The 2003 DVD release of 'Brigham Young' (1940). Note that on the box Tyrone Power's name is above his picture, but above the photo of Dean Jagger it says 'Vincent Price.'

For, Friday, July 24, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: The golden-oldie 1940 Hollywood production of ‘Brigham Young’ is an imperfect film but it has much to offer LDS audiences, especially in this special edition that includes copius bonus features, courtesy of BYU’s now-retired archivist Jim D’Arc. It came out 17 years ago and is most appropriate for a Pioneer Day that requires us to remain indoors during a pandemic. This column was published in the Deseret News on July 18, 2003, under the headline ‘ “Brigham Young” DVD release is coup for viewers.’ (As a footnote, referencing the last paragraph of this column, a lot of old movies still languish unseen and unavailable in studio vaults, proof that the once-touted belief that EVERYTHING would one day be available to viewers simply isn’t true.)

The release of "Brigham Young" on DVD is a real coup; this underrated, largely forgotten film from Hollywood's Golden Age deserves an audience.

And considering all the contemporary movies on DVD that make disparaging Mormon jokes ("Training Day," "Two Weeks Notice") or portray negative Mormon characters ("Donnie Brasco," "Ocean's Eleven"), it's a relief to have a disc out there that offers something more positive.

"Brigham Young" is a major-studio feature-length motion picture about Mormons that depicts them in a favorable light — and it was probably the first movie to do so.

During the silent era, there were some 40 pictures released that could be characterized as "anti-Mormon," dark films that falsely (and often ridiculously) portrayed the LDS Church and its missionaries as unsavory characters, and often as violent criminals.

Then, in 1934, Hollywood invoked the Production Code, a censorship board, which, among other things, decreed that religion could not be ridiculed in American movies. As a result, Mormons weren't seen onscreen during the 1930s. It was as if moviemakers decided that if they couldn't show Mormons as stock villains, they wouldn't show them at all.


Vincent Price, left, as Joseph Smith, and romantic leads Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell in ‘Brigham Young’ (1940).

In 1939, Darryl F. Zanuck, chief of 20th Century Fox, began developing a big-budget biography of Brigham Young, to include the exodus of persecuted Mormons from the East to the Salt Lake Valley.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints got involved in the project and the film was released with great fanfare the next year.

The black-and-white epic featured newcomer Dean Jagger in the title role, with a romantic subplot provided by Tyrone Power, as one of the Mormon pioneers, and Linda Darnell, as a woman traveling with them who is not a member of the church.

Vincent Price, long before his status as a horror star, was cast as Joseph Smith, with veteran character actor John Carradine providing comic relief as Porter Rockwell. Other well-known supporting players of the time included Jane Darwell, Brian Donlevy and, as a wife of Brigham, Mary Astor.

This new DVD release of "Brigham Young" has a lot to offer, with an array of fascinating supplementary materials provided by BYU's film archives, highlighted by a fascinating newsreel of the Hollywood-style premiere in Salt Lake City, complete with the film's stars, Utah's governor and Salt Lake’s mayor, LDS Church President Heber J. Grant and thousands of Utahns in attendance — so many that the film premiered that night in seven Salt Lake theaters!

We can thank curator James V. D'Arc for all of this, as he's the one who approached Fox Video and offered to provide materials and an audio commentary for the film. At first, Fox officials balked but they eventually went forward with the project.

As a result, in addition to the newsreel, advertising materials, a photo gallery and a personal letter from Vincent Price discussing his role as Joseph Smith, the optional commentary by D'Arc puts the film into historical perspective. D'Arc points out what's true and what's not, and explains why the film digresses from history for dramatic effect.


John Carradine, left, as Porter Rockwell, with Dean Jagger in the title role of ‘Brigham Young (1940).

On the one hand, it's important to set the record straight, so that those unfamiliar with the LDS Church's history can separate the film's fiction from reality. On the other hand, it's instructive for film buffs who are interested in how and why history in movies is manipulated for dramatic purposes. D'Arc understands the process better than most and his comments are illuminating.

It should be mentioned that the flaw in D'Arc's commentary is that he often leans too heavily on film-buff minutia; he tries to include too much about too many players, rattling off mini-biographies of minor actors, to include mini-resumes of obscure movie titles. It's simply too much spoken information and occasionally dulls the effect.

As for the film itself, the transfer is good, but the source print is the same as the 1995 videotape release, with a faint scratch that is noticeable in the center of the film. Too bad a digital cleanup can't be afforded every DVD title.

And on the box, Tyrone Power's name is above his face, but above Dean Jagger's is "Vincent Price"!

These complaints are mere carping, of course. For the most part, everything about this DVD is superior and supremely satisfying.

And let's remember that if D'Arc had not approached Fox, the film would still be gathering dust in the studio's archives. After all, as D'Arc was initially told, "Brigham Young" isn't "The Grapes of Wrath" — how big an audience can there be?

Let's hope it's considerable and serves as a wake-up call that many older "obscure" films on studio shelves have a sizable following.