Mormons and Film: 100 Years on the Silver Screen

From the earlier, sweeping stereotypes popular in the anti-Mormon cinema of the early 1900s (and Church efforts to neutralize these films with its own productions), to the evolution of a modern LDS film industry, the history of Mormon film is a dynamic one, full of twists and turns along the way.

Lights, Camera, Action

At the same time movies first appeared in the 1890s, the Church was also experiencing an important cultural revolution: a shift from pioneer isolation to modern integration. The manifesto ending polygamy came in 1890, and the Salt Lake Temple was dedicated in 1893, concretely ending the pioneer period. Additionally, by the 1890s, Church leaders stopped counseling converts to move to Utah, marking the end of the gathering period. The Church was now ready to engage the world, and there was no better opportunity for this than through the new medium of film.

The beginning of Mormon filmmaking came in 1898, coinciding with cinema's silent era. Many films in this early period were either sensationalist pictures aimed at exploiting the Church's peculiar history, or films made in response to them by the Church and those sympathetic to it.

The greatest legacy of the anti-Mormon films was, ironically, that they sparked an appreciation for motion pictures within the Church. The Church acted quickly to take advantage of this new medium and gain a level platform with its attackers. Joseph F. Smith, other Church leaders, and Church members began searching for opportunities to put the Mormon story as they saw it on the big screen.

Roll Out the Red Carpet: The Church Enters Filmmaking

In June 1912, the Church itself struck a deal with the California-based Utah Moving Picture Company to create One Hundred Years of Mormonism, which followed the Church from Joseph Smith's infancy to the development of modern Utah, and its scale was truly gigantic for its time.

One Hundred Years of Mormonism opened on Monday, February 3, 1913, at the Salt Lake Theatre in the largest premiere in the city's history, with other copies of the film opening on the West Coast and traveling through the eastern states with a live lecturer, to give everyone a chance to see the approved version of Mormon history.

Reviews of the film were mixed: Audiences were reported to have burst into applause, yet James E. Talmage recorded that it contained "many crudities and historical inaccuracies." Its faults notwithstanding, One Hundred Years of Mormonism is without a doubt the most important LDS film of the silent era.

Hollywood Comes Around

By the 1930s, Church leaders did not feel the same compelling to produce positive films about the faith in order to counter prejudiced mainstream depictions. To the delight of Latter-day Saints, Hollywood would do this for them.

Without question Twentieth Century Fox's Brigham Young (1940) was the highest-profile film on Mormonism yet. Church historians and authorities, including President Heber J. Grant himself, were involved extensively in the project.

Brigham Young's plot follows the Saints from their persecutions in Nauvoo to the establishment of Salt Lake City. Though this is the main storyline, a great deal of screen time is given to the love affair between the Mormon scout Jonathan Kent and a non-Mormon girl named Zina Webb, with the romantic roles played by the studio's then-top stars, Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell. Brigham Young was played by the unknown Dean Jagger, a stage actor making his film debut, and Joseph Smith Jr. was played by the up-and-coming screen and theater actor Vincent Price. Producer Daryl Zanuck was so committed to the movie that it was one of the last big-budget films before World War II, with costs of $1,850,000.

After a private screening, President Grant released a heartfelt statement of gratitude, and the film (which took on the subtitle Frontiersman on the Eastern Seaboard) opened August 23, 1940, with the largest premiere in American history to that point. Brigham Young, even with its fictional elements, was a public relations victory of the highest order. But LDS filmmaking was about to see its most important growth yet, in its "coming of age."

A Judge for Mormon Films

The Classical Era of Mormon Cinema (1953–74) is the age of Wetzel O. "Judge" Whitaker, who began as a Disney illustrator and ended as the founding father of LDS film.

Whitaker was noticed by Church authorities when Apostles Harold B. Lee, Mark E. Petersen, and Matthew Cowley were touring Walt Disney Studios, looking for ideas on how to promote the Church's new welfare program. During the visit, Whitaker suggested that he and other Latter-day Saints might be able to make a film if the Church paid for the materials. (He later described this as "kind of a rash offer.") After deliberation in Salt Lake, the General Welfare Committee accepted. Walt Disney himself approved the project with a promise to help however needed. One film quickly turned into two, and work continued for two full years.

