Leaving behind films entirely and explicitly about WWII, the Academy chose to honor a Bing Crosby picture directed by Leo McCarey in 1943, and you know what? It’s really nice. It’s loose like a lot of McCarey’s other work, not really having a central plot but several prominent subplots that swirl around each other and connect here and there, all while improvising his way to nice little scenes throughout. Is it one of the better Best Picture winners? No. Is it a nice little addition? I’d say so. Did it deserve to win over Double Indemnity and Gaslight? Well, probably not.
Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) is the priest who built Saint Dominic in New York City from the ground up, starting forty-five years earlier. His parish has fallen behind on its mortgage payments to their banker Ted Haines Sr. (Gene Lockhart), and the bishop has sent in Father Chuck O’Malley (Crosby) to try and set things aright. Chuck gets off on the wrong foot when he asks Mrs. Quimp (Anita Sharp-Bolster) for directions to the church (she thinks he should already know) and participates in a game of streetball with the local boys that leads to a ball through a window. The ball through the window bit never comes back, even though a fair amount of time is spent between Chuck and the owner of the window where Chuck promises to pay for it, and it’s one of the first signs at how loose all of this really is.
Chuck ends up soaked on the street and has to meet Father Fitzgibbon in sweats, and the two are off to a bad (though just kind of uncomfortable) start. So, what’s going to be the plot of this movie? It’s the effort to get the mortgage payments, right? Well, that does happen, but it gets lost for a long time in other stuff. There’s a runaway eighteen year old girl, Carol (Jean Heather) that Chuck gives ten dollars to in order to help get her on her feet. There’s Chuck and his childhood friend Timmy (Frank McHugh) who is the priest at St. Francis down the street and how they reconnect and generally slightly needle Father Fitzgibbon. There’s a group of rambunctious boys in the neighborhood that give Father Fitzgibbon a stolen turkey that he doesn’t realize is stolen, and Chuck’s efforts to turn them into a choir (how this group of 20 or so boys just suddenly decides to drop everything and become a church choir is…not explained in great detail). That will be the center of the effort to get the mortgage payments up, right? They’ll put on a show! Nope. It’s just something Father Chuck is doing.
Then Father Chuck meets another old friend from school, Jenny Tuffel (Rise Stevens) who has become a premier singer at the Met, playing the lead in Carmen. There’s a bit where Jenny didn’t know that Chuck had become a priest as they talk on opposite sides of a door in her dressing room, and it gets resolved pretty much immediately in a nice, warm way as she looks at his Roman collar and just smiles.
I mean, this stuff is all nice. It’s really nice. It barely connects, though. It’s just a bunch of individual moments largely centered around Chuck that has no real narrative drive. Still, when every single little episode is so nice and warm, it’s hard to get mad at the film. Sure, each moment feels disconnected from the last, but at least it’s enjoyable to watch.
There comes something like a confluence of events late in the film when we finally get out path out of the mortgage problem by Timmy suggesting that Chuck try and sell some of his songs to a music producer friend of his. The focus is on the titular song “Going My Way” which they demonstrate in the Met with Jenny and the boys choir. Mirroring the actual success of the song in the real world, the producer likes it but doesn’t feel like it’ll be popular enough. Dejected, Chuck plays another, “Swinging on a Star” which the producer likes more, signs, and pays for, which was the more popular song in real life. Oh, and Carol and Ted Haines Jr. marry, much to the consternation of Ted Haines Sr., offset by Jr. joining the Air Force for the war.
Now, if there is a core to this film, it is the relationship between Chuck and Fitzgibbon. It’s something of a meet cute where they are at odds in the beginning and steadily grow in affection with each other, mostly from the direction of Fitzgibbon to Chuck. He steadily grows to like the young, unconventional priest, and there are some very nice scenes of them together, in particular when Fitzgibbon shares his little vice, an annual bottle of Irish Whiskey his mother sends him from the home country, with Chuck, and Chuck even sings him to sleep (with a wink at the end). It’s really nice.
