Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Brigham Young: Frontiersman (Fox, 1940)


A premake of The Ten Commandments

At the end of the 1930s big A-picture Westerns came back into fashion and Fox’s contribution was to put its major star Tyrone Power, who wasn’t accustomed to wearing a Stetson, in its Technicolor blockbuster Jesse James (1939), directed by big name Henry King, with Henry Fonda as brother Frank and Randolph Scott as a sympathetic lawman. It was a huge box-office hit. In 1940 the studio followed up with the Fritz Lang-directed The Return of Frank James, with Fonda again, but of course Tyrone couldn’t be in that, having been shot in the back by Bob Ford the year before (though he did a rehearsal of that bit as a cameo in the first reel of Return). So the big boss Darryl Zanuck decided to use glitzy star Power in another Western, alongside their female lead Linda Darnell, and he put together a biopic of Mormon leader Brigham Young.
Bromfield got the credit


It was to star Dean Jagger as Young. I am a big Jagger fan as far as Westerns go (in fact he was a fine actor all round), and I think he was outstanding in oaters such as Western Union (1941), Pursued (1947), Rawhide (1951) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), among many others. But those pictures were still in the future, and in 1940 Jagger was hardly a megastar. Zanuck thought the movie needed a more stellar line-up, and so cast Power and Darnell, in dramatically but not commercially lesser roles, to pep it up at the box-office. It worked. So much so that Zanuck paired Power and Darnell again later the same year to do a big Zorro picture.


Henry Hathaway was to direct. Hathaway was by this time one of the biggest Hollywood names there was, rivaling John Ford, William A Wellman and Howard Hawks, and like them he was famously tyrannical on the set. One crew member said later that Hathaway was a little dictator. Everyone had to be very careful about everything to avoid his wrath. Working with him was “like having a rattlesnake in one’s pocket”. Darnell said later that it was a far from happy set, and she felt ostracized by Hathaway and Power. Hathaway had cut his directorial teeth on Westerns, at Paramount in the early 30s, helming one-hour talkie versions of the Zane Grey tales the studio had bought the rights to. In 1936 he had done a bigger picture, with Fred MacMurray and Henry  Fonda, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, though that was a semi-Western rather than a full-blown sagebrush saga. Other almost-Westerns followed, pictures like The Shepherd of the Hills and Ten Gentlemen from West Point, before he achieved real Western fame directing excellent oaters such as Rawhide (with Power again), Garden of Evil with Gary Cooper, From Hell to Texas with Don Murray, and several with John Wayne, most notably the great True Grit in 1969.


Curiously, in some ways, Brigham Young was shot in black & white. For such an expensive picture – it was budgeted at a then huge $2.5m – one might have expected it to be in Technicolor, as Jesse James and The Return of Frank James were. But in fact the picture was shot so artistically that the black & white because a plus point. The DP was Arthur C Miller, a master of monochrome, who won three Oscars and was nominated for no fewer than four other pictures. In the key of Western he photographed The Ox-Bow Incident and The Gunfighter, both in black & white and both superb pictures. Brigham Young contains some breathtaking shots, and while the film definitely has its weaknesses, as a visual spectacle it is truly remarkable, and worth seeing for this alone.


Miller a great talent


No expense was spared on the locations, the trek scenes being shot at Kanab, Utah, the cricket-infestations in Elko, Nevada (with quite brilliant filming) and Big Bear Lake, Mount Whitney and Lone Pine locations used for various other scenes.


Very impressive


There is quite a history of Hollywood movies featuring Mormons. It dates back at least to filmings of Zane Grey’s anti-Mormon novel Riders of the Purple Sage, though some film versions, such as the Tom Mix silent of 1925, cut out any mention of the religion, presumably to avoid upsetting anyone (and perhaps to sell more tickets in Salt Lake theaters). Brigham Young, though, was a pro-Mormon picture, almost hagiography, to be honest, and the Saints are all-American lovers of liberty who are only exercising their constitutional rights. They are persecuted by bigoted bullies. Most of the cast were not Mormon (though the doctor was played by Moroni Olsen, which might give a clue). Jagger in fact became a Mormon years later.


The writers were Louis Bromfield and Lamar Trotti, though Bromfield got far more credit. It was Bromfield’s only Western. Trotti would work for Wellman on Ox-Bow and Yellow Sky, and for Ford on Drums along the Mohawk, so he knew a thing or two.


Writers Bromfield and Trotti


They had a slight problem with the plot, though. Driven out of Illinois by vicious thugs, Young leads his people to the safety of Mexican territory. Before getting to the Great Salt Lake, though (then part of Mexico), a faction doesn’t want to settle in that desert land but wants to go on to California because gold has been discovered there. OK, neat plot device. The only snag is that the Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847 (a date now recognized as Pioneer Day in Utah) while gold wasn’t found in California until January 1848 and news of it didn’t circulate widely until the summer of ’48. Oh well.


Amusingly, Jane Darwell, who had played Tyrone’s mother in Jesse James, was again his ma here. He probably ended up calling her Mom. Darwell would again join a Mormon wagon train, for John Ford, this time, in Wagonmaster, ten years later, another favorable portrayal of Mormons: Ford’s are cheery folk who stop for a dance every ten miles.


With his wheelwright mom


A major problem with the film is the pacing. Designed as a sweeping epic, it came in at 114 minutes, which was too long for the action. Brian Garfield described the movie as “turgid as molasses”. Myself, I’m not quite sure that turgid is the word, which I understand to mean over-ornate, bombastic or pompous. It isn’t really these things. But it is slow-moving and ponderous, and it is also piously sentimental – not a good combination. It is certainly far from Hathaway’s best picture, to say the least.


