Keys of the Kingdom, The (1945): Gregory Peck Oscar Nominated Performance

Gregory Peck became a major star after playing Father Francis Chisom in John M. Stahl’s bio-epic “The Keys of the Kingdom,” for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

This movie, alongside “Spellbolund” and “The Valley of Decision,” established Peck’s screen persona as a decent, dignified, liberal, and sensitive hero, the epitome of which could be found in his 1962 Oscar-winning turn, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Based on the 1941 best-selling novel by A. J. Cronin, “The Keys to the Kingdom” was one of Fox’s prestige productions, adapted by Nunnally Johnson (who would become a director), directed by John M. Stahl (who specialized in melodramas), and produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (later the director of “All About Eve” and other great films).

At one time, Hitchcock considered adapting the novel to the big screen.  Among the actors considered for the role of Father Chisholm were Spencer TracyOrson WellesEdward G. Robinson, and Henry FondaIngrid Bergman, who co-starred with Peck in “Spellbound,” was a top contender for the part of Mother Maria-Veronica, which went to Rose Stradner, wife of producer Mankiewicz.

The stately (rather square) biopic chronicles the heroic, sacrificial service of a father who used “unconventional” methods and was known for his “eccentric” personality.  For example, he cultivated a lifelong friendship with Dr. Willie Tulloch (Thomas Mitchell)  a confirmed atheist, until the latter’s death, during a visit to the missionary.

Told in flashback, accompanied by voice-over narration from the memoirs of Fr. Chisom’s journals, the story begins with Chisom as a boy (Roddy McDowall growing up in Scotland with a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. Orphaned at a young age due to anti-Catholic violence, Francis decides to become a priest.

His life changes radically, when he is sent to China to be a missionary by a superior (Edmund Gwenn) who recognizes his merits–eccentric and idiosyncratic as they were. Quite predictably, once out there (in the middle of nowhere), he faces a series of hardships and harassments, but his unfailing idealism, humility and decency enable him to accomplish his goals.

Chisom takes risks while conducting a surgery, which ends up saving the son of a local Mandarin. As gratitude, the Mandarin offers to support Chisom’s work by becoming a Christian. Chisom refuses but does accept an offer of land and support for a new mission. Chisom’s faith and perseverance are put to the test by an aristocratic mother superior (Rosa Stradner), the attitudes of various clerical superiors (represented by Vincent Price), military atrocities, and other missionaries.

Fox’s hit “The Song of Bernadette, the spiritual epic the previous year, for which Jennifer Jones had received Best Actress Oscar, must have inspired the studio to look for another best-selling religious novel to adapt.

“The Keys of the Kingdom” author Cronin was Catholic. Yet Werfel seemed willing to honor the religious context of his story and subject matter, while the perspective at work in Cronin’s novel seems less than pious. Cronin was a Scottish Catholic with a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. His book is dedicated to a friend who was a longtime missionary to China, whose experiences provided Cronin with material for his story. Prior to becoming a writer, Cronin was a medical doctor, the same profession as Chisom’s atheist friend, Dr. Willie Tulloch (played by Thomas Mitchell).

Toward the end of the novel, Fr. Chisom acknowledges the Church as “our mother,” but goes on to suggest that “perhaps there are other mothers” even in non-Christian religions such as Confucianism.

The filmmakers have softened Fr. Chisom’s views. Chisom comments about Christ and Confucius is revised to suggest that “The Christian is a good man, but the Confucian usually has a better sense of humor.”

Aware of their predominantly Protestant audience, the filmmakers minimize the priest’s specifically Catholic identity. Typically of its times, the end result is a rather generic and bland tribute to Christian virtue through the life of a flawed but extraordinary hero.

Alfred Newman incorporated Irish and Chinese elements into the score.  The song “The Hill of the Brilliant Green Jade” derives form the story of Chinese nobleman who befriends Father Chisholm after saving his son’s life.

Cast

Gregory Peck … Father Francis Chisholm

Thomas Mitchell … Dr. Willie Tulloch

Vincent Price … Anselm “Angus” Mealey

Rose Stradner … Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica

Roddy McDowall… Francis Chisholm, as a boy

Edmund Gwenn … Reverend Hamish MacNabb

Sir Cedric Hardwicke … Monsignor Sleeth at Tweedside

Dennis Hoey … Alec Chisholm, Francis’ father

Ruth Nelson … Lisbeth Chisholm, Francis’ mother

Edith Barrett … Aunt Polly Bannon

Peggy Ann Garner … Nora, as a girl

Jane Ball … Nora, as an adult

James Gleason … Rev. Dr. Wilbur Fiske

Anne Revere … Agnes Fiske

Ruth Nelson … Mrs. Chisholm, Francis’ mother

Benson Fong … Joseph

Leonard Strong … Mr. Chia

Philip Ahn … Mr. Pao, envoy for Mr. Chia

Arthur Shields … Father Tarrant, at Holywell

Sara Allgood … Sister Martha

 

End Note

 

“The Keys of the Kingdom” was also adapted as a radio play, first on November 19, 1945 episode of Lux Radio Theater, with Ronald Colman,

 

Oscar Alert

 

Oscar Nominations: 4

 

Actor: Gregory Peck

Cinematography (black-and-white): Arthur Miller

Interior decoration (b/w): James Basevi and William Darling; art direction, Thomas Little and Frank E. Hughes

Score (Dramatic or Musical): Alfred Newman

 

Oscar Awards: None

 

Oscar Context:

 

The winner of the Best Actor Oscar was Ray Milland for Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend,” which also won Best Picture.

 

The cinematography Oscar went to Harry Stradling for “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Miklos Rosza won the Score Oscar for “Spellbound,” which also starred Gregory Peck.

 

“Blood on the Sun” won the Art Direction Oscar.