THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, a ‘prestige’ drama from 1944, the year’s other movie about a Catholic priest. While not a smash hit like the warm Going My Way, this expensive and lengthy adaptation of A. J. Cronin’s novel won applause and made a star out of Gregory Peck, 27, in his second film after debuting in Days Of Glory earlier in the year. His sensitive portrayal of the lead character earned him his first Oscar nomination (Bing Crosby’s ‘Father O’Malley’ smiled away with it the trophy), and set the tone for the essential Peck persona as a man of integrity. Episodic and fairly affecting, it’s a good, fair-minded film that will impress even those not usually won over by religion-themed stories.
The saga of ‘Father Francis Chisholm’ (Peck) runs from 1878 until 1938, mostly covering his many years at his mission station in China. Roddy McDowall plays the character as a boy in Scotland, and Edmund Gwenn features largely in the segment set there. Gwenn makes a go at a Scot accent, Peck and other actors (Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price) don’t bother, but it’s not terribly distracting. Both Mitchell and Price show up later in China as well. Important secondary roles are well handled by Rose Stradner (the icy ‘Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica’) and Benson Fong (‘Joseph’, Chisholm’s first Chinese convert and loyal friend).
Director John M. Stahl took plenty of care, and time; the shoot lasted almost six months, used 70 sets and ended up costing $3,000,000. Nunnally Johnson and Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote the screenplay. Besides Peck’s acknowledgement from the Academy, nominations also went to the art direction, cinematography and scoring. The praise was some balm for the box office; placing 25th the $7,700,000 gross wasn’t enough to offset the excessive outlay.
Peck’s straightforward and disarming manner presents what biographer Gary Fishgall aptly notes as “an approach to film acting that would reflect the hallmarks of his screen persona—his use of a slow, emphatic manner of speaking; a comfort with stillness; a strategic application of pauses, within his own lines and when another actor finishes speaking; a way of looking down as he takes in someone’s words…we can almost see the character thinking.” *
136 minutes, with laudable work from Cedric Hardwicke, Leonard Strong, Philip Ahn, Jane Ball, Richard Loo, James Gleason, Peggy Ann Garner, H.T. Hsaing, Anne Revere, Arthur Shields and Sara Allgood.
* Peck: “All I could do was invest all the sincerity that I could in it, which I did.” It worked, as the New York Times commented after the film came out, “Not since Clark Gable crashed upon the screen a dozen years ago has the arrival of a young leading man created as much commotion as did that of Gregory Peck as the saintly and human Father Chisholm.”