While we’ve always been vaguely aware of the Mormon film industry, we never realized that its history could be traced back to the very dawn of popular cinema. Nor were we particularly familiar with the brief silent-era vogue for movies that cast Mormons as archvillains, which BYU film historian Gideon Burton identifies as part of the industry’ s “First Wave.” The full knowledge on cinema’s Mormon exploitation movement can be found here, via BYU Studies. (Warning: Massive PDF file.) Our favorite snippet, regarding this over-the-top gem:
Anti-Mormon films reached their zenith with the 1917 A Mormon Maid. Produced by Famous Players-Lasky, the film opened on Valentine’s Day at New York’s Strand Theater. It ran sixty-five minutes on five reels and was described as the most advertised film in the history of cinema up to that time. Such a high-profile production, with a familiar plot featuring Danites and polygamous intrigues, could no longer be justified by anti-Mormon sentiment; rather, motivation now came from within the industry itself, as the film was a blatant attempt to capitalize on the success of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation two years earlier. The connection between the two films cannot be overemphasized, particularly in the fabricated connection between the Ku Klux Klan and the Danites; one intertitle even tells us that the Danites’ hooded costume (historically nonexistent) was the direct predecessor of the KKK’s. The strategy worked, as critics lauded the film and audiences flocked to it across the nation.
The trailer for another infamous Mormonsploitation film, Trapped by the Mormons, is available here. Back then, it must have seemed terribly unlikely that a Mormon-made film could ever snag a bigtime Hollywood star. But Anne Hathaway eventually proved the conventional wisdom wrong.