Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Gregory Peck discovers “The Keys of the Kingdom”

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) is an American film based on the novel of the same name by A. J. Cronin. The film was directed by John M. Stahl and produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The film stars Gregory Peck, Thomas Mitchell, Rose Stradner, Edmund Gwenn, James Gleason, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Anne Revere, and Vincent Price. Others in the cast include Roddy McDowall and Peggy Ann Garner.

The plot focuses on Father Francis, (Peck) an old man, who returns to the parish of his youth. Monsignor Sleeth (Hardwicke) believes that it would be best if he retires, which is not what Father Francis desires. The Monsignor gets ready for bed and notices Father Francis’s journal. He begins to read it and learns all about the elderly priest’s life from his youth until today. He reads of Francis’s work in China and the church and school that he helped establish with the help of three missionary nuns.

As Monsignor Sleeth finishes the journal, he has second thoughts about Father Francis.

Gregory Peck and Rose Stradner

John M. Stahl (1886 – 1950) was an American film director and producer who began his career in silent movies in 1913. In 1919 he signed with the film company Louis B. Mayer Pictures, which would eventually become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Stahl made the transition to sound and directed Imitation of Life (1934) starring Claudette Colbert which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. In 1935, he directed Magnificent Obsession starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. Other films of note include Back Street (1932) starring Dunne and John Boles, and The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) starring Gregory Peck. Many believe that director Douglas Sirk was influenced by Stahl’s melodramatic style. Sirk remade both Magnificent Obsession (1954) and Imitation of Life (1959).

Gregory Peck (1916 – 2002) was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. He had three Best Actor nominations early in his career for The Keys to the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and Twelve O’Clock High (1949). He had non-exclusive contracts with David O. Selznick and Twentieth Century-Fox, which gave him great flexibility in the roles he chose to play. Other classic Peck film roles include Roman Holiday (1953), The Big Country (1958), and The Guns of Navarone (1961). He finally won a Best Actor Academy Award for his iconic portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

Thomas Mitchell (1892 –1962) was an American character actor who had a long career in film and theater. Mitchell was one of the most recognizable character actors in movies during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1939, Mitchell had important roles in five classic films: StagecoachOnly Angles Have WingsMr. Smith Goes to WashingtonGone with the Wind, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Mitchell won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role as Doc Josiah Boone in Stagecoach.

Vincent Price (1911 - 1993) was an American actor who worked on the stage, in film, radio, and television. He was also an art collector and author. Price established himself as a character actor in the 1940s with roles in films like The Song of Bernadette (1943), Laura (1944), The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). In the 1950s, he established himself as a star of horror films including House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958), and House on Haunted Hill (1959). Toward the end of his career, Price had important roles in The Whales of August (1987) and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990).

Roddy McDowall (1928 - 1998) was a British-born American actor. He started his career as a baby model and then began appearing in films as a young child in England. When he came to Hollywood, he became an in-demand child actor where he appeared in dozens of films including My Friend Flicka (1943), Lassie Come Home (1943), The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), and Thunderhead, Son of Flicka (1945). McDowell was able to successfully transition from child actor to adult actor appearing in lead and supporting roles in films like Midnight Lace (1960), The Longest Day (1962), Cleopatra (1963), and That Darn Cat! (1965). He may be best known as Cornelius, one of the intelligent apes in The Planet of the Apes (1968), its sequels, and short-lived TV series. McDowall also served as a producer of Overboard (1987) as well as co-starring with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.

Peggy Ann Garner (1932 – 1984) was an American child film actress who achieved great fame during the mid-1940s. Garner entered films at age six. By age twelve, she had reached her peak playing the role of Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. For her performance in that film, Garner won an Academy Juvenile Award. Garner was memorable as the title character as a young girl in Jane Eyre (1943). After her success in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Garner had starring roles in Nob Hill (1945), Junior Miss (1945), and Home Sweet Homicide (1946). Soon thereafter, Garner was relegated to a supporting player, never able to successfully transition to adult roles. In spite of the lack of film roles, Garner had success on Broadway and appeared on popular television shows including Perry MasonCombat!BatmanThe Big Valley, and Lou Grant.

The Keys of the Kingdom trivia

  • This film garnered Peck’s first Academy Award nomination.
  • Joseph Cotten tested for the role of Father Francis. Other actors considered were Spencer Tracy, Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Gene Kelly, Alan Ladd, and Henry Fonda.
  • Ingrid Bergman was considered for the part of Mother Maria Veronica. The role went to Rose Stradner, the wife of producer Joseph L. Mankiwicz. This was her final film.
  • Alfred Hitchcock liked the novel and hoped to direct it.
  • Thomas Mitchell was in his 50s and Peck in his 20s when the film was released which makes it a bit odd that they were cast as best friends from childhood.


To watch the film on YouTube, click on the link.


To join the discussion on Monday, September 25, 2023, at 6:30 Central Time, click here. Once you RSVP, you will receive an invitation and a link to join the discussion on Zoom.


Publicity photo of Gregory Peck and Roddy McDowall reading the novel on set

Discussion questions

  1. This was Gregory Peck’s breakthrough film. What did you think of his performance?
  2. The film is an example of the studio system at its zenith. The depth of the supporting cast is staggering. Of all the great supporting players, did you have a favorite or one that stood out to you?
  3. The movie was filmed entirely on the backlot and the sound stages at 20th Century-Fox. What did you think of the production? Were you convinced the action took place in China?
  4. What do you think the movie had to say about faith and belief?
  5. Did anything about the film surprise you?


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