The theme of the world war and its major players had been central to several best picture nominees over the previous 4 years.
- The Great Dictator
- Sergeant York
- The Invaders
- Wake Island
- In Which We Serve
- Watch on the Rhine
By 1944 World War II was winding down. After the Allies’ victory at Normandy Beach things were turning in their favor. America was ready to look ahead to better days. Going My Way was a feel-good picture that refreshed a war-weary nation.
Going My Way tells the story of Father Chuck O’Malley, the newly-arrived priest at rundown, debt-laden St. Dominic’s Church. Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), the current cantankerous, set-in-his-ways priest struggles with O’Malley’s breezy, “modernistic” methods. But together they find a way to work together for the good of the community and the parish.
It starts out feeling pretty light and flimsy, especially after a string of serious best picture winners Gone With the Wind, Rebecca, How Green Was My Valley, Mrs. Miniver and Casablanca. But it has a lot of heart.
Bing is very enjoyable in the lead role but he is rarely anything other than himself in any film. That being said, why would you ever want Bing Crosby to be anything but Bing Crosby anyway?
Bing was a huge star before making this film. But Going My Way marked the beginning of a straight decade in the top five of box office draws. From 1944 until 1948 he was the #1 movie star in the world.
The movie is a “cheat musical*” allowing Bing to showcase his singing with a few song scenes. The setup is usually pretty contrived.
- Do you know this song, Father?
- Try out my piano, Father.
- Won’t you sing us a son, Father?
- Maybe I’ll just sing you my sermon.
Opera soprano Risë Stevens appears as Genevieve Linden, an old friend of Father O’Malley’s, which gives another opportunity to feature a musical number, this time it’s The Habanera from Carmen. She shows up later to sing Ave Maria and the title track, “Going My Way” with Father O’Malley’s new boys choir.
Barry Fitzgerald gives a great performance as Father Fitzgibbon, pretty much the only character with more than one dimension.
After a cookie-cutter 1st act the film turns to give us a little more character development as the aging Father faces being replaced by the young priest with new ideas.
There are some very poignant moments in this story and the relationship between Father Fitzgibbons and Father O’Malley is heartwarming although it goes back to the sentimental well a bit too often for my liking. Though it might have been just what America needed at the time.
After what seems to be the conclusion of the film there are a few scenes of the priests playing golf and checkers before tragedy strikes. It turns out it was the fake ending before the real third act when Bing saves the parish… again.
It’s a little difficult to understand how this beat out Double Indemnity or Gaslight for best picture. All I can guess is that they were ready for light and breezy over dark and complex.
What’s even more puzzling is how Leo McCarey won best director over Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), Otto Preminger (Laura) and Alfred Hitchcock (Lifeboat). It’s a nice movie but there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the direction.
Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald are eminently likable but Going My Way suffers from a surplus of sweetness and sentimentality. But I dare you…I triple-dog dare you**… not to get a little misty-eyed at the end of the film.
The film received 10 nominations and took home 7 Oscars (!) including statuettes for Bing and Barry Fitzgerald who, oddly enough, had two chances to win for this film as he was nominated in both actor and supporting actor categories. The Academy changed the rules the next year to ensure this would be the first and last time this would happen.
*“Cheat musicals” present their songs in a performance environment rather than as a vehicle for characters to interact, share their thoughts and ideas and therefore advance the plot.
**Please forgive this breach of etiquette as I skipped the triple dare and went right for the throat.