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October 8, 2009
In The Village
Grandpa's film made us proud
by Orson Scott Card

I was still a little kid in the 1950s when I found out that my mother's father had produced a feature film based on the Book of Mormon back in 1931, at the dawn of the era of talking pictures.

With the title Corianton, the full-length feature was based on a play by Orestes U. Bean, which my grandfather, Lester Park, had seen as a boy in the Salt Lake Theatre.

The play had moved him greatly, and when he got into the film business it became his goal to make a full-length feature film that would affect audiences the way the play had affected him.

(What I didn't know was that the play was in turn based on a novella by B.H. Roberts, who was the first to tie the story of Korihor with the tale of Corianton, the son of Alma -- though Elder Roberts was never credited by Bean.)

There was a 16mm copy of the film in the family, and I remember the day my dad set up a projector and showed the film on the wall above the dining table.

I was young. All I remembered was that it was long, there was a lot of talking and shouting, and I didn't understand any of it. But hey, Grandpa made the movie and, for many long decades, it remained not just the first but the only commercial film made by Mormons on a Mormon theme.

Later I learned that the family story surrounding the film was a source of some pain. Because, you see, the film was a complete flop -- and my grandfather was given all the blame.

There were mistakes, and they were doozies: Grandpa agreed to a no-rewrites contract with Bean (though there were cuts), so he was stuck with a playscript. He hired a stage director from New York instead of a film director. And the actors used their best onstage voices and acting -- even in closeup, where the camera made them seem ridiculous.

But these were the same mistakes that all the studios made when talkies began. They assumed that now that the actors had voices, the legitimate theatre had something to offer filmmakers. They were wrong.

The difference between them and Grandpa Lester was that they had deep pockets and could learn from their mistakes. Grandpa had raised money for the one film, and when it tanked, there was nothing left.

Not only that, but with the investors blaming him for everything, and plenty of ridicule from reviewers, it became an excruciating embarrassment to the family -- especially to my mother, who was a little girl about eight years old at the time.

It tore the family apart, because Grandpa was forced to flee the state of Utah to avoid endless lawsuits and the threat of prosecution.

(Though in fact he broke no law; he simply raised some of the money from naive people who didn't understand that the fee to the producer was a legitimate part of the budget of the film. They thought that because he pocketed his salary when they lost their whole investment, he must be a crook.)

For five years, the family was separated except for quick visits when Grandpa took the train from New York to Los Angeles and back. And since this was in the midst of the Great Depression, the family's poverty and Grandpa's absence were forever associated in memory.

After more than three quarters of a century, the film had languished to such a degree that curator James D'Arc of the BYU Motion Picture Archive wasn't sure whether Corianton had ever actually been filmed, let alone released. Then I called him and told him about the existence of our print. Would BYU like to have it -- and restore it?

It was something of a red-letter day for us as a family when we recently attended the first viewing of a restored version of Corianton. It can now take its place in film history as the first feature-length commercial movie made by Mormons and based on a Mormon subject.

Having had quite a bit of experience with the nightmare of trying to get movies made today, I have long appreciated the magnitude of Grandpa Lester's achievement. And since he did his best to follow the Cecil B. DeMille formula of scripture-based movies, he had every reason to believe that the movie would succeed.

Plenty of famous directors and actors and producers and major studio executives have made mistakes far worse than his, and made far more expensive flops. He joins illustrious company, and I'm proud of him.

I never met my grandfather. He died of a stroke when I was still a baby, after lingering, paralyzed, for about a year.

The nurses told the family afterward that in his suffering and humiliation, having others tend to all his bodily needs, they never heard him raise his voice or utter a bad word; he was unfailingly courteous to them, thanking them for every service they performed.

In pursuing my own career as a writer of fiction, plays, and movies, I learned several important things from Grandpa's experience making Corianton:

1. Regular people -- even my own relatives! -- could dream of great artistic projects and make them happen.

2. Following your dream can lead to awful costs for your family. I grimly determined that family must come first, and if the dream isn't working, set it aside.

3. Success has a million friends; fail, and you're on your own among the sharks.

4. Never be ashamed when your creation finds a small audience, or none, or a hostile one, as long as you did all that you could do.

5. Don't ever fund a project using the money of naive investors; don't ever exploit their faith to raise money.

6. God doesn't guarantee either the quality or the success of Mormon art, even if your purpose and theme are pious. God's purposes are served whether you succeed or not; when it comes to art, you're on your own.

7. In adapting a film from a story created in another medium, never be excessively faithful to the original.

My Aunt Bernice Spencer had a chance to see an early screening of the restored film before she passed away. My mother was there a few weeks ago at the screening of the finished project.

It closed a chapter in the family's history. Grandpa's movie had finally brought, not distress, but honor to the family. My mother, who had always adored him, could also be proud of him.

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