Mormons in the Movies

We’ve chosen the birthday of Joseph Smith (1805-1844) for a post I’ve long been contemplating about Mormons in the Movies.

I have many close Mormon relatives, and some farther afield (including Smith himself) so the topic has been of interest to me since childhood. Because of that, I pay much closer attention to the history and beliefs of that religion than most of my fellow Gentiles (as Mormons call non-believers). I’m deeply interested in all world religions and history, so naturally I find the phenomenon fascinating. Mormonism germinated in the same place, at the same time as spiritualism, feminism, and abolitionism. There was much fervor abroad in the land at the time. Like all human institutions — ALL of them — the story is a stew of heroes and villains and those in the middle, both within the faith and without. There is a lot of drama in their story that is most conducive to storytelling, although until recently, people outside of Mormonism have tended either to avoid it or do it much injustice. But recently the public has been enthralled by such TV shows as Big Love (2006-2011), The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City (2020), Murder Among the Mormons (2021), Under the Banner of Heaven (2022), A Friend of the Family (2022), and their impressive representation on So You Think You Can Dance (2005-) and about 50 other series and reality shows, and of course there are the plays Angels in America (1991) and The Book of Mormon (2011). The subject has been more “top of mind” than it has at any point during my lifetime.

As it happens, we are approaching the bicentennial of the year Smith claimed to have discovered those ancient plates he translated and transcribed, which became the original Book of Mormon (1823). And we are at the centennial anniversary of a movie that was among a spate of films in the silent era that maligned the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: Trapped by the Mormons (1911), or The Mormon Peril (1922) starring Evelyn Brent. If LDS followers think they are too-much trash-talked in contemporary pop culture, they may have forgotten how they were depicted a century ago in movies like the Danish film A Victim of the Mormons, or A Mormon Maid (1917) with Mae Murray, Frank Borzage, Noah Beery Sr, and Hobart Bosworth, or in books like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1887 Sherlock Holmes mystery A Study in Scarlet. I won’t pretend that I regard all those polygamist elders as the “Saints” they claimed to be, but there’s something equally “Q-Anon” about imagining them as a tribe of monsters bent on kidnapping damsels. Around mid 20th century, there was a bit of a sweet spot in terms of Hollywood depictions, with things like the bio-pic Brigham Young (1940) starring Tyrone Guthrie, and John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950).

Naturally, there is a whole huge industry of Mormon cinema, created and consumed by LDS members, which I can’t pretend to have explored. But when I come across people raised in the Mormon faith during my classic show biz rambles, I’m usually careful to note them. I thought I would bundle them together in this post for those to whom it might be interest. These include Maude Adams (the original Peter Pan), stage and screen star Hazel Dawn, director James Cruze, Rambova (Winifred Shaugnessy, wife of Valentino), silent comedian Mack Swain , B movie dame Marie Windsor, actor Robert Walker (Strangers on a Train), actress Laraine Day (Foreign Correspondent), Carol Ohmart (House on Haunted Hill), pin-up/starlet Joi Lansing, director Hal Ashby, Wilford Brimley, Amy Adams, and of course The Osmonds. Rosanne Barr, though Jewish, was raised “partially” Mormon. Jared and Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) are Mormons. The controversial Neil LaBute used to be one.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on early film history read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.