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Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

Director: John M Stahl
Stars: Gregory Peck, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Rosa Stradner, Roddy McDowall, Edmund Gwenn, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Peggy Ann Garner, Jane Ball, James Gleason, Anne Revere, Ruth Nelson, Benson Fong and Leonard Strong

I recorded The Keys of the Kingdom because it's one of those intriguing opportunities to watch Vincent Price in something other than a horror movie. One of the icons of the genre who's never less than magnetic, he came to it after a surprising number of other films which are a varied and fascinating bunch to work through. He was an important name at this point, this film released a mere month after his excellent showing in Otto Preminger's Laura and a year after The Song of Bernadette, which may explain why he's third credited amongst a strong cast, even though we don't get to see much of him: one brief early scene and he's gone for over an hour and a half. What I soon found was that he's one of the least reasons to watch this film, as a Roman Catholic bishop called Angus Mealey, who knew Fr Francis Chisholm as a young Scots lad. Fr Chisholm is who the film is all about and while we first meet him as an old man, this is the story of his life.

As the film begins in 1938, Fr Chisholm has recently returned to Tweedside, his home parish in Scotland. The monsignor has been checking him out and decides that he should retire, though the good father has different ideas. He sounds just like Gregory Peck but doesn't look remotely like him because he's plastered with some capable aging make up. I should add that nobody at the time would have recognised him anyway because he was new in Hollywood, with only a single film six months behind him, a Jacques Tourneur war picture called Days of Glory in which he played a Russian fighting the Nazis, hardly how we might imagine the typical Gregory Peck role. He's a little unlike Peck here too, with despair in his voice as he asks the monsignor to talk to Bishop Angus. Of course the monsignor has already made up his mind, at least until he heads up to bed and picks up Fr Chisholm's journal, a huge volume that goes all the way back to 1878.

It really doesn't have a pleasant beginning. The young Francie Chisholm, played by 16 year old Roddy McDowall, already on his 27th picture and riding high after Lassie Come Home and My Friend Flicka the year before, is quickly orphaned. His fisherman father gets mugged for being a dirty papist and when his mother goes looking for him, the pair are washed from a rope bridge to their deaths in a raging torrent. It's enough to test your faith in the Lord, but Roman Catholicism was something of a Hollywood fad in the mid forties, perhaps as a hopeful counter to the horror of war, and so young Francie ends up in the church. Ned's daughter Nora wants him to come home from college to marry her but her mother Polly is all set on him becoming a priest. Nora believes she's going to lose the battle but it's only when she dies just before he graduates, a full year since he's seen her but with a newborn daughter, that he chooses the priesthood.

Thus far it's been all Gregory Peck's show, this being precisely the sort of part we expect him to shine in. Perhaps the most believably sincere of all the classic Hollywood actors, his image was born out of honesty and vulnerability. Never a tough guy in the way that many screen heroes of the time were tough guys, he forged his own brand of toughness by relentlessly standing up for what was right, regardless of the danger it would bring him. We don't believe John Wayne's characters were scared, because he was frickin' John Wayne. Yet we believe Peck's were, all the time, but he did the right thing anyway. That conviction is totally apparent here and the role set his career in motion, earning him an Oscar nod as Best Actor, though Ray Milland deservedly won for The Lost Weekend. The obvious comparison is to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr Chips, but that film flowed more evenly and while Peck is excellent here, Donat was amazing there.
We do get to meet a few key players though, all of whom are capable. Edmund Gwenn is Hamish McNabb, who runs Holywell College and becomes a father figure to Francis. Sir Cedric Hardwicke is the Tweedside monsignor who narrates the story in flashback. Vincent Price is briefly seen on a train, but most obviously there's Thomas Mitchell as Chisholm's oldest friend, a devout atheist called Willie Tulloch. Mitchell never saw a film he couldn't try to steal and he has a good go here only to be forced into accepting defeat to a surprising set of actors. You see, this film is primarily set in China and Twentieth Century Fox chose to cast a selection of ethnic American actors as the Chinese characters. Beyond Peck, who has by far the largest role, the actors who dominate are people like Benson Fong, Leonard Strong, Philip Ahn and Richard Loo, all American born but all of obvious Chinese or Korean heritage. All four are a delight with every scene and every line.

To illustrate how surprising and how welcome a choice that was, I should provide a comparison to another 1944 film in which Hollywood did the precise opposite. This picture is something of an amalgam of two other prominent 1944 pictures, taking the Roman Catholic background and the concept of a priest as the lead character from Paramount's Going My Way, the big Oscar winner of the year, and the poor Chinese setting from MGM's Dragon Seed, one of the most ridiculously cast films of all time. When you think of Katharine Hepburn I'm guessing you don't tend to think 'Chinese peasant', but that's Dragon Seed: Kate and her pristine Bryn Mawr accent as Jade Tan, submissive wife of a poor Chinese farmer. Also in yellowface were Walter Huston, J Carrol Naish, Agnes Moorehead, Henry Travers, Aline MacMahon, even Akim Tamiroff and Turhan Bey. Philip Ahn and Benson Fong were there too but in meaningless parts, not real ones like here.

