Monday, February 6, 2017

The 1917 anti-Mormon penny dreadful film that was a hit


"A Mormon Maid" is an intensely fascinating time-capsule silent melodrama. It is very. anti-Mormon, a filmed polemic against the unpopular religion. Remember its era: Professional anti-Mormon apostate Frank J, Cannon was peddling his book to magazine installments and big sales; he was also a draw on the Chautauqua circuit.

Even that more famous anti-Mormon silent, "Trapped By the Mormons," was still several years away. "Trapped ..." had played in SLC as an historical novelty. I saw it about 25 years ago at the Tower Theater. Frankly, "A Mormon Maid," -- a link to watch it is at the end of this post -- merits more ink than "Trapped ..." which was peddled more or less as an independent (meaning it was not a major release).

"A Mormon Maid" was a bigger release, with a major company of the time, Lasky. It has name stars in Noah Beery Sr. and then-popular starlet Mae Murray, who takes the title role. Murray's the type of silent star who prompted tens of thousands of teenage girls to dream about moving to Hollywood and being discovered.

"A Mormon Maid" jabs at the church are more personal and cutting. Some church avengers are styled after the Ku Klux Klan ("Birth of a Nation" seems to have been an influence.) The avengers, and faithful Mormons, wear garb that is distantly related to temple garb that Mormons consider sacred. Perhaps the most jarring sight is an apron with pictures of plants sown on the aprons. I'll leave things at that. The garb, though, also looks silly at times, with a large "all-seeing eye" in the middle and the men with cloaks over their heads.


Mormons who view this in 2016 will appreciate that the LDS Church 99 years ago was still very unpopular. The long 20th century effort to make Mormonism more palatable to the public, other churches and businesses, was in its early stages.

The church leadership did protest "A Mormon Maid" quite vigorously, and may have had some success. According to the AFI films page on "A Mormon Maid" it reads: "that Paramount decided not to distribute the film due to pressure from the Mormon Church. Papers in the Cecil B. DeMille Collection at Brigham Young University indicate that Lasky did not feel that the film was up to company standards." Also, AFI claims that its original 8-reel production was cut to six reels, which puts it a little over an hour.

One more thing is that the Director General of "A Mormon Maid" is Cecil B. DeMille. This was long before he became one of Hollywood's greatest directors. I'm not quite sure what a director general is, but his name is prominent in the credits. The director was Robert Z. Leonard.

A PENNY-DREADFUL MELODRAMA 

I'll provide a quick recap of the film: It's a classic "penny-dreadful" melodrama of the era, a dime novel translated to screen. There are virtually no characterizations; we don't get to know the characters beyond the faintest personalities. The only emotion effectively conveyed is lust, which Beery's evil apostle, Darius Burr, the power behind a surprisingly weak "Lion of the Lord, Brigham Young (Richard Cummings).

Burr lusts after the beautiful, non-Mormon tom-girl Dora Hogue (Murray). I'm digressing; the plot: We open with a faux book intro, accompanied by films of the Mormon pioneers. It's commendable at first, and there are some nice scenes of pioneer wagon teams. But eventually we learn the pioneers are exploited by Young (Cummings plays him as a constipated looking Puritan), the evil apostles, of which Burr is the most evil, and the avenging forces, which prevent any opposition and track down disillusioned members who want to leave.

In the middle of nowhere live the Hogue family, dad John (Hobart Bosworth), mom Nancy (Edythe Chapman) and Dora. A Mormon scout, Tom Rigdon (Frank Borzage) from Salt Lake City informs the Hogues, who are not members, that Indians are about to attack. Dad Hogue wants no help from the Mormons but after the Mormons save the family from an Indian attack (well filmed) they accept an offer to move to Salt Lake City.

Fast forward a couple of years. The Hogues are successful residents, and Dora and Tom are in love. But Apostle Burr wants Dora to be his polygamous bride, so oppression sets in. At a secret meeting with the avengers, family membership in the church is "offered" and Frank can either take a polygamous wife or Dora has to marry Apostle Burr. To save his daughter, Frank takes a second wife. A grief-stricken Nancy commits suicide (rather shockingly shown on screen).

Naturally, evil Burr still lusts for Dora and the remainder of the film involves the Hogues, and Tom, fleeing from, or fighting, the Mormon avengers and the leadership. I'll mention that in one scene Dora rather shrewdly avoids (for a time) coerced marriage with Burr by lying and saying she's not a virgin.

This is a fun film to watch because it shouldn't be taken seriously. It's a history lesson, a silent film polemic that focuses on an easy target. Church members should not be offended. It's a case of the film's theme revealing the vacuousness of its proponents. Because it's 1917, much of the film plays like a stage play; all of the action is comprised on a screen and the camera work is often static. However, there are impressive shots of wagon trains and the heroes trying to escape the Mormon avengers.

"A Mormon Maid" has not been ignored by recent scholars. LDS history blogger Ardis E. Parshall mentioned the film in the Keepapitchinin blog, Parshall writes: "1917’s A Mormon Maid was a rude introduction to popular motion pictures supposedly about Mormonism. Heavily advertised and extremely popular, it played for months in the United States, and was exported to Europe where it also played well."

Parshall's blog is worth a read. It includes newspaper ads for the film. I searched Google for similar ads and one is shared above this post. In 2009, Parshall also wrote about the film, and included a review of a 1987 scholarly appraisal of the film's propaganda value. It was titled "Commercial Propaganda in the Silent Film: A Case Study of 'A Mormon Maid,'" by Richard Alan Nelson, Film History, Vol. 1, No. 2.

A snippet: "The author examines why this particular film, of so many similar ones produced at approximately the same time, was even more successful than the rest and deserves special study. He describes the extremely high production values, the talents of the director, cinematographer, and editor – a powerhouse crew of early movie talent which included Cecil B. DeMille. The skillful direction, filming, and editing of A Mormon Maid created practically a new genre, the docu-drama, which made the tale it told especially believable to a national audience and especially distressing to the Saints. ..."

 So there's just about all you need to know about "A Mormon Maid." I'd like to learn more about it, what DeMille thought of the film, and it'd be fun to see it on the big screen; maybe Salt Lake Film Society or The Egyptian Theater might do that?

Readers can watch the film via YouTube here.

(This post by Doug Gibson was originally published at the Plan9Crunch film blog.)

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