Thursday, December 30, 2010

Going My Way

"A golf course is nothing but a poolroom moved outdoors."--Father Fitzgibbon (Going My Way, 1944)
Well it's a lovely movie, especially to watch at Christmas time.  If I close my eyes I can pretend I'm watching White Christmas.  What's it about?  Bing Crosby.  Seriously.  He sings, it's great, and I think he's a priest who helps people and saves a church?  Don't know.  Don't really care.  I enjoyed watching it, I loved the music, and I don't really remember what it was about.  Entertaining film with Bing Crosby?  Absolutely.  Oscar-worthy film?  Eh--probably not.

Fathers O'Malley and Fitzgibbon
The Plot
The film starts in New York City, with mortgage broker Ted Haines Sr. reluctantly telling elderly Irish Father Fitzgibbon, played by Barry Fitzgerald, that if he doesn't make his mortgage payment on St. Dominic's church soon he will have to call in the mortgage.  Ted, Jr. argues with his father to give the church a break, but his father insists.  Father Charles Francis Patrick O'Malley, played by Bing Crosby, arrives in the neighborhood with modern ways that upset the locals.  He greets Father Fitzgibbon in a sweatshirt and slacks and announces he is to be his new curate.

Father O'Malley is the new curate.
Father O'Malley visits with his childhood friend Father Timothy O'Dowd, a local priest and the only one who knows that Father O'Malley was really sent to replace Fitzgibbon at St. Dominic's, which is in financial difficulties as well as in a troubled neighborhood.  When Ted, Jr. is sent to evict Hattie Quimp, who is O'Malley's biggest detractor, O'Malley promises the church will guarantee her rent.  On his walk back to the church, O'Malley notices two young boys stealing turkeys, with which they will later escape into the church garden and then gift to Father Fitzgibbon.  O'Malley mentions the boys are in trouble, and Fitzgibbon refuses to believe it until he discovers the turkeys are stolen.  But instead of punishing the boys, O'Malley takes them to a baseball game instead.  Meanwhile, one of the local policemen brings pretty, eighteen-year-old runaway Carol James to see O'Malley after picking her up on the street.  She turns down O'Malley's offer of a job keeping house at the church, and mentions her desire to become a singer.  O'Malley tries to coach her, and then gives her $10 when she insists on leaving.

Father O'Malley talks to the boys.
Now having earned the trust of the boys in the neighborhood, O'Malley convinces them to train as the church choir.  Fitzgibbon, having had enough, goes to the bishop to ask for O'Malley's transfer, only to learn that O'Malley has been sent as his replacement.  Upset, Fitzgibbon runs away, but O'Malley's policeman friend finds him in a storm and brings him home to O'Malley and the distraught housekeeper.  O'Malley and Fitzgibbon bond over Irish whiskey and songs, and Fitzgibbon mentions his desire to see his ninety-year-old mother, who still lives in Ireland.  A little while later, O'Malley runs into an old friend and flame, Metropolitan Opera star Genevieve "Jenny" Linden, played by real-life opera star Rise Stevens, who is surprised to learn her dear friend has become a priest.

Father O'Malley sees Jenny.
Hattie Quimp, still antagonistic, informs Fitzgibbon that Carol has taken the apartment across from hers, and has no problems "paying" her rent to Ted, Jr.  O'Malley goes over to check on her, and finds that the two are in love and Ted, Jr. has let her live in a vacant apartment without telling his father.  O'Malley plays them a song, and makes them realize how serious they are about each other.  A little later, Jenny and O'Dowd visit St. Dominic's and  see the choir.  O'Dowd mentions that he has been attempting to get O'Malley's latest song, "Going My Way" published by his friend, but it has been rejected as "too schmaltzy."  Meanwhile Ted, Sr. has finally found out about Carol, and bursts into her apartment to find her in her nightgown and Ted, Jr. coming out of the bedroom.  It turns out they're married, and they blissfully ignore Ted, Sr.'s sputtering.  But just when Ted, Sr. has reached his boiling point, his son comes out in a Army Air Force uniform, and bids them both a fond farewell.