What's most embarrasing is that that sort of thing was commonplace, capable actors like Anna May Wong ignored in favour of white actors in yellowface, like Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer or Renée Adorée. So it's totally refreshing to see what appears to be all the Chinese characters played by ethnic actors, not just the bad guys but the good guys too and it's truly joyous to see them do such a great job. In their company, Peck looks like the outsider he would have been, a Catholic priest from the States sent to the city of Pai Tan in Chekhow Province as a volunteer minister, perhaps the only white man in town. He finds a wrecked mission and a congregation of two, Hosannah and Philomena Wong, the ones who stayed behind to meet him in the hope that they'll give him money. They're rice Christians, those who convert because they're paid to do so, with rice left in their prayerbooks, only to convert back when the rice runs out.

Fr Chisholm takes lodgings in the city and puts up a sign, the Mission of St Andrew. The locals egg it and, when he goes to swap out the sign, they egg him too. There isn't much hope until Joseph arrives. Born Tao Ming but baptised in Pai Tan by the previous minister, he's played by Benson Fong, which means that Charlie Chan's #3 son becomes Fr Chisholm's #1 assistant. He's a great character, an overzealous converter, multilinguist and a grounding for the father. More arrive when Willie Tulloch sends him medical books, instruments and medicines and so he adds a second sign that he'll treat the sick for free. The big change arrives with Mr Pao who invites Fr Chisholm to the house of his cousin, the mandarin Mr Chia. Mr Chia's son has a serious infection and the constant attendance of three doctors and a Taoist priest aren't helping in the slightest. The good father gives him ether, drains the wound and prays he hasn't signed his death warrant.
While the family initially seem ungrateful, given that he saves the boy's life, Mr Chia soon turns up at the mission offering to become a Christian. He doesn't believe in God, of course. 'In time, no doubt, I will accustom myself to it,' he says with fatalism. He's just returning an honour, but Fr Chisholm turns him down. That just impresses Mr Chia even more so he donates the Hill of the Brilliant Green Jade with water rights, a clay pit and twenty workmen to build whatever he needs. Two years later he has a real mission and Mr Chia is a firm friend. Leonard Strong is wonderful as Mr Chia and Philip Ahn is just as wonderful as his haughty envoy, Mr Pao. Watching them here, I can't help but imagine what the Charlie Chan films would have been like had someone like Philip Ahn been given the role over Warner Oland, a Swede, and Americans Sidney Toler and Roland Winters. Both Strong and Ahn had long Hollywood careers but were consistently marginalised.

Of course the American characters have to show up sooner or later, but they have to come to Fr Chisholm because he stays in China until he retires, through thick and thin, known to one and all as Shen Fu, which I'm presuming is an honorific taken from the poet of that name. Willie Tulloch arrives out of the blue to give Thomas Mitchell more opportunity to steal scenes. An experienced doctor, he gets plenty to do when war comes to Pai Tan, and he gets a memorable death scene thanking his old friend for not trying to bully him into heaven. Monsignor Angus Mealey shows up on an inspection tour for the International Society for the Promulgation of the Faith. He's rather disappointed to find the mission destroyed, less for Fr Chisholm or his people and more because he'd been planning a high mass there and a lecture back in London about the experience. He's a pompous soul, played to great effect by Vincent Price, always great at left handed compliments.

There's also the Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica, another haughty character who was brought up in arrogance by her Viennese baroness mother and who sees, at least initially, her position as duty rather than calling. The relationship between the father and the reverend mother is built as the film runs on and the characters grow, until a touching parting scene towards the end. A long casting process suspiciously ended up with the wife of Joseph L Mankiewicz, the producer and co-writer of the film, but Rosa Stradner does a fine job anyway in her last picture, five years after the previous one. The last two westerners in town are American Methodists who arrive with a new competing mission. They're played by the ever-reliable James Gleason and Anne Revere, who won the Best Supporting Actress award in 1946, not for this film but for National Velvet. They only get a single scene together but it's a good one with a great ice breaker.

You might expect from all these arrivals that we get a solid run through of Fr Chisholm's life in China, but that's not really true. Unlike Goodbye, Mr Chips, which is told in many small segments, Robert Donat's make up being enhanced each time, The Keys of the Kingdom is less ambitious, Gregory Peck only really getting two timeframes to work in at length and a smaller one between them. After a few scenes in with Roddy McDowall, Peck takes over for a long run that takes him from college to China with a couple of failed curacies behind him. I presume this is supposed to be eight or ten years but Peck doesn't really look any different. Eventually we jump a decade and shortly thereafter leap on to retirement and full circle. What we see is well written, emotional and enjoyable, but I couldn't help but wonder about those middle years. Compared to Dragon Seed, this is sheer genius, but compared to Goodbye, Mr Chips it shows its flaws.

2 comments:

Danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

Keep up the good work!

Hal C F Astell said...

Many thanks!