Hathaway himself thought the film very good. He said that the hardest kind of picture to make was the wagon train one, closely followed by the religious epic. Brigham Young combined the two. Not everyone agreed, however. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times opined, “Reluctantly, then, we must state that the picture is much more tedious than Brigham’s life must have been … For pretty close to two hours the picture rumbles ponderously across the screen, groaning under the weight of much patient suffering on the part of all.” Crowther did at least add, “Considering the restrictions imposed by a heavy story and slow direction, the cast does uniformly well.”


The cast is strong, I will say that. Power is a Mormon scout, Jonathan Kent, while Darnell is Zina Webb, ‘The Outsider’, a non-Mormon who participates in the trek. They fall for each other, naturally, and provide the (monogamous) love interest. Daringly, they share a wagon, though their beds are curtained off one from the other. He proposes to her from one side of this floral curtain but she has dozed off and doesn’t reply. I don’t blame her too much. Kent isn’t exactly a firebrand, and Tyrone was not really at his zippy best. His ma, Darwell, is shot by an anti Mormon lout and expires on the way, her son leaving her a carved wheel as a grave marker. Sweet, huh.


Dramatically minor roles but big names on the lobby cards


Brian Donlevy has a part as the bolshie rival to Young. He wanted to become leader of the Mormons and regards Young as a usurper, and at every stage he is there to whip up opposition. Of course it is he who proposes to go for the gold.


He gets a bit tiresome and his part is repetitive

Vincent Price is rather good as Joseph Smith in the first reel.


Price rather good as Smith



He is most unfairly convicted of treason by a prejudiced jury, whipped up by a scurrilous rabble rousing  lawyer (Marc Lawrence) but before the judge can sentence him a mob comes and shoots him to death in Carthage jail. The film makers missed an opportunity here because in historical fact Smith defended himself with a pepperbox derringer, so that would have lifted the picture, but he is shown as unarmed and mercilessly shot down, tumbling from the jail window. All the business of the split among the Mormons and the bitter factions is not mentioned at all. They are (apart from Donlevy) united in solidarity and Smith is basically a martyr.


The best other part was John Carradine as Porter Rockwell. Carradine was of course one of the greats of the Western, starting in the genre in one of those Hathaway Paramount Zane Grey pictures, and being very memorable as the gambler Hatfield in Stagecoach, assassin Bob Ford in Jesse James, Old Tom in Johnny Guitar, and Major Cassius Starbuckle in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, to name but a very few. Rockwell is a juicy part, of course, and Carradine gives it his all.


Probably the best part


We briefly meet Jim Bridger too, played by Arthur Aylesworth, not a great star, I fear. So often the great Bridger is only allotted a tiny cameo, and this is another of those occasions. Porter Rockwell and Jim Bridger have a frog race.


Stanley Andrews is Joseph Smith’s brother Hyrum, also killed in Carthage jail, Fuzzy Knight is in charge of the Mormons’ music, Tully Marshall is the lugubrious judge (he should have been Jim Bridger, as he was in Fighting Caravans), Russell Simpson the Great has a ride-on bit-part as an Army major, and Hank Worden is listed as “Mormon Cheering Porter (uncredited)”, though I didn’t spot him.


Jagger impressive as a Mosaic Brigham Young


Some scenes are frankly superb, especially the “wolf hunt” at the beginning when a crazed mob hunts the Mormons, the attack on the jail, the crossing of the frozen river, some of the wagon train shots on the long trek, and the extraordinary plague of locusts and the miraculous arrival of seagulls to destroy them.


The movie was a sort of premake of The Ten Commandments, with Jagger as Moses receiving the word of God and leading his oppressed people into the Promised Land.


The mob come for the Mormons


Nearing said Promised Land, the Mormons meet up with some potentially hostile Indians, but the chief, Big Elk (Chief John Big Tree) assures them that his people too have been unjustly persecuted, so the Mormons are brothers, and welcome to stay. Young makes the most of this,
telling the Mormons that the land is theirs and that they can hunt the game to their hearts’ content, which wasn’t really what the chief had said, but, well, the Mormons are white.


Polygamy is hardly mentioned. At Fort Bridger there’s a brief exchange when Jim asks, “How many – ?” and Young promptly replies, “Twelve.” We must imagine the end of the question and the uxorious answer. But the picture stresses the devotion of Young to his No. 1 wife, Mary-Ann (Mary Astor), presumably to satisfy the Hays Office. Clearly the film makers didn’t want to frighten the horses, so little else is said. It was difficult to have polygamous goodies in 1940. The creed of Smith and Young is quite communalist. All land must be held in common. This too wasn’t terribly American (the Soviets weren’t yet the good guys in the world war) but it’s glossed over.


They cross the frozen river


It all ends with a view of the modern Salt Lake City, to show how the pioneers had succeeded and American civilization had been established thanks to their efforts (a scene ‘borrowed’ for the later How the West was Won).


According to a MovieTone newsreel the Salt Lake City opening, a month before the New York one, was the largest première in film history. 215,000 people crowded the streets to watch a massive parade, planned by Zanuck, complete with floats and race cars with the stars riding in them. The Mayor named that August 23rd ‘Brigham Young Day’- the first and only.


It didn’t do spectacularly well at the box-office though. The top ten grossing movies that year were dominated by Disney (it was the year of Fantasia and Pinocchio) and MGM (Rebecca, Boom Town and The Philadelphia Story) and Fox didn’t get a look in.


As I mentioned above, the critical reaction was fairly negative too.


Myself, I don’t care overmuch for this picture. I have nothing against Mormons per se but a lot of it definitely sticks in the craw. Visually it’s very fine, and the acting is on the whole pretty good, so it’s probably worth seeing once, but honestly, that’s it.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Comments