Reeling Backward: Going My Way (1944)
For his last survey of previously unseen Best Picture Oscar winners, Christopher Lloyd croons about this musical dramedy starring Bing Crosby as a change agent priest.
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Well, it’s been quite a journey.
When I first started this intermittent series to watch all the previously unseen Academy Award Best Picture winners, I figured it’d take a few months — at most. After all, how many films could that possibly be for a professional critic who prides himself on having a broad and deep taste for movies?
As it turned out, it was about five years.
I was surprised when I counted up the unseen winners and found it was nearly two dozen titles. At the time I started, many of them were not readily available on home video or streaming services. And, well, like a lot of life, things tended to wander away from me. The project would be laid aside for stretches as film festivals, the year-end awards season rush and other things ate up my bandwidth.
Not that I’m complaining, but the movie critic life is busier than it’s ever been. With streaming services and video on demand, there are more feature films released on a weekly basis than ever before. Instead of having them served up to us by the studios, we have to go chase them down… and often get a hand to the face when we do. Critics used to experience seasonal lulls — particularly in the early part of the year and after the summer movie season.
Now, it’s all-in, all the time.
“Going My Way” is, in a lot of ways, a fitting picture upon which to wrap this project. Though hardly among my favorites of the Best Pictures, it’s warm-hearted, genuine and unabashedly sentimental.
Bing Crosby stars as Father Chuck O'Malley, a young(ish) change agent priest who descends upon a troubled church and turns things around. It’s cinematic comfort food meant to reassure audiences eager for an end to World War II and a return to normalcy. It feels almost more a product of the 1950s than the ‘40s.
It’s also a musical, because Bing Crosby.
The velvet-voiced crooner was voted Hollywood’s biggest star by theater exhibitors after “Going” became the top-grossing film of 1944, and would hold the title for five years straight. It also snagged Crosby the Best Actor Oscar, and in all won seven of the 10 Academy Awards for which it was nominated. Among those it beat out for Best Picture were “Double Indemnity” and “Gaslight,” so hardly a weak year.
The film also has the notoriety of being the only time a performer was nominated in more than one category for the same role: Barry Fitzgerald as Father Fitzgibbon, the elderly pastor with whom O’Malley initially clashes. Fitzgerald lost out to Crosby in the Best Actor category but won for Supporting.
Such was the success of “Going My Way” that Crosby and Leo McCarey (who won his own Oscar for directing) reunited for a sequel the very next year, continuing the do-gooder adventures of Father O’Malley in “The Bells of St. Mary’s” opposite Ingrid Bergman as his nun antagonist-turned-partner.
It garnered seven Oscar nominations of its own, including best picture and nods for Crosby, McCarey and Bergman. It was also the top-grosser of its year, earning even more money than “Going,” and arguably “Bells” holds a more prominent place in popular culture than its predecessor.
(“Going” also was adapted into a TV show lasting one season in the early 1960s starring Gene Kelly.)
The plot is pretty streamlined. O’Malley is assigned to St. Dominic's Church in a lower-class neighborhood of New York City, a struggling parish where the pastor, Father Fitzgibbon, has grown old and out of touch. The older priest thinks O’Malley has been sent as his curate, aka assistant, but in fact the bishop has instructed him to take over.
O’Malley keeps this information secret, not wanting to hurt the feelings of Fitzgibbon, who started St. Dominic’s from the ground up 45 years ago. Now the crowds of worshipers have grown small, and local moneyman Ted Haines Sr. (James Brown) of the Knickerbocker Savings and Loan Company is threatening to foreclose on the mortgage.
His lackadaisical playboy son, Ted Jr. (Gene Lockhart), observes that no one wants to do business with churches because if you press for your money, you look like a heel. Though his dad does not seem afeared at the prospect.
“He’s a very disliked man,” Junior observes of Senior. “I’m sort of following in his footsteps.”
That’s one of the better zingers from script men Frank Butler and Frank Cavett, who also won an Academy Award. I should note McCarey won an additional Oscar for Best Original Motion Picture Story, this being back in the day when story and script were separate categories.
