Monday, June 10, 2013


In comparison to most of its colleagues that have collected the trophy for Best Picture, “Going My Way” stands apart as a peculiar member of the club. It’s highly doubtful that a film like this would even be produced today, much less go on to become a box office smash, eventually taking home an armload of Academy Awards. This reality is telling of just how much “Going My Way” is a complete product of its age, meaning the hands of time have handled it roughly over the years.

But this isn’t to say that “Going My Way” is necessarily a terrible picture. It’s not. In hindsight, the fact that it took home so many prestigious awards elevates expectation that this is a great picture in the league of other recent Academy Award winning films like “Rebecca” and “Casablanca.” It’s not. It’s just a set-up for disappointment. Ironically, its Oscar pedigree leaves “Going My Way” vulnerable to modern-day backlash and cynicism because it isn’t a film that is riveting or filled with complicated characters stuck in some moral dilemma that riles up a roasting debate on our understanding of the human condition; elements that we’ve come to expect from our Oscar-winning movies. Against this type of criteria, “Going My Way” crumbles, which is perhaps an unfair approach to take with this film because obviously its financial success and the number of awards bestowed upon it are far beyond its control.

Directed by Leo McCarey, “Going My Way” seemingly had the entire body of the Academy voting its way as it scooped up seven of its 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture for 1944. Two of the film’s 10 nominations both went to Barry Fitzgerald, who was nominated twice for the same performance in the Best Actor and the Best Supporting Actor categories. He lost the Best Actor race to co-star Bing Crosby, but luckily he did emerge triumphant in winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The absence of a rule preventing such an occurrence quickly became established before the next Oscar ceremony, making Fitzgerald the first and only actor to ever be nominated twice for the same role in the same film in the same year.

“Going My Way” is considered somewhat of a breakthrough for Crosby, who had struggled to elevate his acting career beyond the towering shadow of his successful singing career. Everyone knew Bing could sing, but “Going My Way” cemented his popularity as an actor, furnishing him with momentum that helped him to become one of the top box office draws of the 1940s. It’s no wonder he shined, the role is practically tailor-made for a personality like Crosby’s, replete with crooning musical numbers. In the film, Crosby plays a spirited, young priest name Father Chuck O’Malley, who has been assigned to the fledgling parish of St. Dominic’s church in New York. Due to a series of mishaps on his first day, Father O’Malley fails to register a respectable impression with the elder pastor, Father Fitzgibbon. The evolution of friendship between the two pastors, as they learn to appreciate each other’s differences, is the main narrative thread that anchors “Going My Way.” However, along the way the story takes several detours, mainly chronicling Father O’Malley’s good deeds among the neighborhood, accompanied, of course, by a few musical numbers.

The whole picture is a world that orbits sentimentality, populated with characters that all have chicken soup coursing through their veins. Perhaps no actor excels more in this type of on-screen environment than Bing Crosby. He has a natural Boy Scout youthfulness to his energy, and is so effortless in the way he imparts cinematic sunshine. Even the sharpest cynicism seems dulled by his tenderness. I mean hell, even his very name alone seems to articulate a cheery disposition. Bing.

Barry Fitzgerald as Father Fitzgibbon in "Going My Way."
But what ups the feel-good factor here is the opportunity for Crosby to play off of Barry Fitzgerald’s sweet, curmudgeonly personality, topped off with an ol’ Irish accent. The two of them have a warm affection for each other onscreen, placing the majority of their scenes on par with a mug of hot chocolate by the fire. Their fondness for each other culminates when Father O’Malley secretly brings Father Fitzgibbon’s elderly mother over from Ireland to see her son after 45 years apart. Their reunion would melt even the heart of a dictator, as they tenderly embrace without a word.
As I mentioned early on, this isn’t a great film. It’s too long. The story meanders through a series of mildly interesting subplots. While I truly do appreciate listening to Bing Crosby’s unique singing voice, all of the musical numbers seem contrived as an excuse just for him to sing. But having said all of that, it’s hard to knock on a film that is so earnest in its aim to simply bring joy and levity into people’s lives. In 1944, it’s not difficult to understand why people gladly plunked down their dimes to see “Going My Way.” In the shadows of WWII, being presented with a perkier version of the world, one which contains a soundtrack of Bing Crosby tunes and where everyone is good-natured must have been an appealing respite to a war-weary public.

Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O'Malley teaching a gang of local kids how to sing.
I think the ability to bring joy to people’s lives through entertainment is an underappreciated art form that is deceptively challenging. The capacity to shock, depress and petition an audience’s cynical or scandal-loving nature seems to take less imagination and courage. I think creating entertainment solely with the intent to brighten up the lives of those who consume it is terribly tricky because a lot of its success is rooted in gaining audience trust. As corny as it sounds, enjoying and accepting a film like “Going My Way” requires people to open up their hearts and channel some touchy-feely emotions to get on board, creating a certain level of vulnerability. If an audience feels a film or performance has betrayed their trust by not delivering the goods, then it runs the risk of experiencing an even greater backlash. The overall veracity of the old adage that “everyone’s a critic” makes it difficult to pull off feel-good entertainment, which may be part of the reason why studios don’t produce films like “Going My Way.”

Interestingly, the following year, a sequel to “Going My Way” was released called “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Other than featuring the character of Father O’Malley and stacking up Academy Award nominations, it had little connection to the story and characters present in “Going My Way.” Both films generally follow the same wholesome formula, except that in “The Bells of St. Mary’s” Bing Crosby finds himself clashing with Ingrid Bergman’s Sister Superior Mary Benedict. The only particular note of interest regarding “The Bells of St. Mary’s” is that it was the first sequel to a Best Picture winning film to be produced, which is still a rare occurrence even today.

In the end, I don’t think you would be missing out terribly if you decided to tell Bing Crosby and Co. that you’re not going their way. I can appreciate that it strives to be chicken-noodle-soup entertainment, but even so, it could use a generous dash of salt and pepper to give it some memorable flavor. But I’m not going to fault the film for being dramatically inert and blunt of any compelling conflicts because it simply doesn’t aspire to be anything else other than what it is. Too many contemporary critics have piled on “Going My Way,” with one even calling its Oscar victory “almost embarrassing in retrospect.” I agree that its Oscar victory probably owes more to the mood of the times than to any cinematic achievement. But like I said, I find it unfair to heap a harsher helping of criticism on a film for something it didn’t set out to acquire.

Favorite Line: “Going My Way” opens with a scene between Mr. Haines, who has come from the bank to pay a visit to Father Fitzgibbon regarding a loan from the bank. “You owe the Knickerbocker Savings and Loan Company five payments on this mortgage,” Mr. Haines informs Father Fitzgibbon. “If it they’re not taken care of, I’m afraid the Knickerbocker Savings and Loan Company will have to take the necessary action. Why don’t you make that the subject of your sermon next Sunday?  Tell it to your people. The Lord loveth a cheerful giver.”

“Oh I can’t imagine myself saying that in Mass next Sunday. What a sermon that would be!” exclaims Father Fitzgibbon good naturedly. “The text of me sermon this morning is taken from the mortgage according to Mr. Haines, from the first to the twenty-third clause.”

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