Corianton – An Unholy Review

A stupendous epic of the days when the world was young and romance trod untrammeled among men unfolding a tale of wondrous beauty set to enchanting music…

Corianton ad from Nov 1931 Juvenile Instructor - HT Ardis Parshall

Corianton - A Story of Unholy Love - Juvenile Instructor 11/1931 - ht Ardis Parshall

This past Friday I was privileged to attend a special screening of this early Mormon independent film. Produced in the 1920’s by Lester Park, the film first premiered in Salt Lake on October 1, 1931. Running nightly for two weeks, it ended to disappointing reviews and a tepid public response.

Long thought lost, it resurfaced again seven decades later when Park’s surviving daughters donated what is suspected to be the only print in existence to the Harold B. Lee Library’s L. Tom Perry Special Collections department. After a three year digital restoration project, the film has been preserved for historians (and, hopefully, the public) to view and appreciate as an important historical relic in the LDS film genre.

Frankly, the story behind the film is much better than the actual product. Ardis Parshall documents the history in a screamingly funny essay over on Keepapitchinin, and follows up with an equally entertaining essay on Orestes Utah Beane, the writer of the play and film. Seriously, go read her posts, they will give you a much better appreciation of the film than this review ever will.

The film actually opens in impressive fashion, with grand sets of Zarahemla and hundreds of actors all set against a fine musical score. It quickly moves into dialogue-heavy scenes introducing the main characters of Prince Seantum (a fictional character created by B.H. Roberts in his serialized novella), Korihor, Alma, Corianton, and Shiblon.

The first scenes are promising, as they touch in dramatic fashion Korihor’s preaching and echo the debates of the turbulent 1920’s (and, timelessly, echo debates today). Included in these first few minutes is a fairly shocking special effect as Korihor is struck down by a lightening bolt (Industrial Light and Magic this is not, but for 1931? Not bad).

But the film quickly devolves into a poorly-paced series of scenes full of forced dialogue, mediocre acting, and horribly funny fighting. And I’m being generous. Pointing out that this film was produced in the 1930’s does not redeem it. As I tweeted my 140 character review after leaving the library:

Short review of Corianton: By today’s standards, it wasn’t a very good movie. But by 1931 standards? Well, it wasn’t a very good movie.

Corianton – A Story of Unholy Love is black and white, with sound, and would probably earn a PG-13 rating today. There is some brief female nudity/near-nudity, largely just an incidental side shot. It follows the key scene depicting the seduction of Corianton, complete with dancing women and free-flowing wine. In the remarks before the screening, the staff at Special Collections and the family tried to put this in context with other productions from this time period, and seemed genuinely concerned about the reception of potentially risque scenes.

Those concerns may be appropriate for the LDS audience, but I think they are overblown. Viewed in 2009 the limited costume coverage is unremarkable, and the hip-grinding choreography is fun but chaotic and unimpressive. Honestly? Beyonce’s music video has more skin and hip-grinding action. (Hat tip: Kanye)

At 147 minutes, it is about 117 minutes too long. It’s heavy on dialogue, it moves slowly, the choreography is a mess, and the fights are laughable.

But viewed as an interesting project from the early years of LDS film, it’s worth the time. At least once. And who knows? It might be fun to watch this in a campy, cult-film fashion, dressing up (or down) in the costumes, repeating dialogue, and doing a little bit of hip-grinding dancing.

We desperately need an alternative to Saturday’s Warrior. Corianton just might have the makings of a hit.

13 comments for “Corianton – An Unholy Review

  1. heh, if we desperately need something, and campy affair is good enough, I could write something up. Though I doubt anyone would produce it. :)

  2. Rory, your title is as delightful as anything about this entire tale ever was — kudos!

    As you might imagine, I am *SO* jealous of your good fortune in attending the modern premiere. I’ve already started my appeal to James D’Arc and Gideon Burton and Randy Astle for the chance to see the restored movie myself, after all these years of working to put the story together (as an aside, here’s a hurrah for T&S’s own Kent Larsen for supplying a significant part of the puzzle, one I would have had little to no chance of finding on my own).

    I know the story itself is lousy, but I want to see what personal twists Lester Park may have put into it. You mention that the score was “fine” — it was written by the same man who scored the “Ben Hur” movie. You comment on the special effects of the lightning bolt — another point mentioned in contemporary documents. It’s those details, the ones I’ve heard about but never seen, that I want very much to see.

    So you’ve suffered for your art, Rory, by sitting through all of this, and just so you could report on it to the blogging audience! Thanks for your sacrifice. :)

  3. The film . . . would probably earn a PG-13 rating today. There is some brief female nudity/near-nudity, largely just an incidental side shot. It follows the key scene depicting the seduction of Corianton, complete with dancing women and free-flowing wine.

    Hmm — a pre-Hays Code LDS film. That’s an intriguing thought. Any chance of the film being made generally available (via DVD or download)? ..bruce..

  4. I don’t know whether it will be made available as a DVD, but I know there are whisperings of other screenings.

    Also, big thanks to Ardis, she provided the scanned image of the ad included in this post. I reduced the size significantly, so she still has the high-quality copy, but it’s a fun image.

