Chris Hicks: When movies laugh at Mormons, it isn't always mean

Published: Thursday, March 31 2011 5:40 p.m. MDT

By now you may have seen reviews of the ultra-vulgar Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon," which has been playing in previews over the past month and officially opened on the Great White Way last week.

But however successful the production may prove to be, it still won't have much impact on the church. And the audience that will see it on Broadway, even if it has a long run, is relatively small.

Let's remember that the entertainment business in all its variety has been lampooning The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since the mid-19th century. And while some of that has been mean-spirited and crass, much of it has been benign, and occasionally even downright affectionate.

Motion pictures, one of the 20th century's most popular entertainment forms, have taken their fair share of nasty swipes at the church over the past 100-plus years. But many have also poked fun in a way that allows members to laugh with the joshing, gags aimed at Mormons' reputation for clean living, their great numbers in Utah and, yes, even that old standby, polygamy.

Here are just a few examples.

"A Trip to Salt Lake City" (1905): This Thomas Edison short depicts a polygamous family aboard a cross-country train. During the night the children clamor for water, so the harried father pacifies them by filling a milk can and inserting several very long straws.

"The Covered Wagon" (1923): Kansas pioneers see a sign in a desolate area that says, "Pioneers camped here. Making 15 miles today. All's well. Brigham Young." This prompts one of the men to comment, "If he could get his wives across, I can get my wagons."

"Parlor, Bedroom and Bath" (1931): Bellboy Cliff Edwards interrupts Buster Keaton three times while he's wooing different women. The third time the bellboy says, "Ohhh! He's a Mormon!"

"The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker" (1959): Clifton Webb is a turn-of-the-century bigamist with two families that have been unaware of each other. Late in the film he defends himself, asking a vicar, "How can an act be immoral in Philadelphia but perfectly moral in Salt Lake City?" The vicar replies, "The Mormons are giving up plural marriage," later adding, "You are not a Mormon … you are a man with one wife too many."

"Ocean's Eleven" (1960): This famous Rat Pack caper flick has a moment when a member of the crew is late, a cowboy from Utah, and the heist's financier quips, "Still running around Salt Lake City, I'll bet, saying goodbye to all his wives."

"The Second Time Around" (1961): Debbie Reynolds goes to work as a ranch hand in 1911 Arizona. When Andy Griffith visits the ranch, he sees her from behind and says to the owner, "Wears his hair mighty long. What is he, a Mormon or something'?" He is told, "Ain't a Mormon and ain't a he. Got me a lady ranch hand."

"Jeremiah Johnson" (1972): Mountain man Johnson (Robert Redford) comes across a man buried in the sand up to his neck and asks if Indians put him there, to which the buried man replies, "T'weren't Mormons."

"The Getaway" (1972/1994): Both the original and the remake have scenes where the female star (Ali MacGraw/Kim Basinger) is in a bar with a soldier who tells her he's from Utah, proudly adding, "There's about 12 people in the state who aren't Mormons and I'm one of 'em."

"Airport 1975" (1974): When a plane is about to land in Salt Lake City, the jokes begin to fly. Norman Fell says, "I went there once, it was closed." Myrna Loy panics when Sid Caesar tells her the city is dry. A boy tells his skeptical mother it would be "neat" to see the Mormon temple. And the co-pilot tells the tower, "We're descending for a landing in your fair city, please alert Brigham Young."

"Chapter Two" (1979): In Neil Simon's poignant, semi-autobiographical comedy, when widower James Caan announces he wants to marry a woman he's been dating, his uncouth pal Joseph Bologna tells him it's a bad idea. "Why can't she move in with ya? She against that? She's not a Mormon or anything, is she?"

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