The Conversion of Hollywood’s “Brigham Young”

By James Vincent D’Arc

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    “The Mormons seem to live their religion and study more than any people I know,” Dean Jagger, veteran of 44 years in motion pictures, told an interviewer in early 1972.

    Those words had special meaning for Dean Jagger just a few months later when the world-famous actor joined the Church.

    His association with the Church began long before his marriage in 1968 to his wife, Etta, a member of the Church. It started long before the patient and attentive work of home teachers began.

    It began with the film role that brought Brother Jagger his first widespread recognition as a great actor. He was cast, after an exhaustive search, as Brigham Young, in the movie of the same name.

    The film career of Dean Jagger began with his dramatic studies in the early 1920s at the Lyceum Arts Conservatory in Chicago. He worked as a bouncer in a dance hall and scrubbed floors to support himself. Although Brother Jagger made his first film in 1929, it was in a stage production, They Shall Not Die, that he was spotted by a Paramount Pictures talent scout. So from Broadway he went to Hollywood at a time when newcomers like Ray Milland, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope were also beginning their movie careers.

    Throughout the 1930s, he went from picture to picture in minor roles until he was chosen in 1937 by Darryl F. Zanuck to portray Brigham Young.

    “His voice is magnificent,” wrote one critic, “and when he speaks to his people it is almost as if he himself were as inspired as were the Mormon fathers.”

    George D. Pyper, then general superintendent of the Sunday Schools, was assigned as technical adviser to Mr. Jagger during the production. As a young man, Superintendent Pyper had known Brigham Young. He told the Deseret News that during one scene, “There are resemblances in facial features and in voice. When I watched Mr. Jagger pleading in the courtroom scene, I thought I was listening again to Brigham Young.”

    Brigham Young served as Dean Jagger’s first successful break into films. In succeeding years he made films in Hollywood, New York, and London. In 1949 he received the Academy Award for the best supporting actor for the film Twelve O’Clock High, starring Gregory Peck.

    As television developed, Brother Jagger appeared many times, most notably as a fatherly high school principal in the series Mr. Novak.

    Brother Jagger next came into close contact with the Church in 1968 when he married Etta Norton, a life-long member. He was impressed by the concern for him shown by his bishop and home teachers. Eventually, Dr. Rainy Frierson, his home teacher, arranged for Brother Jagger to meet with President Don Smith of the Los Angeles Temple Visitors Center. The visits soon led to the baptism of filmdom’s “Brigham Young.”

    A veteran of more than 150 motion pictures, including White Christmas, The Robe, and Western Union, Brother Jagger has some definite feelings about the film industry today.

    “I think it is sad when a father and mother can’t send their children to movies without knowing the content beforehand. There are beautiful moments in life, and I don’t think that some frustrated individuals should say, ‘I’ll put my frustrations up on the screen or paint a picture of my frustrations and that will be the greatest art ever produced.’”

    In advising members of the Church whether or not to see “questionable” films, he urged, “Don’t pay money to see them. Don’t even consider patronizing them. I go to few movies myself these days. I’d rather read something interesting and solid.”

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    • Brother D’Arc served in the Colorado-New Mexico Mission and is now a student at Brigham Young University. He is publications editor for the BYU 23rd Branch.