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Though considered by the motion picture industry to be a financial flop in 1940, the 20th Century Fox film "Brigham Young" was a huge hit in Salt Lake City and environs. And for the past 15 years locally it has been the single most-often-requested movie never released on video.

Until this week, that is.Fox Video has finally rescued "Brigham Young" from the studio's dusty shelves and let it come to videotape for the first time. Wednesday, March 15, was the official in-store date, and smart rental shops in the area will be stocking up. Or, if you prefer to purchase your own copy, the suggested retail price is $19.99.

Now to the obvious question - why has it taken so long? In fact, considering how many newer films come to video every month, regardless of how trashy or terrible they may be, why are there so many older, "classic" movies that have yet to see the light of video?

The reason is simple. Most people who rent movies reach for the newest films, caring very little about quality. If a film is in color and contemporary, it's the first to leap off rental shelves. At least, that's what major studio executives think. They also think few people over the age of 16 rent movies at all.

And, unfortunately, 20th Century Fox is one of the slower studios when it comes to putting its older movies on tape. Fox Video has a general release schedule of one "classic" per month - and it's entire schedule for the next year is announced each December.

"Brigham Young" is outside the regular 1995 schedule, however. It's part of a special Easter package of videos released this week, which includes "Come to the Stable" (starring Salt Lake native Loretta Young - no relation to Brigham), "Esther and the King" and "I'd Climb the Highest Mountain."

That's right - the movers and shakers at Fox Video apparently consider "Brigham Young" an Easter film . . . though the 24th of July might have been a more appropriate release date.

- "BRIGHAM YOUNG" WAS the subject of several ad campaigns with splashy color posters in 1940.

Ads for engagements outside the West changed the film's title to "Brigham Young - Frontiersman," hoping the added word would give the impression of a more traditional Western and emphasize its more adventurous aspects. The idea, of course, was to attract moviegoers who might otherwise think of "Brigham Young" as strictly a religious picture.

Another campaign displayed a romantic photo of the film's stars (though they were really supporting players), Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell, with a smaller picture of an angry Dean Jagger (who had the lead role as Brigham) - his fist clenched - and a large circle of horse-drawn wagons racing below them. This sent a message to female moviegoers that the film offered a love story, as well as portraying the film as action-packed.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is one of the first ad campaigns for the film, a color poster featuring a staged photo of Brigham and his 12 wives.

Nowhere in the movie do we see those 12 wives. In fact, references to polygamy are few and far between, and generally played for comic effect.

At one point in the film, Brigham is getting a drink of water at a well when he is approached by a bearded, rough-hewn man who says, "You one of them Mormon fellas?"

"Yes," Brigham replies. "We're Mormons."

"I heard you was comin' - leaving off the `Mister,' my name's Jim Bridger. What might yours be?"

"Leaving off the `Mister' - Brigham Young."

Looking a bit startled, Bridger pauses and then says, "Say, how many. . . ?"

Young cuts him off and answers, "Twelve!"

"Hmmmm," says Bridger, grinning and rubbing his chin as if he were considering joining up so he could start a harem.

During the rest of the movie, Brigham is occasionally shown with up to four wives in his presence, but only one, Mary Ann (Astor) becomes a real character in the film.

- THE FICTIONALIZED black-and-white epic begins with scenes of Mormon settlers being persecuted in Illinois, including the martyrdom of LDS Church founder and prophet Joseph Smith. The bulk of the film, however, focuses on Smith's successor, Brigham Young, as he organizes the Saints and leads them on their westward trek. A major subplot is the romance between a faithful church member (Tyrone Power) and an "outsider" (Linda Darnell).

The result is an entertaining film with huge outdoor scenes and a number of thoughtful performances, including - are you sitting down? - Vincent Price in the relatively brief role of Joseph Smith. Long before Price established his more familiar persona as the king of horror movies, the actor showed he could be quietly effective in this and other straight dramatic roles (for further evidence, check out "Laura," "Dragonwyck" or "His Kind of Woman").

Other familiar faces in the film include Mary Astor ("The Maltese Falcon") as Brigham's most prominent wife, John Carradine ("Stagecoach," "The Grapes of Wrath") as Porter Rockwell, Brian Donlevy ("Destry Rides Again") as the voice of dissent and Jane Darwell (Ma Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath") as an innocent mob victim.

But "Brigham Young" works primarily thanks to the introspection brought to the title character by Dean Jagger. While the actor would go on to win an Oscar (as best supporting actor for "Twelve O'Clock High") and perform in movies of greater commercial success ("White Christmas," "Bad Day at Black Rock," "Executive Suite"), this was Jagger's first major film role. And though one can complain that he seems a bit too mild-mannered and distressingly unsure as Brother Brigham (which is a complaint made by the late Mormon Church President Spencer W. Kimball in his 1975 book, "Faith Precedes the Miracle"), it's a dignified performance that anchors the movie.

"Brigham Young" is not a piece of great cinematic art by any means, nor is it an accurate history lesson. The latter is perhaps best demonstrated in what is arguably the film's most famous - and notorious - scene, in which Brigham defends Joseph in an Illinois courtroom just prior to Joseph's incarceration. In truth, Brigham was out of the state at the time. Still, in context this scene works as an effective means of establishing Brig-ham's forthright character - and Jagger's interpretation thereof.

Despite such lapses in truth for the sake of dramatic license, the film remains a favorite hereabouts for three obvious reasons:

- First, it's one of the few movies about Mormons that attempts to show The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a favorable light.

- Second, whatever its dubious success on this front, the film tries to put Mormon history into perspective as a formidable force in the establishment of the American West.

- And third, it's so much better than the dreadful 1977 remake, a locally made movie titled "Brigham," which featured Richard Moll - that's right, "Bull" on TV's "Night Court" - as Joseph Smith. (A former Salt Lake resident, Moll is billed in the film as "Charles Moll.")

The bottom line is this: Though "Brigham Young" plays fast and loose with history, it's still enjoyable for general audiences, and particularly so for members of the LDS faith.