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The opening title card of this film reads: "Twentieth Century-Fox presents A. J. Cronin's The Keys of the Kingdom." A written epilogue reads, "'And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven'.....Christ to Peter." Throughout the film, narration of "Monsignor Sleeth" reading aloud from "Father Francis Chisholm's" diary is heard. Although Richard Loo's character is referred to as "Lieutenant Shon" in contemporary and modern sources, he is called "Major Shen" in the film. A condensed version of Cronin's novel appeared in the July 1942 issue of Ladies Home Journal.
According to information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, in May and August 1941, M-G-M, Twentieth Century-Fox and producer Frank Vincent expressed interest in purchasing the rights to Cronin's book before it was bought by David O. Selznick. On October 6, 1941, New York Times reported that Selznick, who had purchased the property for $100,000, would cast Ingrid Bergman as "Maria Veronica" and release the film through United Artists, of which he had just become a partner. Modern sources report that Rosalind Russell also read for the part of Maria Veronica, and that Cronin was one of the writers who worked on the film's screenplay for Selznick. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Selznick was going to start shooting the film in mid-February 1942, with Bergman, Jennifer Jones [who was then known as Phyllis Walker] and Shakesperean actor Maurice Evans.
In January 1942, Hollywood Reporter announced that Selznick intended to start production in mid-May, and other Hollywood Reporter news items in February and March 1942 noted that Sir Cedric Hardwicke was to be tested for the role of "Father Fitzgerald" [a character that does not appear in the completed film]; K. T. Stevens, Burgess Meredith and Gene Kelly would be tested; Jones was set for the part of "Nora"; Alan Marshal had been given a role; and that Franchot Tone was testing for the role of "Father Francis Chisholm." Among the many actors who were considered for the role of Chisholm, according to contemporary sources, were Evans, Spencer Tracy, Dean Jagger and Orson Welles, while modern sources note that those considered included Kelly, Henry Fonda, Joseph Cotten, Alan Ladd, Edward G. Robinson and Van Heflin.
On September 17, 1942, Hollywood Reporter noted that Selznick's production plans were "temporarily stymied" due to his inability to find the right actor to play Chisholm, and that he was considering making an "outside deal," similar to the one he made with M-G-M to have Clark Gable star in Gone With the Wind. The news item reported that if Selznick did offer the distribution rights to the property in exchange for the services of a male star, the loan-out of Bergman and Jones would be stipulated.
In late September 1942, Hollywood Reporter announced that Selznick would be selling The Keys of the Kingdom and the rest of his literary properties and personal contracts to Paramount, but the deal was not struck. In mid-November 1942, Selznick instead sold The Keys of the Kingdom, the script of Jane Eyre and the rights to Claudia to Twentieth Century-Fox. The sale included the services of Bergman in addition to several other Selznick contractees for other projects. [For more information on the sale, please see the entry above for Claudia.] A November 1942 Twentieth Century-Fox press release announced that Nunnally Johnson would produce the picture in addition to writing the script, and a April 16, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that the picture had been placed on the "directorial schedule" of Alfred Hitchcock, who was one of the Selznick artists loaned to Twentieth Century-Fox.
After Johnson left Twentieth Century-Fox, the project was turned over to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who substantially rewrote the script. According to modern sources, Johnson protested Mankiewicz' attempt to receive sole onscreen writing credit, and after arbitration, the Screen Writers' Guild decreed that Mankiewicz and Johnson would share onscreen billing. The Keys of the Kingdom was the only picture produced by Mankiewicz for Twentieth Century-Fox, although he did write and direct numerous films for the company.
The Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, contain an June 8, 1943 letter from Selznick's lawyer, Daniel O'Shea, to studio attorney George Wasson, stating that Twentieth Century-Fox had been released from its obligation to star Bergman as Maria Veronica due to the studio's inability to start shooting by a previously agreed upon date. O'Shea specifically cited as problematic the lack of a director and leading man for the project, and noted that the script did not yet have a big enough role for Bergman. The February 4, 1944 issue of Tidings, a Catholic newspaper, reported that both Geraldine Fitzgerald and Rosa Stradner, who eventually won the role, were tested for Maria Veronica. Stradner, who was married to Mankiewicz, had not appeared in a picture since the 1944 Columbia production Blind Alley.
A June 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Dana Andrews was "reported to be under consideration" for a top role in the film, and in late July 1943, it was announced that Gregory Peck had been signed to play Chisholm. According to a January 14, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, Lillian Bronson was tested for the role of "Aunt Polly." The February 1944 Tidings news item also noted that Mary Anderson and Trudy Marshall were the "chief contenders" for the role of "Nora," and that Ethel Griffies had been signed to play "Mrs. Glennie" and Helen Craig was assigned the role of "Rosa." Although Anderson and Craig are listed on Hollywood Reporter production charts, they do not appear in the finished film. Several contemporary sources include Griffies in the film's cast, but the legal records reveal that scenes featuring Griffies and the following actors were cut before the picture's release: Pedro de Cordoba (Father Gomez); Morton Lowry (Thad); Robert Barrat (Willie's father); Terry Kilburn (Willie as a boy); John Herbert Bond (Malcolm Glennie); and Lumsden Hare (Mr. Glennie). Although Hollywood Reporter production charts include Aubrey Mather and Maxwell Hayes in the cast, Mather did not appear in the completed picture, and Hayes's appearance has not been confirmed. Edmund Gwenn was borrowed from M-G-M for the production. Many contemporary news items commented on the picture's approximately $3,000,000 budget, the studio's highest of the year.
The property came under heavy scrutiny by the PCA, which, in 1941, strongly cautioned the prospective buyers of Cronin's novel that it possessed three major difficulties: the negative characterizations of numerous priests; the treatment of Catholic beliefs and practices such as an episode in which a priest endorses a woman's false claim that her child has exhibited signs of the stigmata; and possible problems with the portrayal of war-lords, pestilence and famine in China. The book received harsh criticism from Catholic reviewers upon its publication, and the PCA file indicates that a number of religious figures and organizations were opposed to the production of a film based on Cronin's work. In discussing the potential problems with Selznick, PCA official Joseph I. Breen advised him to obtain the services of religious and Chinese technical advisors. Jesuit priests Albert R. O'Hara, who had served as a missionary in China, and Wilfrid Parsons worked extensively with Selznick, and with Twentieth Century-Fox. Breen specifically recommended that the services of Father John J. Devlin be obtained, as Los Angeles Archbishop John J. Cantwell had officially appointed him as the Church's technical advisor on motion picture production.
According to modern sources, Father Devlin was consulted. In February 1944, Breen received a letter from T. K. Chang, the Chinese Consul, who strongly urged that the Chinese village and peoples not be portrayed as they had in the book, which he described as a "serious distortion." Modern sources disclose that the Chinese village sets were specifically designed to appear orderly and clean to avoid giving any offense to the Chinese government. Upon its release, The Keys of the Kingdom was approved by the Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization, as unobjectionable for general audiences, with the reservation that it contained "statements by the leading character, the priest, which are susceptible to meaning not in accordance with Catholic doctrine."
Ronald Colman and Ann Harding appeared on the November 19, 1945 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of the story. In the March 22, 1947 Saturday Evening Post "The Role I Liked Best" column, Peck cited Chisholm as his favorite role because of its "range and variety." Peck received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for the film, although he lost to Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. The Keys of the Kingdom also received Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (both for black and white) and Best Music (scoring of a dramatic or comedic picture).