Halfway through the process, Whitaker, weighed down by the responsibility, felt prompted to seek a special blessing from his stake patriarch. In this blessing, he was told that "the time will come when you will be called to an assignment which will literally revolutionize the teaching methods of the Church. Thousands of people throughout the Church will know of the work you will do and will bless you and those associated with you." Little did he know that within just five years, in 1953, he would begin full-time work to establish the Department of Motion Picture Production at BYU and make it the hub of LDS films.

At BYU, Whitaker deemed it prudent to start with smaller projects, like a short promotional film B. Y. and You. The results were encouraging, and soon his group could undertake major projects for the Presiding Bishop's office, beginning with Come Back, My Son, a classic story of "a smoking and card-playing deacon" who is brought back to full Church activity. This film was the first of a series intended to build morale, as well as train and inspire Church members in their duties. President McKay was so pleased that he determined Come Back, My Son would be shown at the April 1954 general conference. With the full support of the Church and BYU, Whitaker and his team were completing a film roughly every two to three months by the end of 1955.

Eventually, Ernest Wilkinson was able to boast in 1963 that not only were BYU and University of Southern California the only American universities with motion picture production studios, but BYU's was "much the larger of the two programs."

Judge Whitaker, who died in 1985, has had more influence on LDS filmmaking than any other person. Church films became central to Mormon culture and created a doctrinal, cultural, and aesthetic touchstone for all Latter-day Saints, to the point that today it is difficult to conceive of the Church without its films and videos. What would church lessons, general training meetings, or the temple be without motion pictures?

The World Becomes Our Stage

BYU's booming film department meant that bigger and better productions were possible. The first such opportunity came in 1961 when the Presiding Bishopric requested a film on tithing in response to a crisis in the Church's finances. The script for the movie, Windows of Heaven, was based on a similar situation from the past: Lorenzo Snow's 1899 tithing reformation, with most of the emphasis placed on the promise of rain in the parched city of St. George. Judge Whitaker was determined to make it their finest production yet.

The effort paid off. Not only did the film, which premiered in March 1963, deeply impress President McKay, who had known President Snow personally, but it became one of BYU's most popular pictures for years to come.

As soon as Windows of Heaven was complete, the film studio undertook an equally ambitious project, which could provide new levels of positive exposure for the Church. This was Man's Search for Happiness, meant as the central attraction for the 1964 New York World's Fair in Queens. An estimated six million people saw the film at the fair, and it was thereafter used for years as a missionary tool. In terms of missionary work, Man's Search for Happiness is probably the most important film the studio has made: after the fair, in New York City alone, baptisms tripled from 1963 to 1964.

Over the next few decades, LDS filmmaking would enter a stage of mass media-advances in technology and electronic distribution, widespread circulation, a greater production volume, and massive - even epic - films (such as Legacy). And though official Church productions would continue to abound and serve as instruction and missionary tools, a wholly new aspect of LDS filmmaking was on the horizon: successful Mormon feature films.

Hollywood Meets Mollywood

A successful LDS feature film has been the holy grail of Mormon cinema since the first decade of the twentieth century. But, due to a larger — and more diverse—LDS market, confidence in LDS filmmakers for what their audiences desired, and archives of artistic precedent to draw from, success finally came to a slew of films in the early 2000s. Unlike earlier feature films, however, these new Mormon productions were aimed squarely at Latter-day Saints (with the exception of Disney's The Other Side of Heaven). These began with The Singles Ward (2002), which was produced at the new company HaleStorm Entertainment. The film, an autobiographical comedy by screenwriter John Moyer, addressed Mormonism by focusing on corny references to Utah culture such as Jell-O and minor local celebrities. Audiences appreciated its self-conscious humor, and the movie's sheer novelty made it immensely popular, causing it to gross over $1.2 million.

This set off a string of similar movies — including Halestorm's The RM (2003), The Home Teachers (2004), and Church Ball (2006) - which received lukewarm reviews but quickly established HaleStorm as a popular brand. Success brought more filmmakers; more filmmakers brought competition; and competition signaled that Mormon films were no longer small-time. The LDS film genre had become an industry.

