Though a 20th Century Fox script reader suggested a film about the second President and Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. The Mormons), the studio ultimately engaged novelist Louis Broomfield to write a story, carefully outlining the characters and events into a fluid, exciting narrative. Broomfield had been working on a novel about the Mormon's exodus to Salt Lake City, Utah, and his research for that unrealized project gave the story sound grounding for screenwriter Lamar Trotti to expand upon and write most of the film's dialogue.
In his unrelenting commentary, Brigham Young University and film historian James D'Arc – who interviewed director Henry Hathaway in 1983 – gives a humorous breakdown of who likely wrote what for the film's clever blending of authentic facts with Hollywood dramaturgy – a writing conglomeration not very different from today's more fractured studio system; fans of “The Ten Commandments” will also note a lot of thematic parallels with the finished script.
“Brigham Young” (subsequently billed as “Brigham Young – Frontiersman” for 63 years to deter any fears the movie was an all-out religious picture) is also a venue for some overt WW2 references – largely due to producer Darryl F. Zanuck's own commandments that the exodus and plight of the Mormons reflect the persecution of the Nazis against the Jews. D'Arc reads a few extracts from vintage censor complaints regarding the film's scenes of brutalities – which still resonate – that Zanuck retained, and contemporary reviews that praised the film for showing Native Americans beyond the warring stereotypes of the day.
It's a well-balanced historical drama with doses of tolerance, and some fine action scenes – including an incredible cricket infestation that plagued the original Salt Lake settlers. D'Arc delivers fast-paced doses of information with regular pauses – “Now lets look and listen” is his favourite exit phrase – that cover a vast swath of material: the early years of the Mormons as they struggled to find a home state; basics on the Mormon faith without proselytizing; concise bios on the main and secondary cast members and early casting choices; segments from his conversations with veteran director Henry Hathaway; and a really detailed account of the film's development through its various writing stages and location shoots (which ultimately incorporated a few stock shots from Fox's 70mm Grandeur production, “The Big Trail”).
Clearly there's a personal connection between D'Arc and the film, and his personal correspondences – including a letter from Vincent Prince, archived in the disc's supplements – transform the commentary into an enjoyable lecture from a well-researched scholar.
Brigham Young University naturally retains production mementos, and the DVD includes a wealth of materials that are neatly arranged: The Production section includes annotated screenplay excerpts (10), production stills (27), a deleted scene still from the unused “Mothers With Graves” scene; and Special Effects (3), which adds visual evidence of the amazing cricket sequence, as recounted by D'Arc with readings from Mary Astor's vivid memoirs.
Premiere offers a vintage Movietone newsreel of the Salt Lake City premiere, and primarily captures the huge street parade – which attracted a reported 215,000 people – with cast and production members touring in cars, along with Fox contract star Cesar Romero. 18 Premiere Stills enhance the day's events – from screenings at seven theatres – plus shots from the Hollywood premiere.
Publicity & Promotion adds 6 movie posters, 8 lobby cards, 15 Campaign & Press Materials (unique for the U.S. campaign, “The Great American Motion Picture,” and the British campaign, re-touted as “The Romantic Spectacle of the Year”), and 4 examples from a 1958 Italian Picture Book (a “fumetti,” re-titled “The Grand Mission”).
Beyond the Feature adds five close views of a letter from Vincent Price to D'Arc regarding his sentiments and memories of the film, and his beautiful performance (a real standout, at age 29, before his iconoclastic horror persona developed a decade later); and comparative stills between the real Brigham Young, and co-star Dean Jagger. (The film and DVD's star billing reflects the decision to use recognized stars – Power and Price – who appear in secondary roles, over the titular character, played by then-unknown Jagger.)
Fox's print is very clean, save for a hairline scratch that occasionally reappears in the right side of the frame, but it's not wholly distracting. The film's original mono and pseudo-stereo mix offer a good balance between dialogue, sound effects, and Alfred Newman's score.
While not part of the Studio Classics Collection, this DVD certainly carries over the now-standard set of extras that make Fox's elite line one of the richest mines of film history for avid movie buffs.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan