Thursday, April 5, 2012

Trapped by the Mormons - 1922


Mormon missionaries standing in front of poster advertising the movie.  In spite of the hostile message of the film, Mormons took advantage of the publicity by distributing their pamphlets to patrons in line or exiting the theater.

 
Director:                 H.B. Parkinson
Written by:              Frank Miller
       Based on the novel The Love Story of a Mormon,
           by Winifred Graham
Cast                        
Nora Prescott                   Evelyn Brent
Isoldi Keene                    Louis Willoughby
Mr. Prescott                     Cecil Morton York
Mrs. Prescott                 (I have been unable to find this
                                         actress’s name.  Anyone know?)
Jim                                   George Wynn
Sadie                                Olive Sloan
Elder Kayler                    Ward McCallister
Elder Marz                       Olaf Hytten 

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Let me make this very clear: This movie sucks.  I’m giving it one kiss, not for any technical or artistic merit, but simply for its value as an historical curiosity. 

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Since Mormons have been so much in the news of late, (Yes I’m talking to you Mitt, and to you Matt Stone and Trey Parker.) it seems timely to review a Mormon themed film.  And the very unlikely film I will be talking about is titled “Trapped by the Mormons”.  It is a silent movie made in England in 1922 and it is pure anti-Mormon propaganda, ‘Mormonsploitation’, one of many such movies made in the early days of cinema.

In the first three decades of the twentieth century there were a number of novels written and films made about the imagined Mormon peril.  One of the first well known print examples is the unflattering portrait of Mormons in the Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Other early film titles include, “A Trip to Salt Lake City”, Thomas Edison, 1905; “A Victim of the Mormons”, 1911; and “A Mormon Maid”, 1917.

Our film is based on a 1911 novel, The Love Story of a Mormon written by Winifred Graham, aka Mrs. Theodore Cory.  One of Graham’s reasons for living seems to have been to lead a crusade against the so-called insidious threat posed to civilized Christians by the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS).  Her novel describes the evil plot of a Mormon missionary to lure innocent young English girls to a polygamous/white slavery fate worse than death in Utah.  The movie follows the plot of the novel very closely, with the exception of changing the names of all the characters.  In 1922 she wrote another anti-Mormon opus entitled Sealed Women.

So, hang on to your magic underwear….here we go!

The opening shot of the movie is a close up of the Mormon missionary, Isoldi Keene.  He is introduced in the title card as having “mesmeric powers” which make him “one of the cleverest recruiters in the Mormon ranks.”  To drive that point home, he moves in to the camera for a very, very, close close-up.  Just in case we forget, several times during the film the camera iris narrows to focus on his eyes and their mesmeric powers.  You may want to be careful, don't look into his eyes too long, since he does have those mesmeric powers.  And you wouldn't want to fall under his spell too quickly, only one minute into this review.








 

……………… Oh my god, what happened?  I must have blacked out for a while. 

Next we meet our heroine, Nora Prescott.  Isoldi has set his sights on capturing the innocent young Manchester girl for his church, and has set his cap at making her the latest Mrs. Keene.  She is described as a “flower ripe for plucking.” 

-->We are told that for several days he has placed himself outside of Nora’s home so they can establish a “nodding acquaintance” as she passes by on her way to work.  Finally he speaks to her and gives her the good news of divine salvation.  In order to make his point more clear, he mesmerizes poor little Nora with those darn powerful eyes of his.  We know for sure that Nora is starting to fall for the missionary’s position because she stares at him blankly and then blinks her eyes a few times before agreeing to see him again.  But just in case we still missed it, we are told that Nora sees him as a “wonderful vision of all-conquering manhood.”  Yowza!

 "Hello, have you heard about my position?"

-->(Maybe this was the inspiration for that book advertised in the back of men’s magazines, “How to Get Girls Through Hypnosis”)

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When Nora returns home, her father notices the pamphlet which Isoldi had given her.  We are informed that Nora then tells “her first lie!” when she tells Dad that she found it on the street.  Oh, the road to hell is paved with sex, lies and litter!  But dear old Dad seems to have some instinctive knowledge that she is in danger and warns her about consorting with those devilish Mormons. 

But that mesmeric power is irrisistable!  Nora meets Isoldi again and gets hit with the whammy one more time.  After a flowery description of the heavenly delights of Utah which await her, Isoldi bestows on Nora the “kiss of a saint.”  He then asks her if she has any friends…  GIRL friends…and wouldn’t they be interested in hearing the good news also?  Nora tells her friends at work that she has met “an angel” and takes them to meet the mesmeric missionary.

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-->By sheer coincidence, they meet Isoldi in a park where a caravan is stopped.  He tells the ladies that within is a woman who has just died; at the bedside are her grieving husband and the doctor who has been unable to save her.  Isoldi enters the wagon and…a miracle!... raises the woman from the dead.
 

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That has done the trick!  The girls need no more proof that Mormons operate with the clout of the Almighty.  After the girls leave, Isoldi enters the wagon again, and has a celebratory drink with his co-conspirators after complimenting them on their acting skills and paying them off.  The woman laughingly tells Isoldi that she was a little worried that he would not bring her out of her trance.  Yeah, I hate it when that happens!

Nora knows all she needs to know.  She asks her father to tell her boyfriend Jim that their engagement is off.  When her “paralytic” father has an attack, Nora goes to Isoldi to beg him to come home and cure her father.  With a little fast thinking Isoldi tells her that he can’t do that because her father is an infidel and he may not touch him.  Then, demonstrating enough gall to be divided into three parts, he tells her that she is sinning by even asking him to do such a thing.  Really, this guy is good!  If he ever wanted to leave the church he could have a future selling ice to Eskimos.  He then plants another sacred smooch on Nora and tells her it is time for him to “steal her away” from her unworthy family. 

 "The kiss of a saint"???   Wow!!!    Let me see one of those pamphlets.....

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Isoldi sends his “sister” Sadie with Nora to pose as an authoress in need of a secretary for a research trip to Holland.  Nora has been accepted for the position, and Sadie comes to her home to meet the folks and put their minds to rest that Nora will be in safe hands.  Father Prescott tells his wife that all will be well because, “Holland doesn’t allow MORMONS!”  Nora accompanies Sadie to Isoldi’s home in London.  Meanwhile, boyfriend Jim smells a rat and hires a detective to follow Nora.  The two of them set up camp across the street from the house in London to keep an eye on Jim's ex-fiancée. 

While Nora gets settled in her new digs, Isoldi and the other Elders slide down to the basement for a baptism ceremony.  Three young women enter what looks like a Roman bathhouse, kneel for a blessing and then one by one enter the large baptismal font for the immersion.  They are of course wearing flimsy white dresses.  That’s right…anything to get the women wet in a movie!  I’m sure that this scene was included for its dramatic and aesthetic value.  As a matter of fact, it’s only slightly more dignified than, and of as much value as, a Ft. Lauderdale wet t-shirt contest. 

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-->That evening, Isoldi takes Nora to a fancy restaurant, “an unlikely place to find a saint” according to the title card.  There is much drinking, dancing, cavorting, wild jazz music and general carrying on at this place.  Nora is contacted by the detective who gives her a handkerchief to hang outside of her window if she needs any help.  He tells her that he and Jim will be watching for the signal.

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-->Back at the house, Sadie confesses to Nora that she is not Isoldi’s sister but is in fact his first wife!  Her jealousy of Nora and guilt about her part in the deception now make her want to help Nora escape.  Nora’s eyes have been opened, but too late!  Isoldi and his fellow evil Mormons tie up Sadie and lock Nora in another room.  It is decided that Sadie must die for her betrayal, which is ok with Isoldi but he wants to keep Nora.  However the two really evil guys plan to murder poor Nora by turning on the gas while she is unconscious.  Why they didn’t think of tying her to a board in a sawmill or to a railroad track is anybody’s guess. 

