This isn't a Road picture, but a lot of moviegoers found themselves going Bing's way back in 1944, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart notes.
"At one time, I had quite a choice to make—whether to write the nation's songs or go my way."
One of the things you notice when you watch a classic movie is how familiar it feels. Even if you've never seen this particular movie before, every beat feels familiar because you've seen it before—in numerous movies and TV shows that were made afterward. That's the feeling I got as I watched Going My Way, the 1944 movie which showed the world that Bing Crosby, the Road picture guy with the dinky nose, could handle drama. Heck, Crosby even repeated himself the next year with the sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's.
Not only was Going My Way a box-office hit, it was also a critical success in its day. The movie won Academy Awards for Best Actor (Crosby), Best Supporting Actor (Barry Fitzgerald), Best Director and Best Original Story (Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth), Best Original Song (for "Swinging on a Star"), Best Screenplay (Frank Butler and Frank Cavett), and Best Picture.
Going My Way is the latest entry in Universal's Cinema Classics series, with an introduction by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne.
Facts of the Case
The Church of Saint Domenic is facing a financial crunch—and Knickerbocker Savings and Loan boss Ted Haines Sr. (Gene Lockhart, Miracle on 34th Street) is even threatening to foreclose on the church. His son says it's never been done, but he's itching to prove there's a first time for everything. That doesn't sit well with Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald, The Quiet Man), who doesn't like Haines's suggestion to ask his congregation for more money; "The text of me sermon this morning is taken from the mortgage," as Fitzgibbon puts it, won't fly.
Help is on the way, though, even if Fitzgibbon might not welcome it: Father Chuck O'Malley (Bing Crosby, Road to Zanzibar) has been sent by the Catholic Church to help straighten out the parish's wayward finances. Even before he walks through the door, though, O'Malley ends up taking the rap for a window broken by neighborhood kids in a game of streetball. Worse yet, the man with the broken window is an atheist.
In his first meeting with Fitzgibbon, O'Malley's wearing a St. Louis Browns sweatshirt—not clerical garb. "Even a bishop wouldn't do a thing like this to me," Fitzgibbon says as he considers his new assistant.
O'Malley soon gets involved in the lives of his parishioners: Haines's son (James Brown, Objective Burma!), who isn't enthusiastic about getting into the family business; Carol (Jean Heather, Double Indemnity), who wants to pursue a musical career; Tony (Stanley Clements, Ghosts on the Loose), the neighborhood tough who gives the church a stolen turkey for Thanksgiving, and Mrs. Quimp (Anita Sharp-Bolster, The Thin Man Goes Home), who faces eviction from her apartment, to name a few.
O'Malley starts a chorus to keep the kids off the street and hatches a musical plan to get the church back on its feet. He enlists the help of old buddy Father Timmy (Frank McHugh, Mighty Joe Young) and former flame and Metropolitan Opera singer Genevieve Linden (Risë Stevens, The Chocolate Soldier).
While, as Robert Osborne tells us in the introduction, no one could have pictured Bing Crosby as a priest in a dramatic story before Going My Way, his optimistic, gently persuasive Father O'Malley became the picture of a young man of the cloth. Crosby delivers his moral guidance with a soft touch, a smile, and a story, winning his parishioners' hearts before they know what hit them. Though we don't get his backstory directly, there are plenty of hints to let us know that O'Malley's aware of the world and hasn't been hiding from it in a monastery.
Equally, Barry Fitzgerald's Father Fitzgibbon became the picture of O'Malley's flip side, the veteran man of the cloth who struggles to keep his "pilot light" of hope going in the wake of years of financial crisis and disappointment. Fitzgibbon's set in his ways and seems out of it, but he shows that he's still a vital part of the church by the end of the movie.
What starts out as a series of light moments gradually builds in dramatic intensity as viewers get to know the priests and the people of their parish. The turning point is when Fitzgibbon goes to see the bishop about his troublesome new assistant and finds out that his troubles are just what the bishop ordered. Crosby and Fitzgerald carry this scene just with their expressions and tones of voice. There will still be plenty of light moments ahead, but you've got a serious portrait of the relationship between these two priests on your hands.
The supporting cast works well within 1944 limits of characterization and storytelling. For example, a neighborhood cop picks up Carol in the street but can't tell O'Malley precisely what she was doing; his tone of voice and O'Malley's concern suggest that it's not littering they're talking about. The crime that the cop goes after Tony and his gang for—stealing turkeys—sounds more like a Bowery Boys bit than anything on a real-life police blotter. The actors generally come across as believable—with real moments of epiphany—even when their situations have too much Hollywood in them.
Let's not forget the most obvious convention: There's always someone asking Father O'Malley to play the piano or croon a tune. Among the tunes here are the aforementioned "Swinging on a Star," "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra," "The Day After Forever," and title tune "Going My Way." It's not quite a musical, but Going My Way did contribute some memorable tunes to America's songbook. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono soundtrack isn't the perfect way to hear them, but Crosby still comes across loud and clear.
The transfer here is worthy of a film that's on the National Film Register. There's a rare fleck or spot here and there, but the black-and-white picture is mostly clean and crisp.
Robert Osborne's introduction is what you'd expect from the Turner Movie Classics host, with an interesting story about Academy Award politics. The theatrical trailer included here isn't for the original release, but for a reissue after the Oscars came out. Thus, it lists all the Academy Awards the movie won. It would have been nice to see the original trailer, though.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Especially from the point of view of modern movie buffs who should see them coming a mile away, the plot problems seem too pat and easily resolved, especially a tragedy late in the picture that tests the growing friendship between Father O'Malley and Father Fitzgibbon. I'm not kidding about that deja vu.
If you like inspirational, heartwarming films, you've got to see this one. It set a standard that's hard to beat. If you're not into inspirational and heartwarming, the Oscar-laden Going My Way still has memorable performances and music going for it.
Even a bishop wouldn't find this one guilty.
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