Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Tonight's Movie: Brigham Young (1940)

BRIGHAM YOUNG, also known by the title BRIGHAM YOUNG: FRONTIERSMAN, is well-made historical fiction about the Mormon wagon train migration to Utah. While not a classic, it is a good example of solid studio craftsmanship which compares well to other wagon train epics such as John Ford's WAGON MASTER (1950), another film about Mormon pioneers, or 1951's WESTWARD THE WOMEN.

Dean Jagger plays the title role, while Vincent Price plays Mormon church founder Joseph Smith. Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell provide romantic appeal as a young couple who are part of the wagon train. The excellent supporting cast also includes Mary Astor, Brian Donlevy, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Ann E. Todd, Dickie Jones, and Moroni Olsen.

A fun piece of cast trivia is that Moroni Olsen was the voice of the Magic Mirror in Disney's SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES, while Dickie Jones was the voice of Disney's PINOCCHIO.

The film strikes a good balance between treating the Mormons with respect, including sympathetically depicting their fortitude facing persecution and the rugged journey west, while it also gently addresses a couple of the more controversial issues in Mormon history. Brigham Young having more than one wife is tacitly acknowledged by the presence of Jean Rogers as a junior wife to Mary Astor; when I saw the film as a child, I think I thought Rogers was playing their daughter (grin), as the relationships are never overtly spelled out. The existence of Young's other wives is hinted at by a single shot into the back of his wagon. Also, at one point in the film, Linda Darnell's non-Mormon character challenges Power on polygamy and makes clear she's not interested in that if he wishes for her to be his wife.

One of the film's best assets is extensive location shooting outside Lone Pine and at Big Bear Lake, California, as well as Kanab, Utah (site of the filming of WESTWARD THE WOMEN a decade later) and Elko, Nevada. There was an actual cricket "plague" in Nevada during the shooting of the film, so rather than staging a cricket sequence with special effects, as originally planned, planes were chartered to Nevada and the cast was filmed battling actual crickets, which proved to be such a harrowing experience that four planned days of filming were condensed into two.

It's interesting to note that along with all the location filming, the movie also incorporates a generous helping of stock footage from 1930's THE BIG TRAIL, due for release on DVD next month.

Alfred Newman's score seemed incredibly familiar, and by doing some Googling I learned that the theme music was reused in 1948's YELLOW SKY and 1951's RAWHIDE, both reviewed here in 2007.

The DVD has a commentary by BYU film historian James D'Arc which is one of the finest commentaries I've heard to date. D'Arc skillfully interweaves comparisons between the film and the historical record and also provides a wealth of information on every aspect of the film's production history, including the casting, location shoots, special effects shots, sets, musical score, and much, much more. I cannot recommend this commentary highly enough.

This was released the same year as Power and Darnell's classic THE MARK OF ZORRO; few film couples in movie history were as stunningly attractive as this pair, who made four movies together. Their first film, DAYTIME WIFE, will be part of the upcoming Tyrone Power Collection. Their final film together was BLOOD AND SAND.

BRIGHAM YOUNG was directed by Henry Hathaway. It was shot in black and white and runs 114 minutes.

BRIGHAM YOUNG is also available on video.


Blogger Moira Finnie said...

Laura, I saw this entire film recently for the first time and was amused by portions of it, (esp. the glossing over of Young's marital status) and Brian Donlevy's ill-fitting moustache, Mary Astor's understandably worried look (she was probably wondering how many of these thankless roles were in her future), and, of course, there was the unsettling sight of Dean Jagger with hair.

I was touched by Tyrone Power & Linda Darnell's on-screen chemistry but kept wondering what in the world made anyone think that the normally excellent composer/conductor Alfred Newman should write a bombastic, intrusive, cacophonous musical theme for EVERY scene? There was never a moment when that annoying, tuneless score didn't make me strain to hear the dialogue. Imagine my surprise when reading your account of the re-use of the score in the much better films, Wellman's YELLOW SKY & Hathaway's RAWHIDE. Overall, not a bad movie, but it was hard to become involved in the drama without some reservations. Thanks for the informative review.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Moira! Always wonderful to hear from you. :) Really enjoyed your fun comments and impressions of the film. Thanks for sharing them here! Glad I could provide you with additional info on the use of the score.

Best wishes,

9:44 AM  

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