The neighborhood is full of grumpy, mostly poor people who do not look to St. Dominic’s for spiritual guidance as they should. Mrs. Hattie Quimp (Anita Sharp-Bolster), the local gossip and scold, makes a lot of screechy judgments about others, despite having not paid her rent in six months. O’Malley intercedes on her behalf with the Haineses, and similarly helps out others.
His biggest immediate change is getting the local gang of street urchins, led by the memorably monikered Tony Scaponi (Stanley Clements), to lay off the petty crime and instead form a boys’ choir in the basement of the church. In an amusing comedic turn, Scaponi and his henchman steal a turkey and, caught sneaking through the church grounds, turn the bird over as a hasty gift to Fitzgibbon, who secretly enjoys a good nosh and a drink.
While feasting on the turkey, O’Malley lets it drop to his elder that they’re snacking on purloined poultry.
O’Malley also helps out Carol James (Jean Heather), an 18-year-old runaway who has come to the Big Apple to make it as a singer. He convinces Fitzgibbon to give her a sawbuck from the church’s meager coffers (about $175 today) to tide her over — their unspoken fear being that she will turn to prostitution otherwise. O’Malley even helps her out with her singing, instructing Carol to put more emotion into her phrasing.
Later on, Carol will fall in with Ted Jr., who sets her up in one of the family’s vacant apartments as a love nest. O’Malley gently nudges them back toward the light and they marry, just long enough for him to join the Air Force.
(Oddly, this is the only reference in the entire movie — and a passing one — to the ongoing war.)
Frank McHugh turns up as Father Timothy O'Dowd, an impish childhood friend of O’Malley who’s now a curate at a nearby church, bonded by their love of music and golf.
O’Malley’s surprising musical abilities are touched upon with the late introduction of Jenny Tuffe (Risë Stevens), a now-famous opera singer who is clearly inferred to once have been his girlfriend. It seems he once tried to make it as a songwriter.
Now redubbed with the fancier name Genevieve Linden, they acknowledge their former romance without attempting to rekindle it, and she assists in efforts to help out the church by pitching one of O’Malley’s song compositions to the record label.
I have to say, as musicals go “Going My Way” is not exactly a toe-tapper. “The Day After Forever” is a middling tearjerker. The title song is utterly forgettable, and I’m not surprised when the record mogul rejects it as noncommercial. He does take an interest in "Swinging on a Star,” which Scaponi and the boys refer to as “the mule song.” It’s the standout of the film, and won the Oscar for Best Song.
There’s one sour note where O’Malley condescendingly dismisses the popular music of the day as “Voffola,” banging out some jaunty bars on the piano clearly meant to poke fun at jazz. It’s an odd thing to put in a Bing Crosby movie, seeing as he borrowed much of his phrasing and note-bending from jazz traditions, and was a lifelong friend and occasional duettist with Louis Armstrong.
One more discordance: I know I have a tendency to be a literalist when it comes to movies, but for a church that’s supposedly in danger of going out of business, St. Dominic’s is an awfully fancy place. The church itself is large and lavish, and the priests’ spacious living quarters have all sorts of opulent adornments.
What makes “Going My Way” work is the relationship between O’Malley and Fitzgibbon, which deepens from clash of generations to mutual respect. The younger man gradually draws the older one out of his hidebound shell, teaching him to open his heart beyond the strict teachings of the church and be true shepherds to their flock — even those with a little soot in their wool.
I’m very glad to have undertaken this endeavor with the Best Pictures, and even happier to have finally brought it to a close. I found some terrific films that will live long in my heart, and even the ones I didn’t quite think worthy of winning the Oscar — including this one — still solid pictures representative of the finest filmmaking traditions.
I’d say the next logical step would be to catch all the Best Picture nominees I haven’t seen — though that might require longer than I’ve got left on this mortal coil.
Like ol’ Bing’s Father O’Malley, it’s time to tip my hat and shuffle off to the next adventure…