Only a mystery and a whiff of scandal remains of the pioneering
silent movie One Hundred Years of Mormonism.
by Lynn Kenneth Packer
In the last 20 years, films by and about Mormons have become a staple of Utah’s entertainment culture. Productions, ranging in quality from Singles Ward (rom-com) to Brigham City (well-crafted small-town whodunit) and Saints and Soldiers (World War II combat drama), have become part of the on-going dialogue defining contemporary Mormon cinema.
But it all began a century ago when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints entered the film making business to defend itself against anti-Mormon propaganda. Only a tantalizing few hundred frames of the 1913 silent movie One Hundred Years of Mormonism survive and the complete story behind the film’s production is only now being brought to light. The pioneering religious epic proves how early the LDS church embraced cutting-edge communications, in this case, moving pictures, to spread its story and defend itself. Newly discovered records also indicate the early-Hollywood promoters who made the film may have swindled their investors, including the Mormon leaders who initially endorsed the film. Researchers say details on the lost film’s murky history may be buried in the confidential vault where the church keeps its most sensitive secrets.Cinematic Pioneer
One Hundred Years of Mormonism, chronicling the history of the Utah-based faith, was among the first multiple-reel feature films that launched movies as a wildly popular entertainment. Film historian Phil Hall, whose latest book, In Search of Lost Films, was released last year, says One Hundred Years has “very great historical significance.” He devoted a chapter to the Mormon epic as a pioneer of faith-based popular cinema—ultimately to be followed by such Hollywood staples as The Ten Commandments, The Robe, Ben Hur and Spartacus.
“At the time it was produced,” Hall says, “there was very little in the way of faith-based cinema. So having a feature-length film on the founding of a uniquely American religion was unprecedented. That the film has been lost for so many years, unfortunately, has diluted its importance among many film scholars who don’t realize this was a very significant first step in the development of faith-based cinema.”
Neither Hall’s book nor scholarly articles, however, delve into the murky relationship between the film’s California-based producers, who hoped for huge profits, and Mormon Church authorities, who saw the film as a counterbalance to sensationalized anti-Mormon films that were hampering the church’s missionary efforts. One Hundred Years of Mormonism was the first of what became repeated attempts by the Mormon Church to put a romanticized version of its history in front of movie-going audiences.
The church was galvanized in 1911 by an anti-Mormon potboiler from Denmark, A Victim of the Mormons. Victim was one of the world’s first multi-reel feature films and included a car chase scene, dramatic twists and hints of polygamous sex that enthralled audiences. An early industry magazine, The Moving Picture World, sided with the Mormon Church, calling Victim “a bad use of the moving picture. The stirring up of religious prejudice, the opening of old wounds, the renewal of bitterness is to be condemned utterly and without reservation.”
But some things remain the same in film marketing and the Mormon Church’s efforts to stop screenings of A Victim of the Mormons only drove the movie’s box office upwards.
New York film mogul William H. Swanson, a friend of the LDS Church, offered another way, according to Brigham Young University historians Brian Cannon and Jacob Olmstead. “He encouraged Church leaders to commission their own film about Mormonism.” In 1912, “with the memory of their brush with anti-Mormon films fresh in their minds, Church authorities entered into a cooperative agreement with the Ellaye Motion Picture Company to produce a 90-minute feature.”
It proved savvy advice. When One Hundred Years of Mormonism premiered in Salt Lake City in 1913, it packed theaters. Moviegoers were treated to a six-reel epic, tracing Mormon history with scenes of heavenly visions, persecutions, mobs, assassination and a heroic pioneer migration. One Hundred Years cemented the religion in viewers’ minds in a positive way—even though many of the film’s scenes distorted mythology. For example, the depiction of church founder Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon didn’t jibe with the church’s witness accounts of how Smith used a “seer”stone.
Even though One Hundred Years of Mormonism may be responsible for a century’s worth of doctrinally questionable drawings, paintings and later film re-enactments, to most of the riveted viewers, such details were unimportant.
An Epic’s Fail
In the end, One Hundred Years failed to gain traction outside of Utah, even after new exciting scenes were added. Film historian Hall says the film also was plagued with financial problems, creative differences with the church and possibly fraud. “The film world in the 1910s was full of, for lack of a better word, con artists,” Hall says. “There was a great deal of bootlegging going on with films that were in release; there was a lot of financial chicanery.” Ellaye Motion Picture Co.’s owners, Hall says, likely saw One Hundred Years “as a get-rich-quick scheme.” Film historians are still trying to sort out the complicated shell game the church had unwittingly played.
In 1978, LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball renewed the call for a great Mormon film. “Our writers, our motion picture specialists, with the inspiration of heaven,” he said, “should tomorrow be able to produce a masterpiece which would live forever.”
At a hundred years and counting, a blockbuster Mormon movie continues to elude the Church and independent Mormon filmmakers.