One Hundred Years of Mormonism
the first feature-length documentary ever made

"One Hundred Years of Mormonism" was the sixth feature film ever made in the United States. Perhaps more significantly, it was the first feature-length documentary ever made.

Prior to the debut of "One Hundred Years of Mormonism" and two other documentaries in 1913, most "documentaries" had really been one-reel "actualities" -- short (10 to 15 minutes) films that simply captured actual events in front of a camera. These would typically feature little or no editing.

"One Hundred Years of Mormonism" was directed by Wisconsin native Norval MacGregor, working from Nell Shipman's writing. Newspapers of the day noted that in its dramatization of historical events, the film cast Brigham Young's actual grandson Frank Young in the role of his grandfather. Frank Young would later serve as the cinematographer for over two dozen films.

"One Hundred Years of Mormonism" was Norval MacGregor's feature-length directorial debut. MacGregor, who was also an actor, directed at least one dozen films between 1913 and 1927. "Colorado" (1915) is one of his best-known silent films.

Canadian-born Shipman was quite a filmmaker herself. Not only was she a successful actress, she also wrote over a dozen films and directed films such as "The Girl From God's Country" (1921) and "Something New" (1920). Shipman's films were noted for their portrayal of women in strong, heroic roles.

The list below and the paragraph that follows appear on page 10 in Robertson's authoritative and exhaustive reference work Film Facts. [Patrick Robertson. Film Facts. New York: Billboard Books (2001). Earlier editions of this work published as The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats by Guinness Publishing Ltd.]

The First Twelve Feature Films Produced in the USA
May 1912 Oliver Twist (5 reels) H. A. Spanuth
Oct 1912 From the Manger to the Cross (6 reels) Karem Co.
Oct 1912 Richard III (4 reels) Sterling Camera & Film Co.
Nov 1912 Cleopatra (6 reels) Helen Gardner Picture Plays
Nov 1912 The Adventures of Lieutenant Petrosino   Feature Photoplay Co.
Feb 1913 One Hundred Years of Mormonism (6 reels) Utah Moving Picture Co.; Ellay Co.
Feb 1913 A Prisoner of Zenda (4 reels) Famous Players Film Co.
March (?) 1913 Hiawatha (4 reels) Frank E.Moore
June 1913 The Battle of Gettysburg (5 reels) NY Motion Picture Co.
July 1913 The Seed of the Fathers (6 reels) Monopol Film Co.
Aug (?) 1913 Victory (5 reels) Victory Co.
Sept 1913 Tess of the D'Urbervilles (5 reels) Famous Players Film Co.

It is worthy of note that neither Cecil B. DeMille's The Squaw Man (1914) nor D. W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia (1914), each of which has been citted as the first feature produced in the US, appears above.

The first feature-length documentary ever made in the United States was "One Hundred Years of Mormonism." This film is also the first feature-length documentary made anywhere, about any subject, although it ties for this honor with two other films.

According to Robertson's Film Facts (page 211):

The first feature-length documentaries were Paul Rainey's eight-reel African Hunt (US 1912); a dramatised production in five reels called One Hundred Years of Mormonism (US 1912); and Akaky Tsereteli's Journey Along the Racha and Lechkhuma (Rus 1912) by the Georgian director Vasily Amashukeli.

"Nanook of the North" was not released until 1922 -- 9 years later

It is not unusual to see some film writers and journalists refer to Robert Flaherty's "Nanook of the North" as the first feature-length documentary ever made. Flaherty's film is fascinating and highly watchable (although much of it was staged), but it was not released until 1922.

Flaherty did not not film any Eskimos until 1913, after "One Hundred Years of Mormonism" was already made. Moreover, all of the film footage that Flaherty made in 1913 and 1914 was destroyed by fire. He did not return to capture the film footage that would become "Nanook of the North" until 1920.

In a 1922 essay, How I Filmed Nanook of the North, Flaherty himself wrote:

While wintering in Baffin Land during 1913-14 films of the country and the natives were made as was also done on the succeeding expedition to the Belcher Islands. The film, in all, about 30,000 feet, was brought out safely, at the conclusion of the explorations, to Toronto, where, while editing the material, I had the misfortune of losing it all by fire. Though it seemed to be a tragedy at the time, I am not sure but what it was a bit of fortune that it did burn, for it was amateurish enough.

My interest in films, from then on, grew.

New forms of travel film were coming out and the Johnson South Sea Island film particularly seemed to me to be an earnest of what might be done in the North. I began to believe that a good film depicting the Eskimo and his fight for existence in the dramatically barren North might be well worth while. To make a long story short, I decided to go north again -- this time wholly for the purpose of making films.

Mr. John Revillon and Captain Thierry Mallet of Revillon Freres became interested and decided to finance my project. It proved to be a happy arrangement, for among the Revillon Freres' vast system of fur posts which lie scattered through northern Canada I was enabled to use one of these posts as the nucleus for my work. This post was on Cape Dufferin on northeastern Hudson Bay and about 800 miles north of the rail frontier in northern Ontario. The journey thither began on the eighteenth of June, 1920.

[Additional notes]

From The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, by D. Michael Quinn (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997):

Jan 1913 - Deseret News favorably reviews "One Hundred Years of Mormonism," first commercial film about Mormons made with cooperation of church officials. The 6 reel, 90 minute silent film features one of Brigham Young's grandsons in the role of his grandfather.

While there has been much made of films critical to the LDS church, it's interesting to note that one of the first films about Mormons and polygamy was called "A Trip to Salt Lake City." It was a parlor comedy in the vein of "The Importance of Being Ernest," in which the father kept confusing the names of his many children. The film delighted local audiences of all faiths and denominations. In addition, LDS authorities cooperated on the making of a film titled "One Hundred Years of Mormonism" in 1913.

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