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The Keys of the Kingdom

The Keys of the Kingdom(1945)

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Faith can move mountains. Once in a while it can even move movies. A case in point is The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), standing atop a swath of Hollywood movies that range from the respectfully devotional -- The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Nun's Story (1959) -- to the almost panderingly sentimental - Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary's (1945). It rides Gregory Peck's breakthrough performance as a priest too humble to entertain the thought that religion is more often embodied and sustained by foot soldiers like him than by its princes.

There's almost a built-in contradiction in the spectacle of Hollywood's huge studio apparatus being hitched to the story of a religious vocation doggedly pursued with simplicity, humanity and integrity in the face of vicissitudes ranging from war to spiritual compromise. But it's surmounted by the straightforward honesty and unadorned integrity in reaction shot after reaction shot of Peck in close-up, cementing his career-to-be playing characters of unswerving rectitude and decency, this time as a Catholic priest, Father Francis Chisholm. Although Chisholm describes himself as stumbling and inadequate in his journal that frames the film and ends it in 1938, he unwaveringly follows his conscience and follows his heart, during nearly four decades as a missionary in China.

Like A.J. Cronin, upon whose novel The Keys of the Kingdom is based, Father Chisholm is Scottish, with a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. Orphaned young by anti-Catholic violence, he makes his way into the priesthood. Although never deviating from keeping the faith, the young priest brings to it Cronin's sense of astringent skepticism. Completely impolitic, it soon becomes apparent to his wise Bishop (Edmund Gwenn) that Chisholm's virtues are best utilized abroad, in this case rural China. Soon after arriving, his lancing of the wound of a mandarin's son wins him a powerful friend, who donates land and labor to build a new mission to replace the dilapidated one at which he arrived.

When the mandarin offers to convert to Catholicism out of gratitude, however, Father Chisholm says thanks, but no thanks, that it only really counts if you believe in your heart. So it goes during the next few busy decades. Comporting himself with kindness and humility, Father Chisholm attracts a loyal following from among the peasants whose lives he betters with education and medical treatment.

The latter involves meeting up with his best boyhood friend, Willie Tulloch, now a medical doctor and self-proclaimed atheist. As played by the ever-endearing Thomas Mitchell, Willie warms the film, helps combat diseases and pestilences, and provides yet another way for Father Chisholm to cause the Church's higher-ups to take a dim view of him when he proclaims, upon Willie's death, that there is surely room in heaven for such an atheist. Earlier, the low priority he places on political correctness is tartly expressed when he observes that the Christian is a good man, but the Confucian has a better sense of humor. Like Cronin, Father Chisholm clearly takes the view - which does not help his ecclesiastical career -- that the Catholic Church is not uniquely equipped to offer salvation.

Of course the point is that he doesn't see his priesthood as a career, but as a calling. Father Chisholm also locks horns with the stern Austrian aristocrat Reverend Mother in charge of the two nuns who arrive to teach and help administer the clinic. Rosa Stradner (an Austrian actress married to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film's producer and co-scriptwriter with Nunnally Johnson) plays this formidable figure, all too aware she has arrogance issues, authoritatively yet with humanity. She and Peck have the film's most moving scene, toward the end, when, reading his journal entry for the day before he is about to return home to Scotland, he describes the deep regard he has developed for her abilities and devotion. She, while maintaining all proper distance, responds in a speech of extreme delicacy, describing how she has grown to appreciate and respect him, too. The restraint is part of what makes it touching.

In fact, the measure of the spirituality of Father Chisholm's superiors can be measured by their regard and appreciation of him. Certainly, Gwenn makes us feel he was a good choice as bishop because of his ability to read people's hearts. Cedric Hardwicke, appearing as a cleric in the film's framing scenes, makes his brief screen time count, too, as he convincingly expresses a new respect for the humble priest after sitting up all night reading his journal.

The Keys of the Kingdom falters only in its two-dimensional performance by Vincent Price, as Father Chisholm's boyhood friend and fellow Catholic, whose worldliness and careerism never hide a smugness that accompany his rapid rise through the Church hierarchy, and does more than hint that the less spiritual you are, the easier you play the power game. Clearly, he's too close to power and worldliness to ever have it occur to him to bring up sins of pride when confessing. He, naturally, thinks of Father Chisholm, who towers above him spiritually, as a loser.

Again and again, one is impressed by the depth of talent on studio rosters of the time, in this case 20th Century-Fox. Not just Gwenn, Mitchell, Hardwicke, and Price, but James Gleason, Roddy McDowall (Chisholm as a boy), Peggy Ann Garner, Anne Revere and Benson Fong dot the cast list in this solidly crafted film - measured, stately, patient, never loud or pounding (except when the mission is caught in a war between imperial and nascent republican troops, and Father Chisholm briefly takes up arms!). It would have to be because it's essentially a film about interiority translated into service, a film of cumulative increments. Given the time it was made, it of course goes nowhere near the imperialist implications of its well-meaning agenda. The bottom line is that The Keys of the Kingdom and Peck convince us they're about a man in a cassock spending his life trying to do the right thing.

Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Director: John M. Stahl
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Nunnally Johnson; based on the novel by A.J. Cronin
Cinematography: Arthur Miller
Art Direction: James Basevi, William Darling
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: James B. Clark
Cast: Gregory Peck (Father Francis Chisholm), Thomas Mitchell (Willie Tulloch), Vincent Price (Angus Mealey), Rosa Stradner (Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica), Roddy McDowall (Francis Chisholm, as a boy), Edmund Gwenn (Father Hamish MacNabb),Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Monsignor at Tweedside), 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).

by Jay Carr

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