    There are many more things to talk about with this film, including the dialogue. It mimics a Shakespearean style, but is interspersed with 1930s contemporary styles, and the result is very entertaining. For example, after a fairly long speech by Corianton using “thee” and “thou” and a carefully crafted rhythm, he ends it with “But seriously, let’s go see Korihor.”

    Pure comedy!

    I don’t want to come down too hard on this, my thoughts are really only echoing the contemporary critics.

    Seeing it, and the work to bring it out, is not a waste of time. The contribution of the film to Special Collections, and their restoration work, is significant. The film is more important than its content or reception, so big kudos to James D’Arc and Gideon Burton and the staff at the library for working to preserve this and make it available.

  5. For example, after a fairly long speech by Corianton using “thee” and “thou” and a carefully crafted rhythm, he ends it with “But seriously, let’s go see Korihor.”

    That’s golden! Gems like this are reason enough to see it.

  6. Honestly? Beyonce’s music video has more skin and hip-grinding action. (Hat tip: Kanye)

    This film is pretty risque, and I’m gonna let you see it, but Beyonce’s video is one of the most risque of ALL TIME!

  7. I’m a relative of Lester Park, through marriage, and actually play cards with his daughter all the time. His personal story, including his dedication to the Corianton project, is a difficult one. The movie itself represents a lot of grief for the family, so although I would love to view it as I have researched the topic like Ardis, I doubt a wider audience will ever see it.

  8. Tod,

    In the remarks before the screening, they touched on the grief experienced by the family. But I’m not entirely clear on the reasons for it – was it an obsession? Due to the financial difficulties after it failed to repay investors? The content of the film?

    The family was sensitive to the screening, and I debated tempering my post, but ultimately the film is not very good. I hope that I’ve struck a balance between being critical with the film itself, and yet appreciative of the efforts to restore it and make it available now.

    As for the quality of the film, I don’t think that can be blamed entirely on Park, as Beane gave him the raw materials to work with – the script and the story are simply bad. But Park did bring it to the big screen, and in that it seemed doom to fail.

    I’d be interested in some additional commentary, if you would share your thoughts.

  9. Tod, I’d also love to know more about the family’s reaction and memories about the film. I suspect some of the grief came from the suggestion in Salt Lake when the film premiered in 1931 that the film was somehow immoral because of the skin in it? (I realize I’m makeing a lot of assumpitions there). Really, there are plenty of members who would love to hear the Park family’s perspective on the project.

    I should also suggest to Ardis, and anyone else who knows Randy Astle, that Ardis not getting an invite wasn’t his idea nor anything he could do anything about. Randy has lived here in New York City for a couple of years now, and hasn’t been invovled with the restoration of the film at all. He got the invitation at the same time I did (roughly 1 1/2 weeks before the screening, IIRC), and I think we both assumed that Ardis was on the list.

    I do thank Ardis for the hat tip above. I do have a piece of the Corianton puzzle that hasn’t been passed on to others — but for some reason the BYU people haven’t been interested in it!!

    When I’m ready to publish, I’ll certainly post a notice here.

  10. There was only so much that Lester Park could do with a stinker of a script, and that’s the kindest thing that could be said about Bean’s plotting and writing. There are some very good elements about the movie itself, which I can say even without seeing it: the music, the costumes, the special effects were all forward looking. Perhaps even Bunny Welden’s Greenwich Dancers should be classed as a plus to Lester Park’s credit — that group, and their costumes, were certainly closer to what most of us would associate with Isabel’s harlotry than the chaste ballets of long-skirted Mormon girls from Logan!

    I hope to find more details to praise once I’ve seen the movie, although no doubt I’ll agree with Rory’s assessment that it is bad over all, *because* it follows Bean’s script. I’ve read too many other versions of his Corianton to be wiilling to give him (Bean) the benefit of the doubt — every benefit should go to the producers.

    After learning after the fact that the movie had been shown, I started contacting the BYU people I had provided with Corianton material to find out what hoops I needed to jump through to see it myself. Gideon Burton and Randy Astle both answered immediately with cordial notes, and both expressed regret that I hadn’t been invited. They’re both gentlemen.

    I’m interested in hearing anything any member of the family is willing to share about Park family angst concerning the movie. I suspect that part of their painful memories come from the lawsuits that Bean filed against Lester and Byron Park, and others, as well as the Parks’ having to file suits against Bean. The movie couldn’t have recouped its expenses, much less made a profit for investors, and that could possibly have caused as much heartache for the director as any negative evaluation of the film’s artistic merits.

    I couldn’t have worked with Bean. He’s a colorful character that I love writing about, but I could not have worked with him. The Parks did, and that had to have left scars.

    (Sorry, Rory, for another essay-length comment.)

  11. Well in answer to your request: I don’t know if I’m allowed to share the details. I have been told on numerous occasions not to bring it up with his daughter as it is an embarrassing part of the family past. I think that’s all I can say, without talking to members of the family.


  12. For those interested, I’m told that anyone who goes to the Lee Library on BYU’s campus can see the film there — its part of the normally accessible collection.

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