Time will tell if Jared and Jerusha Hess' latest contribution to the Mormon cinema canon, "Gentlemen Broncos," will have even half the cultural impact that "Napoleon Dynamite" had in 2004.
Being that LDS filmmakers have been more present in public consciousness since the release of Richard Dutcher's critically acclaimed "God's Army" in 2000, it is easy to discredit or even dismiss earlier Mormon films; after all, they never had theatrical release and press that LDS films from the past decade have enjoyed.
But those assuming that older LDS-made films aren't garnering much attention should look no further than earlier this year. A heated reading of Mormon cinema's unlikely pièce de resistance, "Johnny Lingo," at the 30th annual Sunstone Symposium ruffled feathers for lovers and scorners of the film alike.
Even 40 years later, "Johnny Lingo" still merits discussion. Remarkable, considering it was a shoestring budget, 24-minute film Brigham Young University put out for the Sunday School that — much like kitschy "Napoleon"
— doesn't mention Mormonism.
Many know the story by heart: Johnny Lingo is handsome, wealthy and the talk of the fictional Pacific island he hails from. He is a notorious trader with an eye for a bargain. Hence he shocks the community when he pays eight cows — a high, unprecedented price — for the hand of shy, unkempt Mahana.
When Johnny and Mahana return to the island after their honeymoon, she has transformed into a gracious, radiant beauty — once again perplexing the other islanders.
Why is "Johnny Lingo" so heavily ingrained in Mormon culture? Members who grew up in the church's Sunday School, seminary and institute programs rarely forget this simple take on the Cinderella motif.
"I believe people can enjoy the camp and corniness and still walk away with a good message," said respected LDS film scholar Randy Astle. "We are really not completely cynical or ironic about Mahana's transformation — no matter how jaded or cynical we are when we talk about it."
Astle, a professor of film theory, a filmmaker and scriptwriter, worked to define parameters for Mormon cinema for the article "Mormons and Movies: A History" published by BYU Studies in 2007. He considers "Johnny Lingo" part of the "Third Wave" of Mormon cinema. The "First Wave" of Mormon cinema, according to Astle, was the period associated with sensationalist films of the early 20th century — mostly secular films of an anti-Mormon nature. The "Second Wave" of Mormon cinema, lasting from about 1930 to 1955, involved the first efforts to make film a part of LDS culture with the establishment of a production company, and witnessed a slight "softening" of the portrayal of Mormons in secular films.
The "Third Wave" describes perhaps the most familiar time frame in Mormon cinema — that which spawned "Johnny Lingo" — known as the era of notable director Wetzel O. "Judge" Whitaker.
Whitaker, as head of the BYU Motion Picture Studio — now the LDS Motion Picture Studio — was responsible for church classics like "Lingo," as well as "Windows of Heaven" and "Man's Search for Happiness."
"It's kind of a rite of passage (to see these films)," Astle said. He bills "Lingo," in particular, as being the "original Mormon crossover film" that blended secular and spiritual elements without explicitly acknowledging Mormonism.
" 'Johnny Lingo' was actually based on a short story by Patricia McGerr, a Catholic writer," Astle said. "The LDS Church wanted to make it for the Sunday School convention in 1969 because it spoke as a universal moral parable — it was easily related to."
Astle explained that aspects the film has been criticized for, such as sexism, were not intended. "Judge Whitaker and everyone working on the film were so concerned with racism, about it being offensive to Polynesians, that sexism wasn't on their radar."
According to Whitaker's memoirs, the Polynesian community loved the film and had a sense of humor about the now-notorious bad wigs and comical, "Hawaii Five-O" style music.
"But this by no means whitewashes the film," Astle said. "The historical context is important to consider (before criticizing 'Lingo'). It came out in 1969 from a conservative university and was never intended as a proselytizing video. It was designed for the education system."
Whitaker had also been an animator for Walt Disney, embracing the enthusiasm, aestheticism and morality Disney films portrayed. It translated in his "Third Wave" films and the spirit was inherited — and is still preserved — in road shows, pageants and parties within the LDS community.
"It fused together to make a peculiar Mormon aesthetic," said Astle. "If we can just get past the reputation for corniness, there is so much in 'Johnny Lingo' and the other 'Third Wave' films to be had — they are truly sincere."
Astle feels this sincerity is lost in some of the LDS films from the past decade — or rather the "Fifth Wave" of Mormon cinema, from 2000 to the present — including the attempted 2004 remake of "Johnny Lingo." The "Fifth Wave" is designated by the relative success of some LDS films in comercial theaters, separating it from the "Fourth Wave," from 1974 to 2000, which saw the advent of large format theater productions, such as "Legacy" and "The Testaments."
Astle believes that current LDS filmmakers take themselves too seriously. "The best filmmaking is done when (LDS filmmakers) can accept these older films as their heritage while they are reacting against them."
Of "Johnny Lingo," Astle said, "It's not going anywhere. It has become part of the Mormon vernacular. It's better to just embrace it."
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