GOING MY WAY (1944)

  • Director: Leo McCarey
  • Writers: Screenplay by Frank Butler and Frank Cavett, Story by Leo McCarey
  • Starring: Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Frank McHugh, James Brown, Gene Lockhart, Jean Heather, Eily Malyon, Risë Stevens, Stanley Clements, and Porter Hall
  • Accolades: 7 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Leo McCarey, Best Actor – Bing Crosby, Best Supporting Actor – Barry Fitzgerald, Best Screenplay, Best Story, Best Original Song – “Swinging on a Star”), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Barry Fitzgerald, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography – B&W)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent of Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

After a couple of days of Forgotten Best Picture Winners that I found myself with, um, mixed reactions to, I thoroughly enjoyed Going My Way. That is not to say, if we were re-voting now for the 1944 Oscars, that I think it would or should win. Probably the best remembered movie from that year has turned out to be the classic noir Double Indemnity, and the Ingrid Bergman drama Gaslight (which gave us a new term in the language), Arsenic and Old Lace, and several others are probably more seen today. Even as a musical, I have a feeling Meet Me in St. Louis is better remembered. But in the middle of World War II, audiences wanted escapism, and Going My Way is entirely a story about good people being nice to each other. A couple of bad things happen, but then everything is better very quickly because everybody is nice, and then the movie ends.

This is a weird comparison, but I’ve found during the COVID-19 pandemic that I am drawn to things that are just nice people supporting each other. This might sound like it does not have enough dramatic conflict to drive a story, and sometimes it doesn’t. But, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, Schitt’s Creek and The Great British Bake Off were our daily companions. Going My Way likely hit a similar chord with audiences in 1944 (and heck, with me in 2021). Starring Bing Crosby at the zenith of his “White Christmas” fame, it was the highest-grossing movie of the year at the American box office and won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture. The trailer for it that auto-plays on Amazon Video calls it “The Best Loved Picture of All-Time,” and if this seems like hyperbole, I suppose that’s the sort of statement that’s hard to disprove empirically.

Crosby stars as Father O’Malley, a young priest assigned to assist the aging, vaguely crotchety Father Fitzgibbon, played by Barry Fitzgerald (as in The Quiet Man, he’s doing his thick Irish accent here, which somehow works better in a less-Irish context) at the New York parish of St. Dominic’s. As is always the case in these kinds of movies, the church is in financial trouble (the opening scene has a banker showing up to threaten Fitzgibbon with foreclosure), and the unseen local bishop suspects that Father Fitzgibbon is getting a bit too old, so he secretly puts Father O’Malley in charge on the condition he doesn’t actually tell the older man what’s going on. What ensues is less a plot than a vaguely-connected series of vaguely charming scenes, but I think I was in the right mood for it.

One of the main subplots involves Father O’Malley successfully turning a local youth street gang into the church’s Boys’ Choir. He gets into their good graces by taking them to a baseball game and buying them all hot dogs. Side note: Crosby’s character is portrayed as a die-hard St. Louis Browns fan, down to showing up to choir practice in what appears to be a full cap and jersey, the first such fan I think I’ve ever run into in all of media. This is made more interesting by the fact that Crosby himself was perhaps the single best-known fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, to the point that he ended up buying a 25% stake in the team a few years later with some of that “White Christmas” money. I am reminded of the now-infamous incident where production of Gone Girl had to literally be temporarily shut down because famous Red Sox fan Ben Affleck refused to wear a Yankees hat in a scene, and the compromise was for him to wear a Mets hat. I wonder if Crosby refused to have his character be a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, a more popular team that would have been major rivals of the Pirates, and the Browns gear was the compromise. We’ll never know.

Anyway, baseball digression over. Crosby’s character, it turns out, was a musician, who likes to write “bright” music to show people that church isn’t all about the dirges. Eventually, he sells one of his songs, “Swinging On a Star” (which would win the Best Original Song Oscar that year), to a local producer (“I knew there was a reason your name was Dolan,” the priest tells the producer), which is enough money to save the church. One prominent subplot involves an 18-year-old girl who ran away from home (Jean Heather) romancing the son of the mortgage lender (James Brown, not that one, apparently best known for playing Rin Tin Tin’s human companion in a popular 1950s TV show). After Bing Crosby visits and sings them a song (the old Irish lady across the street observed that boy was “staying in the young lady’s apartment very late, and mind you, I could call her other things”), they get married, and he immediately joins the Air Force. Interestingly, the movie mostly ignores World War II except for a couple of quick plot beats, which I suppose adds to the whole “escapism” angle.

One thing I found interesting about the movie is that I felt it spent a lot of time breaking down what specific things about music Bing Crosby was actually good at. What I mean is, it’s a different experience watching him run choir practice than it is just to have him sing. The first time he meets Jean Heather’s character, she tells him she wants to be a singer, and soon Crosby’s sitting behind a piano going through a song with her. Heather was known as an actress, not a singer, and though she does a perfectly decent job here Crosby is clearly in another league. Then we watch him spend a few minutes working with her, including having her speak each phrase while he plays the piano. You can tell that this is probably what Crosby actually did, in that he is a master of figuring out what word or part of a word to emphasize out of a musical phrase. Anyway, as someone who’s spent a decent amount of time in choirs over the years, I found this stuff interesting.

Heather herself is almost impossibly charismatic here, and one might wonder how she wasn’t just a massive star. Well, she was, for like six months, and then was in a car accident where she was thrown from her vehicle and suffered “severe facial lacerations.” At a time when studios had all the power and most actors (Crosby at this point notwithstanding) had basically none, Heather’s acting career was over. She is remembered today almost entirely for two very different roles, this one and her appearance in Double Indemnity, where she plays the daughter of Barbara Stanwyck’s character who Fred MacMurray’s character develops a creepy relationship with.

Barry Fitzgerald, playing the crotchety-but-lovable Father Fitzgibbons, was somehow nominated for both the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars. He only won the latter, and the rules were immediately changed so that a double nomination for the same performance would never happen again. Also part of the movie’s Oscar sweep was a Best Director Oscar for Leo McCarey. Neither he nor any of his movies are really household names today, but McCarey was a longtime Hollywood stalwart with a signature light touch. His other work includes the Marx Brothers’ classic, Duck Soup, The Awful Truth, Make Way For Tomorrow (which would be remade several years later by Yasujiro Ozu as Tokyo Story), and An Affair to Remember. If you haven’t seen this last one, you just have to watch Sleepless In Seattle and you’ll get the general idea.

Going My Way was such a hit that a sequel, called The Bells of St. Mary’s, was rushed into production and came out the next year. It was directed by McCarey and starred Crosby as the same character, but otherwise features a different cast, as Crosby’s priest clashes with a “stubborn nun” played by Ingrid Bergman as they both try to save a catholic school from financial difficulties. It was also a hit. Perhaps surprisingly, it received its own fleet of Oscar nominations (including Crosby, Bergman, McCarey, and Best Picture, making it the only sequel nominated for the latter until The Godfather Part II), but with the war now over, hard-hitting dramas were back in. The Lost Weekend cleaned up in terms of awards, and The Bells of St. Mary’s won only for Best Sound Recording.

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