Going My Way (United States, 1944)August 27, 2010
The success of Going My Way, a mediocre, light drama with a few songs, is a testimony to the overall popularity of the musical genre in the '30s, '40s, and '50s. There's nothing special or memorable about this overlong endeavor, the first of two motion pictures to feature Bing Crosby's insufferably noble Father Chuck O'Malley, but the film struck gold twice: first at the box office and then in the Oscar derby. Although Going My Way deserves to be on the short list of undeserving Academy Awards winners, it is quite possibly the Best Picture that has weathered the years the worst. One can understand some of the reasons why Going My Way was so beloved upon its initial release yet still be thoroughly unimpressed when viewing this through a 21st century prism.
The most glaring problem is one the filmmakers could not have foreseen. The production, not unlike others of its day, lionizes priests. This reflected the general public opinion; even non-Catholics called such men "Father" and treated them with respect and dignity. Priesthood was considered to be a worthy vocation and priests were trusted by nearly everyone. 65 years later, the situation has changed. The sex scandals plaguing the Church over the past several decades have taken their toll on the public's opinion of priests. No longer are they viewed as paragons of virtue and bastions of integrity. Today, a film like Doubt has resonance while Going My Way comes across as hopelessly naïve and out-of-touch. Father O'Malley seems like a character generated by a marketing arm of the Catholic Church. He's too good to be true - a trait that sinks the character and the movie along with it.
O'Malley, a priest from Saint Louis, is asked by "the Bishop" to go to New York City and oversee the revitalization of St. Dominic's parish. The current pastor, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), resents Father O'Malley's incursion into what he views to be his turf, and greets the younger man's newfangled ideas with ill-concealed disdain. Eventually, however, Father Fitzgibbon softens and grows to respect and rely upon Father O'Malley. The new priest also makes several valuable contributions to the community as a whole. He encourages a local gang of youths to focus their efforts on singing rather than theft and vandalism. And he nurtures a romance between a young banker (James Brown) and an even younger singer (Jean Heather). Along the way, Father O'Malley croons a few tunes, including a Christmas carol and the Oscar winner for Best Song, "Swinging on a Star."
The success of Going My Way might have dictated the production of a sequel, but The Bells of Saint Mary's was in the pipeline before Going My Way was released. Although technically a follow-up, it was actually written first. The only connection between the movies is that both feature Crosby in the same role; none of the other characters cross over, which is a shame because Barry Fitzgerald's Father Fitzgibbon is by far the most engaging personality in either production.
In some ways, Going My Way represents the rough template upon which an entire generation of "do-gooder" motion pictures has been based. It doesn't take much creative thinking to divine the link between Going My Way and Dangerous Minds or Mr. Holland's Opus. The common thread in these films is that of an individual who devotes his time and energy to the betterment of others, sometimes without recognition or acknowledgment. Father O'Malley, like Mr. Holland, takes kids off the street by exposing them to music. Other movies do this by making the subject writing or poetry or sports. One can even find a thread connecting Going My Way to Hoosiers. That doesn't mean the 1944 movie is good; merely that it has been influential. And, tellingly, none of the recent explorations of this subject involve heroic priests.
Going My Way is dramatically inert. The lack of any compelling conflict makes this a long and somewhat tedious slog. Yes, there are times when a song momentarily elevates the energy level - even those who don't recognize the music will at least be enchanted by Crosby's strong, melodic vocals - but Going My Way could have used at least twice as many musical numbers. A few of the mildly comedic moments are passably amusing, but nothing more. Seen today, Going My Way looks and feels like a quaint, old-fashioned production that deserves to have been forgotten long ago. If not for the Best Picture Oscar, it might have been so.
The film didn't win only the Best Picture citation - it captured six others and was nominated for an additional three. The most inappropriate victory (aside from the top honor) was the Best Actor award for Crosby, who beat out the more deserving Barry Fitzgerald in the process. By 1944, Crosby was well established as both a singer and an actor, having recorded a number of popular tunes and having appeared opposite Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour in three (of what would eventually be seven) Road to titles. There's no questioning Crosby's popularity or the fact that by 1954 he had honed his craft to the point where he deserved the Oscar nomination for The Country Girl, but his capturing the statue for this bland, one-note interpretation of Father O'Malley is disappointing. If Going My Way deserved recognition of any kind, and that is debatable, it was for "Swinging on a Star," which has lasted through the years.
Director Leo McCarey won his second Best Director award for Going My Way. McCarey's career began in the silent era and reached its zenith during the 1930s, when he worked with nearly every well-known performer in Hollywood. He is best remembered for two things: directing 1939's Love Story and its better known remake, 1957's An Affair to Remember (one of his final movies); and directing the Marx Brothers in their most famous motion picture, Duck Soup. In terms of awards and critical response, Going My Way and its sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's, represented McCarey's finest hour.
Understanding why Going My Way met with a favorable reception in 1944 requires consideration not only of how preferences have changed over the years, with Bing Crosby's immense fame diminishing over time and this genre of musical drama falling out of favor, but of the mood of the country. When the movie was in production, the United States was deeply enmeshed in World War II, and victory was by no means a certainty. Going My Way premiered in May 1944, a month before D-Day. Movie goers in those days were not interested in hard-hitting dramas but in escapist fare. A story about a good-hearted priest helping people was the kind of thing that was widely embraced in the midst so much global strife. Going My Way has not aged well and its Oscar victory is almost embarrassing in retrospect, but the extenuating circumstances at least make it comprehensible how this picture beat out more worthy contenders such as Double Indemnity and Gaslight. Those films, viewed today, can still entertain. A similar claim is difficult to make for Going My Way.
Going My Way (United States, 1944)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Screenplay: Frank Butler and Frank Cavett
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Music: Robert Emmett Dolan
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