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The Keys of the Kingdom
Studio Classics

The Keys of the Kingdom
1944 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 137 min. / Street Date July 11, 2006 / 14.98
Starring Gregory Peck, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Rose Stradner, Roddy McDowall, Edmund Gwenn, Cedric Hardwicke, Peggy Ann Garner, Jane Ball, James Gleason, Anne Revere
Cinematography Arthur Miller
Art Direction James Basevi, William Darling
Film Editor James B. Clark
Original Music Alfred Newman
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Nunnally Johnson from a novel by A.J. Cronin
Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Directed by John M. Stahl

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of the better films with a religious theme is 1944's The Keys of the Kingdom, an epic-length (for that year) version of the A.J. Cronin novel about a Scottish missionary's life in China. Fox had done extremely well with The Song of Bernadette the previous year. Religious films made money, launched stars and earned Oscars. Other studios leaped into the fray as well, resulting in the Oscar winner Going My Way.

The Keys of the Kingdom contains no narrative surprises but shows discretion, taste and class thanks to the writing of producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who re-worked Nunnally Johnson's original script. Although it was the second film role for tyro star Gregory Peck, it was his first movie released and he earned an Academy Award nomination of his own. Peck was one of the biggest 'discoveries' of the war years.


In 1938, the Monsignor of Tweedside, Scotland (Cedric Hardwicke) comes to tell elderly Father Francis Chisholm (Gregory Peck) that he's being removed from his parish for unreliability. But Monsignor stays up all night reading Father Chisholm's diary ... Fifty years before, Francis's parents are drowned in a river after an anti-Catholic assault. Francis (Roddy McDowall) is raised by his Aunt Polly (Edith Barrett of I Walked With a Zombie) and hopes to marry young Nora, but as it works out, he becomes an initially rather ineffectual priest. Francis' mentor Father Hamish MacNabb (Edmund Gwenn) sends him to China, where he'll hopefully do better fighting real problems instead of butting heads with legalistic church bureaucrats MacNabb calls "ecclesiastical mechanics."

In China Chisholm has to start in a single room but does well when he takes on a dedicated follower named Joseph (Benson Fong). Then Chisholm uses rudimentary medicine to save the life of the son of an influential merchant, Mr. Chia (Leonard Strong). Chia eventually gives Chisholm land and builds him a regular mission outpost with a church, dispensary and school. Nuns come from Europe to help, but Father Chisholm is disappointed when their leader, Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica (Rosa Stradner) is hostile and unfriendly. Chisholm's old Scottish friend Doctor Willie Tulloch visits just in time to help when the local town is caught in a war between nationalists and imperialists. To save the mission and his many new Christian converts, Father Chisholm helps nationalist Lt. Shon (Richard Loo) destroy an enemy gun. Later, Father Chisholm's old friend, the politically adroit Father Angus Mealey (Vincent Price) pays an unpleasant visit. After he's gone, Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica declares that she was wrong, that Father Chisholm is a fine priest. When he turns old and gray, and when Joseph has grown children, Father Chisholm reluctantly returns to Scotland.

The Keys of the Kingdom has all the necessary elements and touches all the proper bases to attract a heavenly box office. Young Father Chisholm is devout and well meaning but has questions that soften Catholic credos -- why should good people of other faiths be denied entry into the Kingdom of God?, why would God punish an atheist?, etc. Father Chisholm is disappointed by a failed love that we barely see -- the unhappy Nora has a baby out of wedlock and then kills herself, and we don't know if it's because she had a complete breakdown of faith in herself and Francis or if Aunt Polly made life unbearable for her. The movie lets this issue drop, as Nora's illegitimate child matures and also "goes bad" but unseen, off-screen. Francis' formative debacles are the death of his parents due to a hate crime, and a bad business involving a woman. We're never told if she's weak, corrupt, mentally unstable or just unlucky. It doesn't seem to matter.