In the commercial market, The Singles Ward set the trend for the first years of the LDS cinema boom. The landmark film was soon followed by titles such as Charly (2002), Handcart (2002), The Book of Mormon Movie (2003), Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-day Comedy (2004), Saints and Soldiers (2004), and The Work and the Glory: Pillar of Light (2004). Artistic quality varied, but by 2004 the films appeared to be improving. In particular, The Best Two Years (2004) and Saints and Soldiers were critical and popular favorites.

However, over the next three years, commercial and artistic disasters (like The Book of Mormon Movie and Handcart) caused movie-goers to sour. As audiences and investors grew bored with sub-Hollywood quality and Utah catch-phrases, filmmakers began to sense that the honeymoon might be over. LDS filmmakers had reacted against Hollywood's stereotypes but only succeeded in creating their own, and some started dismissing the entire Mormon film movement as "Mollywood." If the Utah in-jokes had alienated Latter-day Saints, then the attempts at crossing over by watering down the Mormonism in films like Pride and Prejudice had failed to reach the mainstream market. By 2005 all the major figures who had created Mormon films were getting out.

Finding a Role: The Future of LDS Cinema

What then remains of popular Mormon films? It's still too early to tell which new LDS filmmakers will succeed in the mainstream industry, but the best bet is on director Jared Hess and those associated with his film Napoleon Dynamite (2004). Most Church members praised the film as an example of Mormonsim made palatable for mainstream society, a sentiment that may put pressure on Mormon filmmakers to return to secular productions.

And while some LDS filmmakers have turned away from attempting Mormon-themed feature films, this does not mean the end of LDS movies. The fact is, many things signal a rebound of LDS cinema: more and more Latter-day Saints are in the entertainment industry; the Church continues to use and implicitly endorse the medium; and Church membership numbers are expanding, especially globally, where Latter-day Saints are hungry for any media about their faith (evidenced by the annual Festival du Film Mormon, held in Brussels starting in February 2007). And despite the superficiality of Mormonism in some movies, LDS characters and themes are increasingly treated with complexity in Church productions, mainstream movies, and independent Mormon films.

This industry will continue to emerge due to all of these conditions and due to a robust, if young, Mormon film culture. Mormon cinema will be able to withstand its own stumbles and move forward.

*Excerpted from "Mormons and Film"; BYU Studies.

The following are a couple more interesting stories involving LDS people and feature films.

LDS Influence on The Ten Commandments

Arnold Friberg could never have known that giving prints of his Book of Mormon paintings to Swedish publisher Herman Stolpe would change his life.

Stolpe later visited Cecil B. DeMille, the famous Hollywood director, who was looking for an artistic director for his upcoming film. DeMille asked Stolpe if he knew of any artists capable of depicting impressive religious scenes, and Stolpe supplied him with Friberg's prints. As a result, DeMille hired Friberg as chief artist-designer to create scenes, sets, and costumes, and provide the whole tone for the film The Ten Commandments.

Starting in 1953, Friberg would spend three years conceptualizing fifteen paintings that would become the basis for the great film's appearance. One of his earlier paintings, The Finger of the Lord (which depicts the Brother of Jared in awe of the finger of God), impressed DeMille so much that it became the basis for Moses' costume in the burning bush scene.

Of Friberg, DeMille said, "Arnold Friberg stands out for his dramatic understanding and truth. He has accomplished a strong and real service in bringing the truth of the Bible to a wider understanding, appreciation, and acceptance."

In recognition for his work on The Ten Commandments, Friberg received an Academy Award nomination.

"Brigham Young" Becomes a Mormon

Little-known theatre actor Dean Jagger, who depicted the title character in Brigham Young, had something special about him. In fact, according to George D. Pyper, a consultant on the film who had actually known the prophet Brigham, said he looked like him, sounded like him, and even had some of the same mannerisms. His portrayal of the "frontiersman" proved to be his breakthrough into film.

Jagger went on to star in White Christmas and Twelve O'Clock High, which earned him an Academy Award for best supporting actor. He also won two Emmys for his television show, Mr. Novak.

Then, in his late 60s, he came back to his breakthrough role, but in a way he may not have expected: after marrying his third wife, the LDS Etta Mae Norton, Jagger was baptized a member of the Church. At the time, one headline read, "'Brigham Young' Becomes a Mormon." Subsequently, he donated his awards, theatrical files, and several scrapbooks to the BYU Library, where they still reside. He died in 1991 at age 87.

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