Ted, Jr. and Carol fall in love
O'Dowd has convinced his publisher friend to come see Jenny perform "Going My Way" with the St. Dominic's choir.  But while he still feels the song too corny, he accidentally catches the boys singing O'Malley's more upbeat "Swinging on a Star."  The money for the song will be used to save the church, but at O'Malley's suggestion the publishers come to church, and put the money into Fitzgibbon's collection.  Fitzgibbon is so excited, he agrees to go golfing with the other fathers, and surprises everyone with his swing.

The fathers go golfing.
But all this comes to an abrupt end when the church catches fire and burns down.  Father Fitzgibbon falls ill after trying to solicit donations in the rain.  O'Malley tells Fitzgibbon that Ted, Jr. is on his way home after a minor jeep accident, and Jenny, who is touring with the boys' choir, has sent a check for $3,500 from the proceeds.  But just as construction has begun on the new church, O'Malley is transferred to another church that needs his help.  Fitzgibbon is sad to see him go and shocked to discover the irreverent O'Dowd has become his new curate.  As Fitzgibbon gives a sermon thanking O'Malley for all he has done, Jenny brings in Fitzgibbon's elderly mother as O'Malley watches.  As Fitzgibbon tearfully embraces his mother, O'Malley walks away into the snowy night, whistling.

Father O'Malley leaves.

The History
Leo McCarey, Oscar-winning director of The Awful Truth, made the success of his new film, Going My Way, seen unlikely.  It would contain a series of vignettes about a priest, have no female leads, and boast crooner Bing Crosby in the lead.  He was an unusual choice to play a priest but Crosby was already incredibly popular with audiences, especially the troops.  This, however, was the first film in which Crosby would be considered an actor, rather than a singer, and he was named the number one box office star of the year.  Crosby would go on to become one of the top stars of the decade, and he, along with his music, are still popular today.

Leo McCarey and Bing Crosby
The film was a surprising hit with audiences, with the Hollywood Reporter claiming that "it's a good bet that the McCarey-Paramount clicker may even top the Selznick-MGM big grosser [Gone with the Wind]."   Darryl F. Zanuck's pet picture, Wilson, an epic about President Woodrow Wilson,  was much more
elaborate and war conscious than Going My Way.  But while it retained some good critical reviews, Wilson flopped at the box office, and Going My Way beat it in nearly every category at the Awards.  Zanuck was so upset that he ordered his staff to never mention the movie about his favorite historical hero ever again.
Publicity still for Going My Way
Going My Way was nominated for ten awards, and won seven: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Original Story, and Song ("Swinging on a Star").  It is the first film to have both won "Best Song" and "Best Picture."  It is also the first and only film to have a single star (Barry Fitzgerald) be nominated for both actor categories for the same film.  Though he was nominated for both "Best Actor" and "Best Supporting Actor" he would only win "Best Supporting" while the "Best Actor" award would go to Bing Crosby.  Because of this, the Academy changed their rules to ensure actors could only be nominated in one category per film. 
Publicity still for Going My Way
Going My Way was followed by a sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's.  There would also be a short lived television show based on the film, starring Gene Kelley in 1962.  This film was the top box office grosser of 1944, and has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."  Despite its popularity, it has since faded out of significance, in the wake of Crosby's far more popular film, White Christmas.  It is perhaps best remembered for its award-winning song, "Swinging on a Star."

Singing "Swinging on a Star."
The Academy Award Ceremony was slowly changing.  This year at the ceremony producer Mark Sandrich's behest, small clips of each nominated film would be played for each award presentation, so as not to give one award preference over another.  This would also be the first ceremony that would be broadcast nationally on the fledgling network, ABC--on the radio, of course.  Unfortunately, Mark Sandrich would not live to see the ceremony and his many changes.  He died on at the age of 34 of a heart attack, mere days before the show.

