Inside the golden age of BYU cinema


While the average person is eating out at the local buffet or taking in the latest blockbuster, I am in my basement apartment, blackout shades drawn, screening niche 35 mm Criterion Collection films. I watch French New Wave the way kids watch Disney+ on a Saturday morning. I devour pallid Polish cinema for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

So when I moved to Utah, I thought it only appropriate to entrench myself in local cinema. My journey began in Provo, the cradle of Utah’s mid-century cinematic coming of age, and home to the Motion Picture Studio at Brigham Young University.

Before the 1950s, Latter-day Saint cinema was in its infancy, often producing nonfiction films meant for religious instruction. But gritty, narrative-driven action began in the late ’50s, dubbed the third wave of Latter-day Saint cinema by Randy Astle and Gideon O. Burton in “A History of Mormon Film” (also called the “Judge Whitaker and the Classical Era” after the head of the newly created BYU Motion Picture Studio, Wetzel O. Whitaker). It extended into the fourth wave — what was called the “Mass Media Era” — which terminated in 2000 with the advent of more commercially viable productions.

To understand the cultural significance of these films, I decided to roll around in them. I focused on mostly the short films that were screened in schools and churches for decades, though their influence has also been felt beyond. Remarkably, across these seemingly disparate movies, a fairly consistent theme emerges: No one is worthless, and we often misjudge others based on superficial social markers. Here are some of the best (and worst) films from this era of Utah cinema.

1. ‘John Baker’s Last Race’ (1976)

What a tear-jerker. An all-around good film based on a true story about an elementary school track coach who races against a terminal diagnosis to get his kiddos into the state championship. 

“I have hundreds of children!” the eponymous coach declares and flashes a boyish grin. John David Carson (who used to go by Johnny Carson until the real Johnny Carson got wind of it) shines in this wholesome film about never giving up and trying your darndest. The child acting will melt your soul and the costuming will have you buying collared velour sweatsuits off the web.

Carson, son of actor Eldridge “Kit” Carson, took part in this production before his role in the film “Stay Hungry,” starring alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jeff Bridges and Sally Field. His career devolved into a steady stream of B-list sci-fi flicks, but we’ll always remember “John Baker’s Last Race.”

The movie also lent some early experience to at least one future behind-the-scenes pro — according to his IMDB page, assistant director Karl Wesson went on to do makeup for “Pirates of the Caribbean” and was most recently the elf hair supervisor for “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.”

2. ‘Mr. Krueger’s Christmas’ (1980)

This movie feels like the sequel to some alternative version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which Jimmy Stewart’s family actually leaves him for his refusal to stop screaming “MERRRRY CHRISTMAS!” all year round. In fact, Jimmy Stewart is just well cast as a Christmas protagonist.

Stewart plays Mr. Krueger, who is an old man — a janitor — so lonely he’s given to approaching children in the street to talk about Santa. The patron of a haberdashery mistakes him for a panhandler. When he returns home, it’s clear even his cat struggles to love him.

Krueger looks at a picture on his phonograph of Martha, his deceased wife, and whispers “Merry Christmas.” He puts on a record and drifts off into delusions of Christmas-themed grandeur. The Tabernacle Choir claps for him after he takes the reins as a guest conductor.

Krueger wakes up to real life, and begs a group of innocent carolers to visit his underground dwelling. They’re afraid, and maybe rightly so. After a brief visit, some very polite adults shuffle out the door to leave him alone again. Jimmy “The Janitor” Stewart then falls asleep, encounters the baby Jesus in a dream, and, at the climax of the film, confesses to wrongly hollerin’ at his arch nemesis Mabel Honeycutt. Mr. Krueger awakes to realize that Mabel is a person too. 

He’s saved from his loneliness by the little Clarissa, the daughter of one of the carolers. They walk through the snow, slow-motion style, to a 10-second voiceover about the true meaning of the season. 

And you know what? It’s beautiful.

3. ‘Cipher in the Snow’ (1974)

From the title, you’d think this strange gem of a movie is about a Soviet hacker. It’s actually about a boy named Cliff Evans, based on a story written by Idaho educator Jean Mizer.

The “cipher” — which carries the dual meaning of both a puzzle and an absolute zero — is considered a nobody by everyone who knows him, and it’s his inexplicable death that becomes the plot-driving riddle to be solved. 

Before the opening credits (it’s old enough where credits come first, which is true of most of these early BYU films) he asks his bus driver (who may moonlight as a cowboy by the looks of his ten-gallon hat) to stop the school bus on the side of the road. 

