#612) Going My Way (1944)
OR “Not Your Father’s Father”
Directed by Leo McCarey
Written by Frank Butler and Frank Cavett. Story by McCarey.
Class of 2004
The Plot: Father Chuck O’Malley (Bing Crosby) is a young priest from St. Louis transferred to New York to help out St. Dominic’s Church and its aging founder Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). O’Malley’s youth and unconventional approach to religion clashes with Fitzgibbon’s more traditional style, O’Malley opting to “go my way” and teach a lighter, more positive message. In time he wins over his congregation, including young runaway Carol James (Jean Heather) and a gang of youth who O’Malley convinces to join his newly formed church choir. Can O’Malley save the church before the bank forecloses? And because it’s Bing Crosby, how many songs can we shoehorn into this?
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a plot overview and, while admitting that the film is “heavy on sentiment”, praises Leo McCarey, who “wisely tempers the sugary emotion with comedy and musical interludes.”
But Does It Really?: This is in the “historically significant” / “Minor Classic” ballpark. “Going My Way” is not a pivotal or groundbreaking movie, and is largely forgotten nowadays outside of an Oscar montage, but its entertainment value (as well as its “heavy sentiment”) still make for an enjoyable viewing 80 years later. I’ll admit to a bit of bias in favor of this movie (it was one of my dad’s favorites), but “Going My Way” is a welcomed addition to the NFR, if not an absolute essential in film history.
Title Track: I always forget that this movie has a title song. Written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, “Going My Way” is one of three original songs in the film, and I’ll go ahead and rank it second, far behind “Swinging on a Star” and slightly ahead of the one Carol sings that I’ve already forgotten.
Seriously, Oscars?: The biggest hit of 1944, “Going My Way” tied wartime drama “Wilson” with 10 Oscar nominations, and went on to win 7, including Best Picture, Director, and Lead Actor for Bing Crosby. Interestingly enough, Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for both Lead and Supporting Actor for his performance in “Going My Way”. Fitzgerald prevailed in the Supporting category, and shortly thereafter the Academy rules were changed to prevent this oddity from occurring again.
- Stay with me, this is going to get tricky. While working at RKO, Leo McCarey wrote a script based on his aunt, a nun who died of typhoid. The script, eventually titled “The Bells of St. Mary’s”, included a priest character that McCarey wanted Bing Crosby to play. Crosby liked the part, but couldn’t commit due to his contractual obligation with Paramount. An agreement was made that Crosby would be loaned out to RKO for “Bells”, but first McCarey had to make a movie for Paramount. McCarey agreed and wrote “Going My Way” as a sort of prequel that focused on Father O’Malley. Once again: “Going My Way” is technically a prequel, but was released before “Bells”, making that film technically a sequel.
- As always with your ’40s studio fare, get out your “Character Actor Bingo” cards. In the first few minutes alone we get Gene Lockhart, Frank McHugh and Porter Hall (who receives prominent billing for one inconsequential scene). And no you’re not seeing things: The actor playing Ted Jr. in this movie is named James Brown. In later years, he would go professionally by “James L. Brown” (or sometimes “James B. Brown”) to differentiate himself from that other, significantly more famous James Brown.
- Best line in the movie: “You even throw like an atheist.”
- I’m enjoying Bing in this movie a lot. His natural breeziness helps give the character a friendly approachability, and it’s fun watching him try to win over crotchety old Barry Fitzgerald.
- Shoutout to Jean Heather and her perfectly arched eyebrows. One of Paramount’s rising stars in the early ’40s (look for her as Barbara Stanwyck’s stepdaughter in “Double Indemnity“), Heather’s film career ended in 1947 when she received serious head injuries from a car accident. Thankfully she survived, and lived long enough to see this and “Indemnity” become classics.
- I assume every kid in this movie is either one of the Bowery Boys or the Dead End Kids. Imagine the turf wars. Their leader, Tony Scaponi (love the name), is played by Stanley Clements, who I guess out-Brooklyned everyone else at the audition. And if the kid playing Herman looks familiar, it’s Carl Switzer, aka Alfalfa from “Our Gang”.
- Thank god these kids all like baseball, otherwise Chuck would have nothing to relate to them with.
- We all know Father Fitzgibbon will eventually warm up to Father O’Malley, but it’s still satisfying to watch Barry Fitzgerald show his softer side. The scene where Bing quietly sings “An Irish Lullaby” to Fitzgibbon is especially sweet, and may have hypnotized my cat while I was watching this.
- This is what I call a “spinning plate movie”. The film has an episodic “hangout” vibe as we go from subplot to subplot every few minutes. Okay, things look good with Father Fitzgibbon, let’s see how the boys are doing. Now let’s check in on Carol and Ted… etc.
- The film’s second half introduces us to opera singer Jenny Tuffel, played by Risë Stevens, credited with the impressive title “Famous Contralto of Metropolitan Opera Association”. It is strongly hinted that Jenny and Chuck were romantically involved before he joined the priesthood, which helps confirm my own skepticism believing Bing Crosby as celibate. Stevens of course has a dynamite voice, though in the role of Carmen she’s no Dorothy Dandrige…who in turn was no Marilyn Horne.
- Unlike the majority of wartime era films, “Going My Way” barely mentions the war, only giving it a proper acknowledgment when Ted Jr. signs up for the Air Force. Speaking of, what took you so long? Pearl Harbor was 2 1/2 years ago!
- Man, they really were pushing “Going My Way” to be the breakout song from this film. It gets sung in its entirety twice; once by Bing and again by Risë Stevens and a choir of East Side Kids. No wonder everybody loves “Swinging on a Star”; it’s much catchier and is introduced at lower stakes. And of course, that’s William Frawley as the music executive, still a few years away from “I Love Lucy”, and about 78 years from getting J.K. Simmons another Oscar nomination.
- The film’s Christmas Eve finale qualifies it for my “Die Hard” Not-Christmas list. With that out of the way, it’s a very sweet ending. I knew it was coming, but I still got a little teary eyed. I also appreciated the restraint of it; Father O’Malley pulls a Mary Poppins, quietly heading off to his next assignment as everyone rejoices in their happy ending.
- “Going My Way” was an instant hit, and with his obligation to Paramount completed, McCarey immediately started work on “The Bells of St. Mary’s”. Released a year and a half after “Going My Way”, “Bells” saw Father O’Malley squaring up against Ingrid Bergman’s Sister Mary. “Bells” is still one of the only sequels to match or surpass its predecessor in both box office take and Oscar recognition.
- Following “Going” and “Bells”, Leo McCarey’s film career started to produce more misses than hits, though he did give us 1957’s “An Affair to Remember”, which as of this writing still hasn’t made the NFR.
- A TV adaptation of “Going My Way” aired on ABC in the 1962-1963 season, starring Gene Kelly as Father O’Malley and Leo G. Carroll as Father Fitzgibbon.
- Much like its appearance here, “Swinging on a Star” surpassed the title number as the film’s breakout song, even winning the Oscar for Best Song. “Swinging” has been covered many times over the years, and my favorite will always be as the theme song to the ’80s sitcom “Out of This World”.
Further Viewing: This is as good a chance as I’ll ever get to reference Bing Crosby’s duet with David Bowie of “Little Drummer Boy” in his 1977 holiday special “Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas”. It’s required viewing for me every holiday season.