"NO!!!  I said I don't WANT to look at your literature!!!!"
-->But since this is a melodrama, and one with a message no less, I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that Nora finds a way to signal Jim and the detective, the good guys arrive just in time to save her and hand Isoldi and his pals over to the police.  The movie ends with Nora and Jim embracing and sharing a pure, wholesome Christian kiss.


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Where to start with this movie?  I want to say right away that the copy I watched was on VHS and the film was grainy and dark with no musical track whatsoever.  But no worries -- no amount of poor film transfer quality can hide artistic incompetence from my eyes.  To begin with, it was very poorly and cheaply made.  I’m sure that the idea was to get this thing produced and into theaters quickly to make a buck (or rather, a pound).  It is exploitation at its meanest.  For more discussion of exploitation films see my review of the very slimy, very icky, “Maniac".

Grapevine Video has released the film on DVD and it sounds like it is a very nice transfer which may be worth checking out.  That collection includes a new organ soundtrack, and a commentary by Brigham Young University historian James V. D’Arc, as well as the text of the original 1911 novel.

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The acting varies between inadequate and wildly over the top.  In general it is a good example of the kind of thing most people think of when they hear the words “silent movie”;  overly broad gestures, and exaggerated facial expressions.  However, silent movies don’t have to fit that stereotype.  I recently saw the 1922 Swedish film, “Phantom Carriage”.  The actors perform with subtlety and restraint, giving the movie an amazingly contemporary feel.  Watching that film becomes a very real and moving experience.  I’ll get to that review soon.

Evelyn Brent as Nora has two expressions -- a wide eyed innocent caught-in-the-headlights look and a scared look -- but it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.  Louis Willoughby as Isoldi has two basic looks as well – wide staring eyes for the mesmeric power trick and a sly shifty eyed look to let us know that he is evil.  It’s too bad he doesn’t have a moustache, I’m sure he would have been terrific at twirling the ends of it. 

Cecil Morton York as Mr. Prescott frowns energetically.  In one scene a perfectly innocent Mormon missionary knocks on the door.  Papa Prescott throws a fit which propels him out of his wheelchair with such force that one can actually be concerned for the actor’s safety.  However, Mrs. Prescott manages to find the silver lining, comforting her husband with the observation that he is now able to move.

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By the way, the title cards are so dark and hard to read...let me help.  Mrs. Prescott said:  "There's...there's a MORMON!"  Then in the middle of his attack, Mr. Prescott yells at the missionary:  "My daughter!  Where is she?  Curse you!  Where is she?"  

Another thing I love about the title cards -- the words 'Mormon' or 'Mormons' are always in caps.  "MORMONS"!!  It always feels as if someone is screaming the words at the top of their lungs.  There is absolutely nothing subtle about this movie.   

The director, H.B. Parkinson helmed two other films which are considered lost:  “The Law Divine”, 1920; and “Married to a Mormon”, 1922.  Both movies also starred Evelyn Brent.  I know little else about either of these films, but the mind boggles.  One thing I do know is that English actor Clive Brook co-starred in “Married to a Mormon”.  I’ve always kind of liked him.  He played veddy, veddy British characters.  I especially liked him as Marlene Dietrich’s love interest in "Shanghai Express".  He also starred in “Cavalcade” which for some inexplicable reason won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1933.  I saw that one many years ago and thought it a tremendous bore, but maybe I need to revisit it and give it another try.  Or maybe not.  There are still a whole lotta zombie movies I haven’t gotten to.  Life is short after all.  Anyhoo…

When I found this film I had to laugh at the ludicrous premise.  It is childishly sincere in its effort to be a serious drama and is an insult to any person with the slightest intelligence.  But let’s face it, sex sells – whether you are advertising beer or spreading intolerance.  The main attraction of the anti-Mormon circus has been, and still is, polygamy, even though the practice was officially outlawed by the church in 1904.  This story of a dangerous threat to white Christian womanhood is not only beyond belief (not to mention good taste), but has to be seen for the ridiculous bigot’s wet dream that it is.  At least “Birth of a Nation” with a similar sub-plot of racist nonsense can be appreciated for D.W. Griffith’s ground-breaking cinematic style.  But “Trapped by the Mormons” cannot be appreciated for anything other than being a piece of tripe.  Historical tripe, but tripe nevertheless. 