No, fate and Father MacNabb have decided that Francis' future is in the priesthood, even though his first attempts to fit in fail. MacNabb recognizes these failures as evidence of strong virtues and gives him the big missionary job. Missionary work was so risky and tough that we wonder exactly what MacNabb was thinking; even in the movie Hawaii the Protestant missionaries are chosen for toughness, and certainly not sent out alone.

Father Chisholm's experience in China is of course a miracle of hard work, luck and inspiration. With only one follower, Francis accepts an abandoned child (one would think the streets would be crowded with starving children) but refuses a hollow offer from an influential man in his debt to become a convert. Father Chisholm's ethics pay off again and again, even when it takes forever. The prejudiced German head Nun serves the mission but snubs Francis for years, until she finally sees the light.

The Keys of the Kingdom doesn't have any scenes of conversions easily bought and it doesn't confuse issues of faith with ideas of class, race or politics. It's actually very good in suggesting that Francis' Catholic Church superiors work in a competitive world of influence that favors advancement for an insincere smoothie like Vincent Price's Angus Mealey. The system is basically sound because good men like the gruff Monsignor can be righteously influenced when they are aware of the truth.

Like many movies about missionaries (The Inn of the Sixth Happiness) or even Westerners in Asia (Anna and the King of Siam), The Keys of the Kingdom shows Father Chisholm assuming moral leadership during medical crises and other social disturbances, like the civil war. The rich Mr. Chia flees for the hills, giving us the notion that Francis' mission is the only responsible civic organization still functioning. When push comes to shove, he stops begging for permission to aid the wounded and instead takes an active military role. It's interesting that when Francis takes one side of a conflict (to defend the poor) the audience's approval is assured. In today's real world activist missionaries fighting for the rights of indigenous populations are more likely to be targeted by both sides, even the conservative "Christian" forces.

Gregory Peck is handsome and earnest in his first big role, and Rosa Stradner (Mankiewicz's wife) does well in her limited part. They have a church-acceptable emotional parting scene that goes as far as it can without implying a state of suppressed romance. Thomas Mitchell is fine as the dear doctor friend who happens to be an outspoken atheist, a bad mark on Father Chisholm's record that bothers him not one bit. In the film's further push toward universal tolerance, James Gleason and Anne Revere play a Methodist missionary couple delighted to find Father Chisholm to be open-minded and friendly.

That interpretation is of course prompted by decades of trashy dramas focusing on priests and nuns breaking their vows. The deplorable way our culture now operates, I'm sure that people will be tempted toward other negative thoughts when they see Father Chisholm accept a tiny girl tot named Anna (Eunace Soo-Hoo) as his ward.

Fox's Studio Classics release of The Keys of the Kingdom is a fine B&W transfer of this once-popular inspirational picture. Alfred Newman's score is boldly presented on the clean audio track. Besides the trailer, there are audio tracks in English stereo, English mono, Spanish and French.

The big disappointment is the commentary track with Mankiewicz's biographer Kenneth Geist and the writer/producer's son, Chris Mankiewicz. The track is so sparse that one sometimes has to scan for a minute to get to the next patch of commentary. Chris mumbles and offers half-hearted opinions, saying he knows nothing about the history of Catholics as presented by Hollywood, before going into an inconsequential discussion of the subject. When we can find him, Mr. Geist gives us some fine background on the famous writer and director but makes odd small errors, like saying that Edmund Gwenn died in 1949, or that Inn of the Sixth Happiness was filmed in China. We don't learn much about director John M. Stahl except that he made a lot of 1930s weepies (cue list of films) that were re-made by Douglas Sirk in the 1950s (cue list of films). Where's Fox commentator Robert S. Birchard when we need him?

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Keys of the Kingdom rates:
Movie: Very Good / Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: still gallery, trailer, commentary by Kenneth Geist and Chris Mankiewicz.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed:July 3 , 2006

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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