Among the most famous star-making performances in all of cinema, Gregory Peck’s work as Father Francis Chisholm in John M. Stahl’s The Keys of the Kingdom must rank among the most memorable.
The Production: 4/5
Among the most famous star-making performances in all of cinema, Gregory Peck’s work as Father Francis Chisholm in John M. Stahl’s Keys of the Kingdom must rank among the most memorable. This adaptation of the classic spiritual best seller by A.J. Cronin provided great roles for a number of well-known Hollywood character players, but it’s Peck’s quiet charisma and radiant inner glow that manages to draw the attention to this lengthy drama and hold it with great precision.
Orphaned as a child, Francis Chisholm (Roddy McDowall) waffles between married life with childhood sweetheart Nora (Peggy Ann Garner as a child, Jane Ball as an adult) or pursuing a religious life, but with her death, the adult Francis (Gregory Peck) joins the priesthood. After two unsuccessful parishes on his resume, he’s asked to become a missionary in China and arrives to find the previous church burned down and the village of Pai-tan unreceptive to outsiders unless they have food or money to give them. With the help of kindly converted local Joseph (Benson Fong), he presses on, but it’s not until the child of wealthy town leader Mr. Chia (Leonard Strong) falls ill that Chisholm proves his worth. Over time, he collaborates with a trio of nuns led by the strict Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica (Rosa Stradner), endures a civil war, and becomes beloved in the community for his selflessness and devotion to his church and to the local people.
The screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Nunnally Johnson uses the flashback approach to the storytelling as the aged Father Francis is on the verge of being forcibly retired by his Monsignor (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) before he begins reading the Father’s journal of his half of century of hard work and devotion to a foreign people despite numerous setbacks, disappointments, and travails. Though the Fox backlot and ranch must serve as both Scotland and China in telling the story, movie magic convinces us time and again of the accuracy of the locations, and studio wizards were able to invent a raging swollen river which sweeps Francis’ parents away (superbly staged by director John Stahl and shot by award-winning cameraman Arthur Miller) and later set-up a most convincing civil war complete with massive explosions and rampant fires (we only hear about the famine and pestilence which also plague the priest and his flock during his half a century of work there). The face-off between the gentle Father Francis and the stern, haughty Mother Maria-Veronica is rather a predictable part-and-parcel of these religious movies of the period (the same year also found Bing Crosby’s easy-going Father O’Malley butting heads with Barry Fitzgerald’s cranky Father Fitzgibbon in Leo McCarey’s Going My Way, an even bigger spiritual hit), but it’s resolved nicely in stages to the satisfaction of all.
With World War II still raging, new male faces in the movies were rather rare, so it’s probably hard to conceive what a big splash Gregory Peck made in this role at the time. Earning his first of three successive Academy Award nominations for his performance here, Peck is goodness and humility personified, occasionally being allowed to show a bit of consternation or impatience but generally quickly replacing it with forgiveness and understanding which turns the film’s climactic scenes in China into one of the most heartfelt and touching farewells in movie history. Rosa Stradner (wife of the film’s writer-producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz) gets to display the softening of her character over time as adversity wears away her haughty resolve and she sees what a selfless man Father Francis truly is. But the film’s enormous roll of superb character actors is simply astonishing, each of them etching a brilliant gem of a performance with only limited screen time: Edmund Gwenn’s kindly mentor Father Hamish MacNabb, Thomas Mitchell’s engaging best friend Dr. Willie Tulloch, Vincent Price’s self-important Angus Mealey, Benson Fong’s devoted Joseph, Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s starchy Monsignor, Leonard Strong’s respectful Mr. Chia, Abner Biberman’s threatening insurrectionist, and James Gleason and Anne Revere as Methodist missionaries who arrive late in the film but are welcomed by Father Francis to the confusion of the locals. As always, the young Roddy McDowall and Peggy Ann Garner make brief but welcome appearances early in the movie.
3D Rating: NA
Fox has done a splendid job in cleaning the high definition elements for this film resulting in a very spotless and outstanding 1.33:1 transfer (in 1080p using the AVC codec). Sharpness is excellent and close-ups reveal nice details in hair and facial features. The grayscale may not feature the inkiest blacks imaginable, but they’re more than serviceable, and the white levels are quite crisp and clean. Contrast is consistent throughout. The movie has been divided into 24 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is solid and steady. Dialogue is always instantly discernible and has been mixed professionally with Alfred Newman’s lovely Oscar-nominated score and the various atmospheric effects throughout the movie. No age-related problems with hiss, crackle, thumps, or flutter are present.
Special Features: 3/5
Audio Commentary: it’s a start-and-stop affair as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s son Chris and Mankiewicz biographer Kenneth Geist each share individual comments sprinkled throughout the movie. Geist offers the most pertinent information concerning the film’s production personnel, but this film deserves a far more illuminating analysis than is offered here.
Isolated Score Track: presented in a strong DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track.
Theatrical Trailer (3:20, SD)
Six-Page Booklet: contains some black and white stills, original poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s effusive essay on the production.
The Keys of the Kingdom remains one of the most earnest and uplifting of the religious themed-movies of the 1940s, and the cast of great actors cannot be praised too highly. The Blu-ray release from Twilight Time offers the film in pristine condition which fans should really appreciate. There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested in purchasing it should go to either www.twilighttimemovies.com or www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.