Friday, February 8, 2013

Going My Way (1944): A Review


Father Knows Blessed...

Going My Way is shamelessly sentimental, emotionally manipulative, and has a somewhat thin story.  However, by the end one simply cannot resist its charm, sweetness, and total sincerity. 

Going My Way is about the time one Father Frank O'Malley (Bing Crosby), a new young progressive priest who enjoys golf and singing comes to a new parish, St. Dominic's Church in New York City.  He comes in under somewhat false pretenses: the head priest at St. Dom's, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) believes O'Malley to be merely his new assistant.  However, the crusty old Gaelic priest is unaware that in reality the Bishop had put O'Malley in charge of St. Dominic's while keeping his true status secret to spare Fitzgibbon's feelings.

St. Dominic's is in heavy financial trouble, especially in the mortgage held by Ted Haines, Sr. (Gene Lockhart).  Ted Haines, Jr. (James Brown, no--not the Godfather of Soul) wants to follow in Dad's footsteps, but he isn't good at throwing people out of their apartments.  It's up to Father O'Malley to put things right, not just with the finances, but with those around him.

There's this young girl, Carol James (Jean Heather), who has run away from home and wants to be a singer.  Well, Der Bingle soon sets her straight, urging her to be a little less flashy and dig into the emotion and words of a song rather than the style.  We also have a group of 40's style hoodlums, led by Tony Scaponi (Stanley Clements) and his right-hand hood, Herman (Carl Switzer, better remembered as Alfalfa in the Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts).  Despite being Nuw Yowk hoods, they are actually pretty nice kids, and O'Malley gets them to become the church choir.

Now in order to help the finances, O'Malley is inspired in part by his wish to put his faith and the joy he derives from it in song...such as a little number called Going My Way.  It also helps when he meets an old girlfriend, Genevieve Linden (opera star Risë Stevens), who has gone on to great success as an opera diva.  Seeing that she and O'Malley will never be able to rekindle their long-ago affair, Linden becomes his pal and uses her influence to help promote the song to a Tin Pan Alley-type group.  While Going My Way doesn't sell, another little ditty called The Mule does (more on that song later).

It looks like things are finally going well: Carol and Ted Haines, Jr. at first appear to be living in sin, but then we see things as they really are.  Fitzgibbon, having resigned himself to an understanding with his 'assistant', now may be able to fulfill his long-delayed wish to see his 90-year-old mother back in the Old Country.  However, tragedy strikes: St. Dominic's burns to the ground, and Fitzgibbon simply hasn't the heart to go on.  O'Malley, however, rallies him to rebuild the church, and this is bittersweet for the young priest has been reassigned to another parish.  Fitzgibbon, sad to see him go, now will contend with his newest assistant, the even more casual Father O'Dowd (Frank McHugh), O'Malley's golfing buddy.  As the choir sings and Fitzgibbon gives his Christmas sermon, in comes his little Irish mother to Too-la-roo-la-lal, and as mother and child embrace, Father Frank O'Malley quietly slips away.

Confound it I should grow a little less heart at Going My Way.  Frank Butler and Frank Cavett's screenplay (from a story by director Leo McCarey) washes us in sweetness and unabashed sentimentality with the interplay between O'Malley and Fitzgibbon.  We get the scamps and the tramps (and even a little bit of culture with Stevens' opera number), but by the time we get to see Mother Fitzgibbon tottering up to hold her child, at this point I always get something in my eye.

Credit for this goes in a wide number of directions.  First is the director.  McCarey keeps things moving quickly, rarely lingering too long with one subplot or another.  If one thinks on it, Going My Way has quite a few balls in the air: you have the St. Dom's in financial trouble story, the local "yutes" being reformed story, the Carol/Ted, Jr. romance story, and the Linden/O'Malley story.  McCarey was able to keep each story from overshadowing the other and moving from one to the other without bringing the film to a screeching halt. 

He also gave some wonderful moments with the cast.  I note one particular scene where Fitzgibbon and O'Malley communicate silently, making it a sort of 'conversation' where they (and we) understand what is being 'said'.  We also have a counterpoint between Carol's bold-and-brash style of singing and Father Frank's more laid-back manner.  It's the same song, but Crosby's rendition makes it a ballad while Heather shows what it sounds like being belted out. 

We even get some rather daring dialogue with double entendres that actually fit into the story.  After the hoods steal some turkeys, Tony and Herman escape through the church yard.  To their surprise Father Fitzgibbon encounters them.  The naive priest, unaware that they aren't the nice boys he thinks they are, mistakes the turkey for a gift for him.  He does tell them he's partial to turkey.  Tony and Herman, not willing to A.) disappoint him and B.) left holding the bag so to speak, give Fitzgibbon the turkey.

