Saturday, June 5, 2010

Fr. Gregory Peck

TCM is showing one of Gregory Peck's earliest movies tomorrow at noon ET: The Keys of the Kingdom.

This is one of those movies told in the flashback style: at the beginning of the movie, Peck's Catholic Fr. Chisholm is an old man with unorthodox views in a backwater parish in Scotland. Somebody further up the Church hierarchy wants to pension him off, and sent to investigate is Msgr. Cedric Hardwicke. It turns out that Fr. Chisholm had spent a good 50 years working as a missionary in China, and kept a journal all those years. Hardwicke's monsignor finds the journal and reads it, and we flash back to Chisholm's youth....

Chisholm didn't exactly have an easy time of it, having been orphaned as a boy (the young Chisholm is played by Roddy McDowall) and grown up with relatives. Not having any real family, he decides to take Holy Orders when he grows up, to the dismay of the daughter in the family he grew up with, as well as doctor-in-training Thomas Mitchell, who is a devout atheist, cynic, and drinker. (Apparently, he's reprising his role from Stagecoach or something.) Already as a young priest Chisholm had unorthodox views, so his superior, Fr. Mealey (Vincent Price) decides the best thing to do would be to shunt his career by making him a missionary in China.

Chisholm takes up the role and tries his hardest to be a good priest, although he quickly finds that honestly converting souls isn't very easy, especially when the other denominations are using rice to more or less buy souls. But it's also in China that the movie really picks up. Chisholm's mission is set against the backdrop of China's turbulent history of the early 20th century, with almost every disaster known to man, as rebellions come, the mission burns to the ground, and then some. (The movie was made before the Communist takeover, so at least Chisholm didn't have to put up with that.) Along the way, Mitchell comes to work at the mission, as do a group of German nuns who have different ideas than Chisholm but gain mutual respect, and Price's Fr. Mealey becomes a surprisingly unchristian bishop.

The Keys of the Kingdom is an excellent movie that, despite being about an obviously religious subject, comes across as much less preachy than other Catholic movies such as Going My Way, which was released the same year. Instead, it's more of an ecumenical picture in that the message is that this is what Christianity is supposed to be about regardless of denomination. Peck, despite appearing in only his second starring role, does a superb job here, and earned an Oscar nomination for it. Price is good too; by this time he was more or less constantly getting cast as Fox's smarmy equivalent of Jack Carson over at Warner's. Mitchell and Hardwicke make the movie better for their appearances; and watch out for James Gleason as a Protestant missionary whom Peck befriends. The Gleason character is married to one played by Anne Revere.

The Keys of the Kingdom has been released to DVD and is well worth watching, regardless of your religion or lack of it.

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