This has been an education for me.  I had precious little knowledge about the persecution of the Mormon church before this.  The history of the LDS is full of violence:  the murder of Mormon leader Joseph Smith by a mob while he was under arrest, attacks on Mormon communities by lawless militia, being driven out of Illinois, and expelled from Missouri under an Order of Extermination signed by the governor.  In 1857 President James Buchanan ordered one third of the US army to Utah, referred to as “The Utah War”, in order to deal with encroaching Mormon political power.  Like so many other groups, Mormons have been feared as “Other” for several reasons; political, social, economic, and religious.   

I’m not making any judgment about the religion itself one way or another and I’m not going to argue about any tenets of the faith.  But it is disturbing to learn about another chapter in the long history of religious intolerance that we humans have inflicted upon each other.  And it goes on and on.  I have the depressing feeling that “Trapped by The Mormons” possibly could be re-made today as a serious film, using basically the same script, but with modern techniques, and would be accepted by many people as practically a documentary. 

As a matter of fact it has been re-made.  In 2005 Cherry Red Productions released a DVD of their tongue-in-cheek silent version of this story under the same title.  It is heightened with hysterically campy touches, such as Mormons as very literal blood sucking vampires and flesh eating zombies.

The character of Isoldi Keene is played by drag king, Johnny Kat. 

  It has received many positive reviews, which only goes to show that good taste, as well as bad, is timeless.  The LDS seems to have reacted to this release with some good humor.  Church spokeswoman Kim Farah has said,
“With something like this, it is over the top and we don’t take it seriously.  Nobody can possibly take this seriously.”  **




** quoted by Jonathan Padget for the Washington Post, obtained by me from “The Mormon as Vampire:  A Comparative Study of Winifred Graham’s The Love Story of a Mormon, the Film ‘Trapped by the Mormons’, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula”  by James V. D’Arc.


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Well, it’s time for me to lighten up a bit.  I’m making plans to go see the musical “The Book of Mormon” when it arrives in Chicago late this year.  Then I’m sure that I’ll get the real low down on what’s what with our Mormon brethren.  Hasa Diga Eebowai, everybody!

Have a comment about this post?  Please, be my guest.  Indulge yourself below.  I would love to hear from you.  Thanks!  



 






 

2 comments:

  1. You say that the acting is over the top -- well read the book (which is included on the Grapevine release in full) and then ask yourself if it does a good job of capturing the novel. The commentary track on the Grapevine video is well worth a listen if you have any interest in understanding why so many anti-Mormon films were being produced in the teens and twenties. The included short on the Grapevine label of A TRIPP TO SALT LAKE CITY is delightful.

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  2. I appreciate your comment, Anonymous. I stand by my statements about the acting. While it is interesting to compare the original source material (novel) to a film made from it, I feel the film should stand or fall on its own. Within the framework of my review of the movie I don't really care if it is faithful to the book or not. I have no plans to read the book because, frankly, life is too short. However, I would be very interested to hear the commentary to the Grapevine release. James V. D'Arc sounds like a very erudite cat. And I agree with you about "A Trip to Salt Lake City". I just watched it on YouTube and it is charming. As for anti- or pro- Mormon anything, I've learned more about the LDS since writing the above and if I wrote it again I might change some of it regarding the (still very little) I know about Mormon history. But I hate changing my reviews around; it's a little too waffling to do that.

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