Later he and O'Malley are enjoying the turkey when O'Malley is made aware that Tony and Herman had been spotted stealing the bird.  O'Malley can barely suppress his smile when he realizes where his dinner came from.  Questioning Fitzgibbon about how he came upon the turkey, Fitzgibbon tells him of his encounter with the boys.  "I gave them both my blessing," he says.  Without missing a beat, O'Malley replies, "And they gave you the bird".

In terms of the story, it is an entirely accurate statement.  In terms of reading subtext into it, that line is both hilarious and rather daring to where one wonders how the censors never noticed how it might sound.  

Of course, you have such a brilliant performance by Barry Fitzgerald as the crusty, slightly cantankerous but loveable Father Fitzgibbons.  He is not a tottering old fool by any means.  Early on when O'Malley appears delighted with a surprise delivery of puppies, commenting on the joy of giving, Fitzgibbon wryly retorts, "The joy of giving is indeed a pleasure.  Especially when you get rid of something you don't want".  Having dealt with various gossips in his parish all these years, he hasn't ever grown bitter or sarcastic, merely crotchety.

However, he has an impish charm that makes him irresistible.  Fitzgerald gives Fitzgibbons a generally sweet personality, someone who is very traditional but also very trusting, aware of how people can be but also who sees nothing evil, merely misguided.  When he appears to realize he has basically been demoted, we feel genuine warmth and affection for him because he really is just a sweet guy who means no harm.  It's no surprise he was nominated in both Lead and Supporting Actor categories (winning for the latter, the only time a person has been nominated for both categories for the same role in one film).  I'd argue this was a supporting role, but the screen lights up whenever he appears.

This doesn't take away from Crosby, who has an easy-going charm to his Father O'Malley.  His performance has very few dramatic turns (the most dramatic moments being when he has to confront Carol and Ted, Jr. about the suggestion that they are shacking up), but Crosby shows a man who genuinely loves being a priest and can still be 'with it', with the songwriting and smooth manner of winning over the gang to his side.

Of course, this was at a time when a priest could be down in the basement with a group of boys without a hint of scandal, but I digress. 

Risë Stevens, best known today as a legendary opera star, is commanding on the stage and in the film, proving herself a natural actress.  It is wonderful to have film of her performing her signature role of the title character in Georges Bizet's Carmen (and a special delight to hear the Habanera with such a magnificent voice), but she is also believable and charming when she isn't singing, playing the part of former gal-pal now just regular friend with ease.  Going My Way doesn't go the route of suggesting that Linden and O'Malley would ever rekindle any lost romance (which I imagine a more contemporary film might have taken).  This is an intelligent choice because we don't have to concentrate on such matters and accept that they are just friends, nothing more, nothing less, nothing more.

Given that we have two great singers in Stevens and Crosby, it's no surprise that Going My Way has songs.  The title song is sung twice (by Crosby and Stevens each), and while it's a pretty song it never became the hit I imagine songwriters James Van Heusen (music) and Johnny Burke (lyrics) thought it would be.  Going My Way DOES have a legendary song, but I think that few people thought it would be the breakout hit Going My Way was meant to be.

As a digress, I am reminded of Holiday Inn.  The "main" song being pushed in that film was Be Careful, It's My Heart, but the song that went on to become a classic (and a Best Original Song winner) was White Christmas.  Similarly, while Going My Way was the song being promoted, it was The Mule that ended up being iconic.

Now, you might be thinking the same thing I was.  The MULE?  What kind of song is THAT?  That's the way the song was introduced (the boys, after the disappointing reception for Going My Way, asking Father O'Malley if they could sing The Mule), but the song is better known as Swinging on a Star.  It certainly showcases Bing Crosby's unique styling and it's a delightful number all around.

In a certain sense though, the song-pluggers were right: schmaltz isn't in season.  The sentimental, romantic Going My Way is not the song we remember from Going My Way.  Instead, it is the more upbeat, swinging Swinging on a Star that is the number for which Going My Way is best remembered (and one of the best Best Original Song winners). 

Going My Way I imagine served as tonic for a war-weary audience that wanted some escape to something gentle, pleasant, harmless, and where gentleness and sentimentality abounds.  Today, it might not be as well-remembered and the sentimentality may come across as slightly hokey, but it still packs an emotional impact that leaves one caught up in its tender story of men of faith doing the Lord's work (and getting a little golf in too).         

I DARE you not to get emotional...

1945 Best Picture Winner: The Lost Weekend

Please visit the Best Picture Retrospective for all Best Picture Oscar Winner Reviews.


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