Back in the day, when you went to the movies you really went to the movies – in addition to the feature and the “coming attractions” shown today, movie tickets of the ‘30s and ‘40s and beyond also bought you a cartoon, a news reel, and one or more short films. In 1938, one of these “shorts” produced by MGM was an 11-minute, black and white movie called The Miracle of Salt Lake.
The Miracle of Salt Lake was the creation of director Basil Wrangell (1906-1977), a Russian born in Italy whose American movie career spanned the 1920s through the ‘70s. He came to The Miracle of Salt Lake a year after being nominated for an Oscar for his film editing work on The Good Earth.
The Miracle of Salt Lake was really more of a pageant than a movie. There were no speaking roles among the actors – a narrator told the story of the Mormon pioneers as the camera cut from one dramatic scene to another, swept along by a passionate musical score. And what a vast amount of history was covered in those 11 minutes! The skillful narrator was Carey Wilson, a voice actor who is probably better known for his writing credit on such movies as Ben Hur and Mutiny on the Bounty.
The movie opened with the Saints in the Midwest attempting to worship their God in peace. Time after time, mobs broke into their worship services, smashing Mormon pulpits, scattering copies of the Book of Mormon to the floor, and building bonfires of Mormon property. Finally, the narrator indicated, opposition became so intolerable that the honest Mormon worshipers were forced to seek new homes in the untracked wilderness of the West. The Saints packed their few necessities into wooden wagons, abandoning all their finer things, and parting tearfully from loved ones who did not have the faith to accompany the pioneers.
Scenes of the trail follow. Day after weary day, the pioneers walked beside their wagons, suffering from sun and storm, pressing on hungry and footsore, sustained by their faith in a loving God. Babies are born to mothers in wagon boxes who hug them close, wrapped in shawls and quilts. Loved ones fall sick or weary of the trail and are laid to rest in lonely wayside graves, wrapped in shawls and quilts, as their families, resigned to loss, tenderly mound the earth over the lost ones and plant their graves with wildflowers. Messages are scrawled on the skulls of oxen and buffalo and left for later pioneers to discover, as the original company plods onward and onward, over the prairies and over the hills toward an unknown but promised land.
Time after time, pioneers approach the noble Brigham Young and ask whether the band could not settle in this valley or by the side of that pleasant stream – but no, the pioneers must continue forward until they reach the spot that Brigham will recognize as the place for them to settle. So on they press, suffering from sickness, threatened by dwindling supplies, week after week and month after month, until –
Until on a hot summer day, the company halts in the mouth of a canyon, their leader, sick with fever, rises from his sickbed in the way, and surveys the scene before him. “This is the place,” he says. “Drive on!”
Surprised and dismayed by the barren landscape, the fearless pioneers accept Brigham’s decision with humble faith, and descend to the valley floor. There they unpack their wagons and build cabins from logs brought from the surrounding mountains. Jim Bridger, mountain man, stops by for a visit and tells them that they must not stop in this valley, but must continue onward. They will never survive here! So sure is he of their failure that he offers $1,000 for the first bushel of wheat grown in the valley! The pioneers, not at all discouraged by his fearful warning, thank him for his friendship and send him on his way.
The pioneers divert mountain streams to irrigate the parched valley and begin to plow their fields and sow their grain. Despite the lateness of the season, their wheat flourishes and the intrepid settlers begin to hope that they will survive the winter ahead. But one dreadful day, a friendly Indian from an unspecified nearby tribe hurries into the settlement and asks to speak with Brigham Young (who, in this alternate universe, has not returned to Winter Quarters for the rest of the Saints). Holding out his hand, the Indian displays a small – a small – insect. “Crickets are on their way,” he warns, “eating as they go. They will eat your crops if you don’t stop them before they get here.” (The Indian was played by Iron Eyes Cody, the Italian-American actor who built a career around playing Native American roles.)
Heeding the Indian’s warning, Brigham Young organizes the pioneers into an army to go out and slay the marauding hosts. They bat ineffectually at the crickets with their clubs and shovels, and fearfully watch the insects devour their gardens. Realizing that all is lost if they are left to their own devices, the pioneers fall to their knees and pray, “Help us, O God. Save our crops.”
They rise from their knees as, amazed, they suddenly hear the sounds of birds crying and soaring overhead. “We are doomed!” they cry. “What the crickets don’t’ destroy, these hungry birds will devour!”
But no. The birds descend on the fields, yes, but not to devour the grain. Instead they gulp up crickets by the millions. The gulls continue their work all day, as the Saints stand in awe and watch. Then they fall to their knees in a prayer of thanksgiving, as the film concludes with a view of the Brigham Young Monument and the narrator pays tribute to the mighty Brigham Young and the intrepid faith of his God-fearing followers.
Wrangell took many liberties with actual history, of course, and his narration was apparently somewhat overwrought. But it was effective – according to report, it wasn’t only Mormon audiences who cheered at the end of the short film in tribute to a people who could not be conquered. When the film was sent to England the following year, it was seen by more than a million moviegoers in its first two months there – an important contrast to the viciously anti-Mormon films that had swept through Britain 15 years earlier.
And no, I don’t know (yet) whether copies of this short film survive. I hope so.