Going My Way (1944)

Dir. Leo McCarey. Starring Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Risë Stevens

“Schmaltz isn’t selling this season,” Father O’Dowd (Frank McHugh) reports to his buddy, Father O’Malley (Crosby). O’Malley—Chuck to his friends, a label which contains multitudes, including some guys who will go on to father Jets and the diva of the Metropolitan Opera—is a little chastened. His tune, “Going My Way,” is admittedly a little schmaltzy, far from the “voffola” rhythms that O’Malley knows how to play but would never deign to perform. Nor does he wish to use this song to gain fame and worldly gain; his church, St. Dominic’s, is in danger of defaulting on its mortgage if he can’t come up with a get-rich-quick scheme. In such moments is the great cynicism of Going My Way expressed. It is much lamented that honest feeling is labeled schmaltz; good clean fun is on the downswing. An earlier scene features Jean Heather doing some nightclub stereotype of one of the numbers written for the picture, “The Day After Forever,” followed by Crosby’s slower and more characteristic crooning interpretation. What’s the difference, the movie asks? Father O’Malley focuses on the words, and Carol doesn’t. I would have thought that O’Malley simply changed the tempo and couldn’t move his hands because he was playing the piano, but I must yield to the experts, having failed to sell so many records as Crosby. Going My Way went on to win Best Picture and six Oscars besides in the same year as Gaslight, Meet Me in St. Louis, Laura, two Preston Sturges joints, and especially Double Indemnity. The end result of this is a Fox News-style twisting and turning and wrenching. If schmaltz isn’t selling this season, we may need to talk about what “selling” is.

Going My Way is the start of what turned out to be an irreversible downward swing in McCarey’s career. In 1937, McCarey made the two best American pictures of the year in Make Way for Tomorrow, which I called the fifty-seventh best American movie last summer and which I think I’ve underrated, and The Awful Truth, which is marvelously deft when it could have crossed into nastiness at any moment. Alas that just seven years after he won Best Director for The Awful Truth, he won it again for Going My Way, which has none of the subtleties of his earlier movies. In Make Way for Tomorrow, McCarey manages to wring every drop of melancholy from the separation of Bark and Lucy, turning their different plots into one long, glorious, immensely sad final day together. In Going My Way, a movie of two hours that feels more like three, he appears to have lost that ability. Going My Way is squirmy, making a story which could have been lean and worthwhile if it just stuck with O’Malley into a series of calls on just about everyone in the parish. Jean Heather is a pretty face, but we couldn’t have cut her surprise marriage to the real estate man’s good-natured son (James Brown) who proves his worth by enlisting in the Air Force? In an effort to ensure we get enough Crosby and Stevens, we take sojourns to the Met so we can watch her sing the “Habanera” in costume, and we are forced to suffer through the title song with no fewer than three people singing it.

With the possible exception of The Bells of St. Mary’s, it’s fair to say that none of the movies from the last fifteen years or so of McCarey’s career are worth much. An Affair to Remember has the same problem as Going My Way: it’s much better in the first half-hour than it will be for the remaining and deadly dull last hour and a half. Rally Round the Flag, Boys! is totally forgettable. My Son John and Satan Never Sleeps are both hysterically concerned with communism and its helpmate, atheism. It’s one of the sadder tumbles in filmmaking, and it’s emblematic of what we often see in creatives in troubled times. Sometimes they are simply broken, and they don’t have it in them to find a way to intelligently work through the world they thought they knew. The Cold War got McCarey just as certainly as 9/11 got Orson Scott Card. From Rany Jazayerli:

I think 9/11 changed Card in some fundamental way. It changed all of us in some fundamental way, but instead of responding to a collective psychic trauma by reflecting inward, he seems to have turned bitter toward the outside world, seeing enemies everywhere.