Cliff hobbles out and tragically his heart stops beating. He drops in the snow. The frame freezes, and the dramatic music soars.

The rest of the story involves Idaho’s version of the “Dead Poets Society” teacher attempting to write Cliff’s obituary for the school paper while also ruminating on the nature of mortality and love. He visits the boy’s parents, who barely blink an eye at the news of Cliff’s death.

A flashback ensues of the stepfather yelling at Cliff: “When are you gonna use that head of yers for something besides keepin’ your ears apart?” 

The teacher seems unbothered. Idaho can be rough, and he’s likely seen worse.

After further investigation, the teacher comes to a startling conclusion. “I think Cliff was erased,” he says to the Hugh Grant knockoff of a principal, “little by little. Family, schoolmates, teachers — everyone reduced him to a zero. Finally he just … went away.” 

The message of the movie — be nice to others — takes the form of the absolute worst-case scenario, perhaps in based-on-a-true-story tragedy written up in part to scare viewers into caring for those around them.

Though the approach seems a bit heavy handed, teachers seem to have found the film useful in driving home the point of anti-bullying, and CBR.com (Comic Book Resources) put it at No. 2 in its list of “7 Movies Every 2000s Kid Watched In High School.” It can at times feel as emotionally manipulative as the song “Christmas Shoes,” and yet I couldn’t help but feel a bit more introspective after watching it.

4. ‘The Phone Call’ (1977)

Every studio needs a romantic comedy about teens on phones. And BYU Motion Picture Studio is no different. In fact, “The Phone Call” does an excellent job of doubling down on some classic tropes. Self-conscious protagonist, girl-next-door who’s just a friend … unless?, jerk boyfriend, karate, you get the picture.

What really separates this from the crowd is the sheer number of times the bassoon is mentioned. “What’s a bassoon? It’s like a balloon except with 2 s’s.”

Still, when we’re young and earnest, these types of films hit hard. We learn that cool boyfriends with cool cars are not cool anymore when they throw temper tantrums. We learn that constant self-deprecation may be all it takes to woo a quality girl, and it also helps if you provide insight into a troubled relationship.

The main character Scott, played by Marc McClure, watches as his coworker Becky (played by Michelle Patrick) takes an onslaught of verbal abuse from her boyfriend Joe. Later, over the titular phone, he remarks, “I thought romance was supposed to be romantic.” This is all it takes for Becky to reevaluate her life choices. “Romance is supposed to be romantic,” we can imagine her thinking.

One expensive karate lesson (“Napoleon Dynamite,” anyone?) and a run-in with Joe at Provo’s Ripples Drive-In later, Scott wakes up from his self-obsessed nightmare to realize that his co-worker-turned-friend Becky was the one for him. That, at least, is the expected outcome. But, instead, the filmmakers frustrate our assumptions at every turn, and without the slightest hint of self-awareness Scott continues to pursue the random neighborhood girl Pam, who we never actually meet in the film.

Much is revealed through this short cinematic gem about the fears of teens in the 1970s. For one, the theme of being a nobody, like in “Cipher in the Snow,” also rears its ugly head in “The Phone Call.” Scott summarizes the main tension in the movie with his statement “I feel like the friendly neighborhood zero.” Again, the zeros, become heroes even if their quirks endure.

5. ‘Johnny Lingo’ (1969)

Johnny Lingo is a keen trader. That much is known. I have reservations about basing a man’s character off the success of his business (see examples too numerous to list) but in this case, Johnny seems to know the true value of things.

After a brief introduction to Lingo, we are also introduced to the marketplace of women on this island. It turns out that human women are seemingly bought and sold in marital transactions involving cattle. 

So when a cluster of purchased wives gather around, they brag to each other, saying “my husband bought me for five cows.” I would judge this behavior, but I’d have to confront the fact that men today buy women diamonds which those women usually just display publicly so any comparisons can take place without the trouble of having to exchange pesky words.

Johnny Lingo sits down with an abusive man named Moki to bargain for his daughter Mahana, a woman who hides most of the movie. We see glimpses of her behind trees and doorways. They say she’s past marriageable age, “maybe 19 or 20.” Children make subtle jokes like “she has a face of stone and looks like she missed too many meals” and “Mahana you ugly.”

We learn that Moki is willing to give up a cow to get rid of his daughter, who has “straw for brains.” She is a shadow, hiding from society and, like the other films, feels she’s worth nothing. 

Moki starts the bidding at an astonishing three cows (three cows!). The gathering crowd jeers. Johnny Lingo is unhappy with the bargain, and shockingly offers Moki eight cows for Mahana. (Historical context: No one has ever offered eight cows for a wife on the island).

