line, Ardis.

    Comment by Hunter — January 27, 2010 @ 11:41 am

  8. I pulled that line from Davis Bitton’s research and essay — pretty good, eh?

    I don’t have numbers but understand that the movie didn’t do too well overall, even in Utah. It was soon re-released as “Brigham Young, Frontiersman,” apparently in an effort to downplay the religious element and attract the fans of the Wild West audience.

    Interesting comments, all; I hope there will be more. It’s always fun to see how a post draws out the disparate personal interests of readers, and how that is all still relevant to the OP.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 27, 2010 @ 11:55 am

  9. This film was my first exposure exposure to the Church. I was an 8 yr. boy living Tucson AZ. in the mid-1950’s. I saw it on my grandparents first “modern” television; (the first set had a round screen resembling a port hole while the second the ubiquitous rounded rectangle). I do remember feeling empathy for the Saints and outrage at the Gentiles. The trek was absolutely heroic to my 8 yr. old eyes and thanks to Hollywood’s vivid, larger than life portrayal. My second exposure to Mormonism via entertainment occurred when I came home one day from high school in 1962 and found my mother watching the Art Linkletter show. Linkletter used to interview 6 children who, if I remember correctly, were between the ages of 6 to 10. He was interviewing a very pretty little girl who was unusually well spoken for her age. After giving a detailed answer to one of his questions regarding the origins of her little brother, Linkletter responded, “You are a precocious little girl, aren’t you?” Without missing a beat, the girl replied, “I am not! I’m a Latter-day Saint!” The audience enthusiatically joined Linkletter in his laughter. Little did I know that in a scant 3 years later I would also be a Latter-day Saint.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — January 27, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

  10. I remember this movie fairly well, and have seen it several times. It gave up something in terms of historical accuracy, but was very sympathetic towards the church and the whole Mormon pioneer experience. It also presented the “miraculous” type of events in a pretty straightforward manner. I remember the crickets and seagulls scene in particular.

    I always did think it a bit odd to cast Vincent Price as Joseph Smith, but that was probably due to having seen him in all those 50’s and 60’s horror and science fiction movies before I saw this on TV.

    Comment by kevinf — January 27, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

  11. I have it on VHS, bought it on ebay. Good movie. The historical inaccuracies are a bit grating, but you can forgive them because the movie is favorable to the saints.

    Ardis, for a few extra bucks of income per year, sign up as an Amazon associate and put your referral code in any/all links to Amazon. You’ll get a 4% commission, and the buyers won’t pay any additional for it.

    Comment by Bookslinger — January 27, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

  12. Never heard of that, Bookslinger, thanks. In my case, little bits help, even if all they do is nibble away at the cost of Keepa’s hosting fees.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 27, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

  13. Brigham Young was made when Vincent Price was a young actor getting into the movies and really before he became so type-cast in horror movies. (I’ve heard the rumors that VP’s daughter was a member.)

    It’s been a while since I watched Brigham Young. What I do remember is that it focuses on BY lacking confidence that he is to be JS’s successor. He questions himself all the way through. It was the miracle of the Seagulls that proved to him that he was to be JS’s successor.

    One other tidbit is that in the pre-production there was a lot of debate about the issue of polygamy and how it should be treated. Studio officials thought that the idea of polygamy would be too racy if trying to present the LDS/BY in a favorable light. They shifted the focus then to the issue of religious persecution.

    Comment by Steve C. — January 27, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

  14. Re #11 Goodness, Ardis. How about a little donate button like FMH has? If you put it up just once a year, I’m sure some of your readers would happily contribute a dollar or two to help out with the hosting fees. There’s no way we could cover the cost of all the work that goes into this blog; that’s an amazing labor of love, but hosting fees? Let me know where to send the check.

    /end of threadjack/

    Comment by Anon on anything to do with money, in-laws, or doctrine — January 27, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

  15. Ha! If Keepa’ninnies would promise not to be offended by that little bit of commercialism, I’ll do it. Hosting fees come due early in May

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 27, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

  16. I am all for commercialism. Go for it.

    Comment by Chris Henrichsen — January 27, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

  17. Who could possibly be offended?

    Remember Pres. Kimball’s motto: Do it, do it, do it!