And that’s what I keep coming back to. The movie is really nice. Could it have been improved with a more focused script? Yes, easily. However, what really makes Leo McCarey movies enjoyable at all is how he lets his actors find those genuine moments. It’s evident in movies like The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow more readily, but it’s what really carries Going My Way through its amorphous storytelling. Using an entertaining central cast, in particular Crosby and Fitzgerald, Going My Way feels like an escape from the realities of war, finding comfortable and easy character based entertainment amidst the more grim entertainments it was up against.
4 thoughts on “Going My Way”
This is one of my mother’s favorite movies, so watching it again felt nice. My mother is the lover of songs and stories in my family and she passed that down to me…and pretty much only me on our family. Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral and Swinging on a Star are both songs we both loved from Der Bingle. Watching the Hope and Crosby movies were one of those weekend afternoon family times we shared watching WGN Chicago’s Family Classics. So I’ve been a Bing Crosby fan for about as long as I’ve been a fan of anything or anyone.
And honestly, it’s Bing that ties the movie together. It is loosy-goosey, but Bing’s portrayal of Father O’Malley as a kind, empathetic, firmly moral but not a scold, and above all generous priest elevates the scant material. Of course it gives Bing many chances to sing, play piano and even whistle, it’s that kind of movie. This is that sort of alternate universe 1940’s that Hollywood created out of sheer craft and willpower. It’s fiction but the kind of fiction you wish you could live in. Leo McCarey really specialized in sentimental fantasies, in all the best ways. Anyone who can see Father Fitzgibbon’s mother embrace him without feeling something is souless.
Lots of great character actors in here too as well as legitimate talents like Rise Stevens (who really did play Carmen at the Met) and Fortunio Bonanova, also a real opera star. But Anita Sharp-Bolster (which sounds like a construction tool joke) is a standout as the narrow-minded, gossiping Mrs. Quimp that is one of the real treasures. (I almost thought they were calling mer Mrs. Quim but…that would have been a bit too far. Still…that’s what I heard for most of the film.). I can’t say I like Stanley Clements (one of the East Side Kids) as Tony Scamponi…the slapping seemed mean to me as a kid and seems the same today, though I ‘get’ it.
Though we follow Father O’Malley, I think you’re right that the focus of the movie is really on Father Fitzgibbons (wow did Barry Fitzgibbons hit the jackpot of film directors too, they guy was all over some very big pictures). This story is really about the old priest, dealing with age and declining donations, with the struggle to keep hope. Though not faith. This is a very non-doctrinal movie, more focused on ‘goodness’ than on morality or salvation. Well, it’s a Hollywood movie, I should be happy that priests are still shown as the good guys on screen…for now.
It may not be the Best Picture of 1944, but it might be the one that makes you feel the most goodness.
From what I understand of Leo McCarey’s method of directing, he liked to improvise his way to a scene. He was Paul Feig with talent and heart.
It’s more of a recipe for capturing moments rather than a whole film, so the fact that he was actually a good filmmaker overall is something of a small miracle. He was obviously great with actors, and he filmed cleanly in the old Hollywood milieu. He never seemed to let the actions fall completely out of character either, so when Crosby just sings his way through a scene, it never feels like Crosby is just doing a number unrelated to Father O’Malley. It’s an extension of what he’s doing as a character.
So, it’s a fat movie that COULD have been slimmed down pretty easily, but you lose a lot of very nice stuff in the process. It’d be hard to cut much out with that in mind.
Open with a joke, close with a song. It works.
I think you’re right about McCarey. He is great at scenes and then works to put them together, like QT as far as that goes.
And yes, he created the right character to let Bing be Bing and do crowd pleasing songs, but they are all in character of something a musical man would say or do (or sing).
Anyway, good review, man, thanks. Now I have to watch a Billy Wilder film. At least this one is probably his least evil…
The Emperor Waltz is probably Wilder’s least provocative film, his most innocent. Bing Crosby just wants to sell a record player to the Emperor of Austria, and he falls in love. So does his dog.
It’s kind of adorable.