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Monday, November 11, 2019

The Keys of the Kingdom ( 1944 )

Film studios always preferred a good novel adaptation over an original story idea. This was primarily because the producers knew they had an established audience who were waiting in anticipation for the release of the film. When a best-selling book became a box-office hit at the movie theatres, then the studios were anxious to secure the film rights to that author's next novel. Such was the case with A.J. Cronin, a Scottish physician and novelist. His 1937 best-selling novel about medical ethics "The Citadel" was adapted into an MGM film the following year starring Robert Donat and Rosalind Russell. It was a great success at the box-office and reaped four Oscar nominations at the Academy Awards. 

This success excited producers who knew that the name of A.J. Cronin would then draw in audiences to other film adaptations of his work. So they quickly went about snatching up the rights to his previous works and adapting them to film. His 1935 novel "The Stars Look Down" was brought to the screen by Carol Reed in 1939; "Hatter's Castle", Cronin's first novel, was made into a 1940 film starring Robert Newton and Deborah Kerr; "Vigil in the Night", a 1939 Good Housekeeping serial novella, was turned into a Carole Lombard weepie; and, in 1944 "The Keys of the Kingdom" was made into a rich drama by Twentieth-Century Fox studios. 

Cronin spent several years writing "The Keys of the Kingdom", an epic story about the trials and tribulations of a Catholic priest in China. He weaved elements of his own background ( Scottish upbringing, medical school, poor family, Catholic conversion ) into the novel which spans six decades in the life of one Father Francis Chisholm. The film, in spite of being 136-minutes long, condenses many aspects of the book and focuses instead on Father Francis' years in China and his work there as a missionary. 
Father Francis is a young Scotsman fresh out of seminary school who is sent by his local bishop to establish a missionary in the Chekhow province of China. The area was destroyed by flooding and all of the true Christians retreated to the mountain regions. Those who remained were "rice Christians", locals who were being paid in rice to attend church. Father Francis refuses to pay the citizens to visit the mission and so his congregation quickly dwindles to none.....until a young pilgrim named Joseph comes to help Father Francis rebuild his church. Over the years it grows into a thriving missionary and remains strong even in the midst of a battle between republican and imperial troops. 
The film rights to The Keys of the Kingdom were originally purchased by David O. Selznick but after a year of toying with the project, he sold it to Twentieth-Century Fox studios. Alfred Hitchcock had wanted to direct the production but chose instead to do Lifeboat that year. Nunnally Johnson and Joseph L. Mankiewicz ( who also produced the film ) took charge of re-working Cronin's novel into a compelling screenplay. It was an "A" production from the start and top-notch talent was used throughout the picture with John M. Stahl ( Leave Her to Heaven ) taking the reins as the director. 

Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Anne Revere, Edmund Gwenn, Roddy McDowall, Peggy Ann Garner, Cedric Hardwicke, James Gleason, Sara Allgood, Arthur Shields, Philip Ahn, Ethel Griffies, and Edith Barrett were all given supporting roles in the production and a young Gregory Peck was cast in the lead as Father Francis. 

Peck had made only one film prior to being cast in this production and that was the lead role in Jacques Tourneur's war romance Days of Glory. He had distinguished himself so well in that part that multiple studios wanted him to sign long-term contracts with them. Instead, he chose to freelance and picked a non-exclusive contract with Fox studios enabling him to accept this part ( Spencer Tracy, Franchot Tone, and Gene Kelly were other actors considered for the role ). 
Peck gives an excellent performance as the zealous missionary and he was, deservedly, nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award. Starring opposite him was Rose Stradner as Mother Maria-Veronica, a nun who works side by side with Father Francis at the mission. Ingrid Bergman was initially considered for this role but Joseph L. Mankiewicz wanted the part to go to his wife, Rose, instead. She was a beautiful and talented Austrian actress but Bergman probably could have given more depth to the role of the aristocratic nun. 

Benson Fong gives a marvelous performance as Joseph, Father Francis' dear companion. His scenes also add a bit of humor to the film, which it sorely needed. The Green Years, another film based on an A.J. Cronin novel, also spanned many years but was rich with characters that the audience could attach to throughout the drama. Unlike that picture, The Keys of the Kingdom focuses primarily on the character of Father Francis and it never feels as though the audience gets a chance to know the other characters as well as Francis himself does. Mother Maria-Veronica is initially cold towards Father Francis when she first arrives and, even though she later explains the reason behind her behavior, it would have been better to witness her character's past unfold visually rather than verbally. One of the few characters who is given depth is Mr. Chia, portrayed admirably by Leonard Strong. His character develops from a superior nobleman to that of a true friend to Francis. 
The Keys of the Kingdom was received favorably by film critics but just managed to recoup its cost at the box-office. However, the film had the prestige of being nominated for four Academy Awards ( Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Actor, Best Original Music Score ). 

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