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1931 Mormon film about Corianton fuels laughter — but also offers some meat

OREM — It would be ever-so-easy to make fun of the first Mormon movie made by Mormons. Even the title, "Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love," could lead to smirks. And the dialogue, delivered in over-the-top theatrical exuberance, could be described by unkind folk as more Monty Pythonian than Shakespearian.

But I won't make fun of this movie.

On Saturday, Feb. 27, the Association for Mormon Letters held its annual meeting at Utah Valley University. The center of this year's meeting was a screening of the 1931 epic film that fictionalized the Book of Mormon story of Corianton, the rebellious son of the prophet Alma.

A 16 mm print of the film was donated to BYU (Orson Scott Card's grandfather was the producer of the film) and digitally restored last year. It was screened once last September. Only about 50 people came to watch it again — an appropriately low number of people considering that the film was a huge box office flop in its first very limited run 79 years ago.

Before the screening, three scholars spoke about the historical background of the film. Ardis Parshall traced the story's development from short story to play to talking picture. Lisa Tait looked at cultural context. James V. D'Arc, curator at BYU's Motion Picture Archive, introduced the screening.

The original short story was serialized in a church magazine in 1889. The author, whose pseudonym was Horatio, was later revealed to be Elder B.H. Roberts of the Quorum of the Seventy. Orestes Utah Bean (his real name) wrote a play based on Roberts' popular story with a little bit of another short story by Julia Macdonald mixed in for good measure. Bean teamed up with Lester Park, who produced the film.

D'Arc told the group at the screening that they were in for a "real treat." After dimming the lights, he started the Blu-ray disc and the opening credits began.

And so did the laughter.

And I must confess that I laughed as well.

But I genuinely felt bad about it.

Park and Bean and all the investors dreamed of making not just money, but of sharing something important to them. But it is hard for a modern audience to see beyond the dated (even then) acting and dialogue.

The most striking part of the film (literally) is near the beginning when Korihor defends himself before Chief Judge and Prophet Alma. "Fool, thou temptest God!" Alma warns him. Korihor, however, ends his defense by saying, "I deny thy God," and is promptly struck by lightning. A woman at the screening bemoaned, "Too bad. I liked him."

It was a cold film to watch — shot on the East Coast in winter, the film stages were freezing. The cold had Relia's (one of Corianton's love interests) hands shaking as she shivered.

Isabel is recruited to tempt Corianton away from his mission to the Zoramites. She scoffs at the idea, "I have ruined princes many, kings a few, but a prophet?"

A silent-screen-era title popped up at one point to tell the audience "And so, Corianton walks blindly into the glittering trap." He does — and it does glitter with sheer and virtually see-through costuming out of Cirque du Soleil. The party also featured wine that makes only Corianton drunk.

Word spreads fast as a chorus of heralds cry out, "The Nephite prophet comes to teach us holiness while his son makes merry the night with Isabel."

Isabel's lover and co-conspirator, Seantum, revels in Corianton's fall, "The plan succeeds. The mission fails. I conquer. I conquer. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha."

And yes, one of the villains does twirl his mustache.

Corianton laments his sorrows, but then concludes suddenly with a shrug, "Oh, well, it is past and here I am."

Isabel regrets her actions and reluctantly hides her love for Corianton and sends him away. Like much of the film, it is both funny and strikingly tragic. If a viewer of the movie can look beyond the old style acting, the heartbreak and sacrifice is there.

Seantum confronts Corianton and accidently slays Corianton's insufferably righteous brother Shiblon. A glorious old-fashioned melodramatic death scene follows. Corianton almost shrieks, "No! I must not think of it or I will go mad!"

The group at the screening laughed at Corianton's laments. Then, something weird happened. Corianton seemed to reply to us across eight decades, "How they laughed! How they taunted!" Somehow this seemed like an accusation to the audience members that they were missing what was important — the testimony that was behind the story.

This scene is followed by Alma being praised by his converts. They sing to him (the dubbed choir is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, no less), "We praise thee Father Alma." It is another touching moment that breaks through. No one at the screening laughs at this moment. It is a beautiful pure expression of the love of the convert for their God and his servant. There is no better example in film of the idea of "how beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of him that brings good tidings."

Corianton then gets his battle with Seantum. It is a fight sequence similar in pace to the celebrated YouTube video "Worst Fight Scene Ever." It ends as it should, yet Isabel is run through by Seantum. Poor Alma comes upon the scene, "What does this mean? What is this blood? Who is this woman?"

Corianton solemnly intones, "Her sins atone, her life a ransom for them."

Oh, and Corianton gets the girl — not the dead one, but his true love Relia of the shivering fingers. Relia who was betrothed to Shiblom. Now, both rivals are dead and happiness is just around the corner.

Most people who view this film will merely laugh at the funny parts and not look for much else. But those who can laugh and also see the underlying faith that made this film will come away not just amused but enriched.