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    Religious Experience

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    To its producer/co-screenwriter, The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), a prestigious screen version of A.J. Cronin’s 1941 book that premiered in New York 73 years ago today, was the inaugural production of a new five-year contract he’d signed with Twentieth Century Fox. In considering this tale of “a Scots Catholic priest, Francis Chisholm, whose humble sincerity triumphs over all manner of adversity in his 35 years as a missionary to a remote Chinese village,” Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz author Kenneth L. Geist suggests: “While the subject seems unlikely for a man like Mankiewicz, who thinks ‘all religion is utter nonsense,’ the priest’s admiration for the Confucian’s superior sense of humor, his respect for his atheist doctor friend’s virtue, and his friendship for a couple of rival Methodist missionaries, which lands him in trouble with his superior, possibly appealed to Mankiewicz. The studio was eager to repeat the success of The Song of Bernadette (1943), their previous religious epic, and hoped that Gregory Peck, their new, gravely sincere, and handsome leading man, might, as Chisholm, score as great a personal triumph as Jennifer Jones, another find of David O. Selznick’s, had as Bernadette.” Reworking a first-draft script by Nunnally Johnson, Mankiewicz, in concert with director John M. Stahl, struck a balance in which, Time’s reviewer judged, “its religiousness is not only free of pomp and sanctimony but is also human, dramatic and moving.” The Keys of the Kingdom did open the door to stardom for Peck, and it provided substantial roles for others. Geist writes: “In the body of the film, the missionary’s example significantly alters four lives. Two of these people are from Francis’s own social class and hometown. The devotion of Francis’s doctor friend (Thomas Mitchell) leads him to follow Francis to China and meet his death healing the wounded in the Sun Yat-sen-era battle between Republican and Imperial forces. Conversely, Francis’s fellow seminarian Mealy (Vincent Price), who has rapidly risen in the church hierarchy, is contemptuous and patronizing when he comes to inspect Francis’s mission, only to find it in ruins after the military combat. (Mealy is the bishop who demands the aged Francis’s retirement from their hometown parish.) Two aristocrats are humbled by Francis’s sanctity – the skeptical village mandarin (Leonard Strong), who becomes the mission’s patron, and the haughty Mother Superior (Rosa Stradner), who eventually bows to Francis’s innate humility, which she secretly envies.” 

    The casting of Stradner, Mankiewicz’s wife and an actress who had a thriving career in her native Austria before emigrating to America after her nation was invaded by Nazi Germany, caused momentary concern: Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck would have preferred a more marketable name like Ingrid Bergman. But Mrs. Mankiewicz, in what would be only her third – and final – Hollywood film, helped energize one of the story’s most moving sequences. Per Geist, “This is the poignant leave-taking scene between the priest and the Mother Superior, which by its understatement achieves the pathos that the tear-jerking deathbed scene of the expiring doctor and the anguished priest does not. C.A. Lejeune describes Rosa Stradner in the former scene as ‘an actress who apparently knows how to make her hands speak. It is largely due to the beautiful timing and precision of her silent playing – the hands knitting busily, the more slowly, then laying down their work in a tiny gesture of grief and resignation as her companion’s [Peck] voice speaks of departure – that the farewell scenes are so touching.’” Also starring Edmund Gwenn, Cedric Hardwicke, James Gleason, Roddy McDowall and Peggy Ann Garner, The Keys of the Kingdom did sturdy – if not Going My Way/The Bells of St. Mary’s-sized – box-office business, and scored Academy Award® nominations for actor Peck, cinematographer Arthur C. Miller, composer Alfred Newman and the meticulous art direction/interior decoration. To Mankiewicz and company with faith in the power of Cronin’s books and Hollywood’s ability to develop compelling movies from them (like The Citadel, Vigil in the Night and The Stars Look Down), the experience proved inspirational. Another of the film’s admirers was the late, great critic Jay Carr of The Boston Globe, whose essay can be found here: With biographer Geist and Joe and Rosa’s son Chris Mankiewicz offering solid personal insights on a marvelous Audio Commentary track and Newman's stirring score offered on its own Isolated Music Track, The Keys of the Kingdom on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray will unlock your guarded heart as well.