    Comment by Mark Brown — January 27, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

  18. Ditto to what Mark Brown said.

    Comment by Researcher — January 27, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

  19. Hear, hear. I would pay something for my daily Keepa.

    Comment by Hunter — January 27, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

  20. Ardis:

    That is a great idea.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — January 28, 2010 @ 8:44 am

  21. I agree with us helping with the hosting fees. Your blog is the best part of every day.

    Comment by Maurine — January 28, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

  22. I’m in to keep Keepa available to the ninnies. Heck, I don’t read the Ensign every day, and that’s worth $10 a year (recoils slightly at sound of thunder outside office windows).

    Comment by kevinf — January 28, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

  23. I just learned that Keepa’ninny Clair wrote about the “Brigham Young” movie last year on the site he writes for as the Salt Lake Mormon History Examiner — we both even launched our columns with the same Heber J. Grant quote.

    Clair’s account covers the story from the church’s point of view rather than the studio’s — you ought to check that out as a complement to the post here at Keepa.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 28, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

  24. We just got done watching the Brigham Young movie (Super Bowl? What’s that?!), and will have to echo someone’s comment on another post the other day: Yikes!

    If understood as historical fiction, it is bearable to watch, but we found ourselves giggling (or laughing uproariously) a little too frequently. The peculiar sequence of events, the villains, the galling historical inaccuracies. At one point my husband called it “hysterical fiction.”

    But I will admit that I had to wipe a tear from my eye when Brigham Young said, “This is the place.”

    It’s the sort of movie that might be fun to watch some late night with a bunch of sleep-deprived Mormon history types.

    On a serious note, Clair’s article (see comment 23) points out some of the objections we had to the story, but it also points out the fact that it was so superior to any previous movie about the Mormons that it was embraced by many members of the church, and I agree that the portrayal was largely positive.

    Like Porter Rockwell said: “Hallelujah!”

    (He was funny.)

    Comment by Researcher — February 7, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

  25. I hope that during the Millenium, or at some point in time post-resurrection, that we’ll get to see “movies” of what happened on earth throughout mortal history. Or, perhaps there might be some future spiritual gift wherein we’ll be able to remember having observed earth life from when we were in the pre-mortal existence.

    And not just the great and grand events of scripture, like the parting of the Red Sea, but also events of this dispensation, from the mighty events of the First Vision and the dedication of the Kirtland temple, to the mundane every day life of our ancestors.

    I’d like to see the look on my grandfather’s face when he was a young boy and arrived in America as he got off the boat from Europe.

    But real life doesn’t have the background music, the score, like a movie does. There was no orchestra playing when Brigham Young said “This is the place.” Did he, Wilford Woodruff, and the other present “get a feel” for the momentousness of that occasion? Was it anything like we feel when we see re-enactiments or read about it?

    Comment by Bookslinger — February 8, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

  26. You’re a poet, Books. I suppose most of us have a few moments we’d like to witness, or at least a few people we’d like to talk to. Some of mine are people who have successfully hidden from my searches … the stories I *don’t* tell here.

    And you ask a significant question: Did witnesses to iconic moments realize what they were seeing? Even something like the First Vision — obviously Joseph realized he was experiencing something extraordinary, but without knowing the Lord as well as he eventually came to know him, without knowing what would grow out of those minutes in the Grove, could he *really* have understood the significance? Probably not, and maybe we ought to keep that in mind when we evaluate history.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 8, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

  27. The June 1941 Improvement Era prints the text of a speech in this movie, a scene in a courtroom where Brigham Young is defending Joseph Smith. The Era says:

    “While the speech is fiction in detail, in spirit it is moving and fundamental.”

    I’ll have to remember to cite this in the [oh-so-unlikely] event I want to defend some non-historical event or speech or person as being the way history should have been but wasn’t.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 12, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

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