Everyone thinks Johnny has some kind of brain disease, until the couple returns from their honeymoon. It is revealed Mahana is a changed woman, she has become an eight cow wife! We see Moki storming out of Johnny Lingo’s house, yelling that he was cheated, and Mahana was worth 10 cows!

As an audience member the resolution of this story is, well, a bit confusing. It was unclear why the village hated Mahana in the first place. But Johnny explains the incomprehensible change in his wife to the one westerner on the island (it’s not clear what the westerner is doing on the island). “In her father’s hut, Mahana believed she was worth nothing,” Lingo declares. “Now she knows she is worth more than any woman on the island.”

The action of paying more for Mahana might provide Johnny Lingo with marital bliss, but it does not necessarily resolve other lingering issues — Mahana may very well still be hated on the island, just for different reasons now. And what does the worst character, Moki, do with all those cows after he becomes fabulously well-to-do? Probing these questions is outside the purview of this article. 

6. ‘The Pump’ (1988)

The story behind “The Pump” was birthed from the pulpits of Protestant preachers in the 1960s before being spun into a hit song by The Kingston Trio in 1963.

It has a long history of adaptations, but this seems to be the first short film made. It is also the most experimental of the Mass Media Era films I have come across. This might be due to the fact that the parable was changed in this film, making it more enigmatic (and also somewhat more unintelligible).

“The Pump” is also called “The Consequences of Our Choices” which may have accidentally described this convoluted moral story better. In life, it’s almost impossible to predict and understand the consequences of our choices. That’s at least what the unnamed main character, played by Wayne Brennan, learned on a road trip across California.

In the beginning of the film, he pulls out a map of his route. It holds a warning at the top: “Do not turn off main highways onto desert roads without first making local inquiry.” The man looks at the desert road in front of him, looks back at the map, and then turns onto the road. The audience is left to wonder, “did he make local inquiry?”

That question is left unanswered, as ambiguity makes for better cinema, but the man’s car promptly breaks down smack dab in the middle of what his map calls “desert.” Here’s where the consequences of the man’s choices become his alone. Instead of walking back to the major highway, the man consults the map and decides to walk further into the desert for seemingly no reason (leaving the map in the car — why?).

The audience has seen the map. We know there’s nothing out there. Maybe the heat has already addled this man’s brain, or he hears the siren’s song of a sandy princess. 

In any case, he begins stumbling across the parched earth, looking for refuge (other than his car, which undoubtedly would have worked better). After a montage of dress shoes trudging across sand dunes, the man discovers a pump in the ghost town. Beside it is a note stuffed into a baking soda can. It informs the man of a jug of water that he must pour it into the water pump in order to prime the leather for the pump, in order to draw more water out.

In other words, he’s got to “exercise faith and believe,” in the words of The Kingston Trio.

In the film, however, the man looks at the pump, looks at the water and decides to drink the jug of water.

In the blink of an eye, we are transported to the sand dunes again, where the man is lying dead, an empty bottle 50 yards away. It seems the filmmakers believed the proper moral of this lesson was … I can’t really even say for sure. That’s what’s so magical about “The Pump.” It subverts all expectations. Mistrust the movie at your own peril.

Honorable mentions

There are so many gems among the archives of this era in BYU cinema, it’s impossible to write about them all. “A Different Drum” is way ahead of its time, questioning the inflated value of higher education when a boy on a reservation wants to work with cars even though everyone else wants him to get a college degree. “The Mailbox” dignifies aging while supporting our postal service workers. “Uncle Ben” is the definitive origin story of the man who raised Spiderman, or a film about what it takes to overcome addiction.

The unsung heroes for this era of cinema are really director Kieth Merrill, who went on to win an Academy Award for his documentary “The Great American Cowboy,” cinematographer Reed Smoot, who had his hand in almost every LDS movie I’ve watched, producer-director Douglas G. Johnson, and many others who balanced wholesome moralizing with high-quality production and artistic direction. 

When talking to my friends and colleagues who grew up with these films, it is easy to attribute fond memories to nostalgia alone, but the writers and directors also did a commendable job of capturing the moment. They did little to mask their opinions on the subjects of their art, but that may be the most redeeming element of these productions.

They have a substance that many films lack — an uncompromising moral chord. In fact, the originals have stood the test of time far better than their subsequent remakes. The movies clearly hope to instill virtues of honesty, compassion and generosity. The extent to which they are successful is a matter of debate, but it’s certainly hard to ignore the intended lesson — no matter how others make you feel, you’re not a zero.



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