Either through suffocating cutesiness or full-throated paranoia, McCarey tries to cope artistically and just fails to do so. In Going My Way and An Affair to Remember, children’s choirs with targeted but limited diversity sing chirpy ditties about straightening up and flying right. The one in Affair is so randomly thrown in there that one is ready to pass it off as a fever dream, but it’s much harder to ignore that group of presumed street toughs (whose most dastardly deed is stealing live poultry from a truck) in Going My Way. They are quickly won over by the promise of ball games and hot dogs and, more subtly, by the assertion of order and focus. How quickly the boys are won! With a single doubleheader and a does of friendliness, he manages to convince thirty boys to be in a choir with only a single holdout. A single rehearsal and the boys are ready to sing rather than play baseball. One doesn’t beg for verisimilitude, but it’s an insulting and foolish fantasy that seems to believe that we can make such nice boys with such small overtures.

Going My Way, which features three priests in its five biggest roles, is also comically unreligious. The movie uses an early shot, depicting how small Fitzgibbon and O’Malley are in reference to the sanctuary, extremely well. Yet the movie does not live up to that promise. The only scene in mass is at the tail end of the movie and ends with a fundraising plea; there are more lines in there about how a little church attendance won’t hurt you than there are scenes of people attending church. Jesus’ name is said in two contexts: the first is “In the name of the Father and the Son…” and the second is “Ave Maria.” Otherwise, it’s remarkable just how little O’Malley has to say about, y’know, Catholicism. This too is cynical and manipulative: Christianity without the blood of Christ is, at its best, simple kindness. What he’s got is a glorified boys’ club, so appealingly broad and so totally without God, that John Shelby Spong is probably jumping up and down with glee. This does not make the movie worse, necessarily, but it puts the movie’s lazy politics front and center. Of course it’s better for the kids to sing or go to Yankees games than to steal it is for them to steal turkeys. But if all that’s required is singing and baseball, then what’s the Church for?

What the movie has a handle on, and which it finds a way to lose its handle on because it jumps around so frequently, is that theme of getting old. (Amusingly, just as Beulah Bondi was not quite fifty when she played a woman over seventy in Make Way for Tomorrow, Fitzpatrick was not sixty when he played someone at least ten years older.) Father Fitzgibbon is the longtime priest at St. Dominic’s, with forty-five years at the church that he built from the ground up. O’Malley is sent to St. Dominic’s, which is suffering badly, as the man in charge; he keeps that a secret at the request of the unseen bishop. Fitzgibbon learns that he’s been replaced after he goes to the bishop in a fit of temper. (O’Malley’s progressive amiability annoys him, and the singing of “Three Blind Mice” by the nascent boys’ choir is the last straw.) Fitzgibbon ultimately comes around on O’Malley, who makes everyone come around on him in time, but Fitzgerald manages to make the cranky and well-meaning old priest feel very real.

After years of fighting a losing battle against finances, four and a half decades of never seeing his old Irish mother, and finally being put out to pasture by the boss he admires for the (forty-year-old) kid he’s not crazy about, he admits to O’Malley that the “pilot light” for his hope is off. His performance is less moving than either Victor Moore’s or Beulah Bondi’s, largely because there’s less for him to work with and because O’Malley’s interactions with him are based almost entirely on a species of sweethearted pity. (The Academy didn’t think so; he was nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in the same year, which had never been done before and will never happen again. He won Supporting Actor and lost Best Actor to Crosby.) The movie lets Fitzgibbon’s self-reckoning take place without resort to O’Malley only once, and it is probably the movie’s best scene. He’s just returned from the bishp’s, where he will no doubt learn how O’Malley has final say over St. Dominic’s. After so much vinegary bluster, he takes it surprisingly well. The bishop was as loath to say anything as O’Malley. “I could see it in the good man’s eyes,” Fitzgibbon says. “When you get to my age, you can do that, y’know. Oh, yes.” To his credit, he rapidly changes his tune: “I want you to put young Father O’Malley in charge of St. Dominic’s,” he says. All that pride is swallowed, as the elderly so often are forced to do when the age stops being cosmetic and starts being deeply personal.

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