Father O'Malley and Father Fitzgibbon play golf.
A little known fact about Bing Crosby is that his favorite pastime was golf, and is now a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Aside from Bobby Jones and Arnold Palmer (the man, not the drink), Crosby may be the person most responsible for popularizing the game of golf.  He was a two handicap who competed in both the British and U.S. Amateur championships.  So when March of 1945 and the Awards ceremony came around, Paramont Pictures' biggest star was to be found on the 12th hole of Lakeside golf course mere hours before the show.  When the publicity crew came to beg him to attend, Crosby shrugged them off and told them to invite his parents in his stead.  They did invite his parents, but instead Crosby's mother called her son and gave him such a scolding that he did, indeed, decide to attend.

Fitzgerald and Crosby with their Oscars
Crosby was not the only golf enthusiast in Going My Way.  Barry Fitzgerald was an avid golfer himself.  When he recieved his award and came home after a night of celebrating, he decided to practice his golf swing and decapitated his plaster Oscar statuette (the statues were made of plaster during wartime).  The studio had to pay $10 to replace the sheepish Fitzgerald's award.  So he did, in fact, win two Oscars that year.

The Verdict
What to say about this film?  It's very warm and fuzzy.  I could listen to Bing Crosby sing forever.  He and Frank Sinatra have those soothing, liquid voices that seem to seep into one's pores.  I also like the way Crosby manages to distribute advice without ever once sounding patronizing.  He makes a speech about giving back to others or following your dreams or something, and I just nod my head and say, "Yes, Bing.  You're right.  I should join a choir to save my church.  And it's normal that you just turned a street gang into a choir with little-to-no effort."  So it's completely understandable he's in almost every scene.  This movie would fall apart without him.

Father O'Malley in his neighborhood.
Not to say that I didn't enjoy the rest of the cast.  It's always fun to watch Barry Fitzgerald of How Green Was My Valley  and The Quiet Man play an irascible old Irishman.  Partially because I think he was an irascible old Irishman.  And Rise Stevens was a real-life opera star, so her voice is very nice to listen to.  But while this movie is fun to watch, it is basically unremarkable.

I find two things interesting about this film.  The first is the original movie poster, replicated again above.  Rise Stevens is a minor character in the film who only appears half-way in.  She is holding hands on the poster with Bing Crosby, whose priest collar has almost disappeared from sight.  This completely downplays the entire plot of the film.  Were the advertisers afraid that by both making the main character a priest and having no female lead the film would do poorly?  Stevens is also in the corner in an Opera costume she never wears in the film.  Barry Fitzgerald and the choir are almost non-existent in the corner.  I don't know quite what to make of this, but it bears noting.

Carol bids Ted, Jr. goodbye.
And lastly, perhaps because of the last few films I've watched, the war element in this film, again, is fascinating to me.  In fact, my favorite subplot was that of Carol and Ted, Jr., especially in the scene when he goes off to war.  Now unlike Mrs. Miniver and Casablanca, there is nothing in this film that is about war.  But this small scene shows how omnipresent war was in the society of 1944.  And how awesome nightgowns were.

Ted, Jr. shakes hands with his father.
No matter what type of film it is, (and the last three films differed greatly) each somehow reflect the realty of war lurking in the background of ordinary lives.  In this film it is a small enough thing, but just seeing Ted, Jr. put on a uniform and leave his young bride sent a chill down my spine.  That would never occur in today's films.  In fact, I would hazard to guess that in no time period since has such a type of film existed.  Because of the nature of World War II, war itself has become a background element to all films during this time period.  This film may be saccharine and childish, but Ted is still going to fight a war.  He even becomes injured, though not badly.  It is the contrast between the smiling, all-American men and women in these films and the constant threat of war that gets to me.  Ted shakes his fathers hand and leaves with a smile on his face.  It is a scene that we will never see since.  Not with Vietnam, and certainly not with 9/11.  With the era of World War II America coming to an end, I find myself struck by how strange it must have felt to live under the constant shadow of a real world war.  I imagine it felt something like this scene.  Only not nearly as nice and smiley. 
Father Fitzgibbon hugs his mother.

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  1. But what brand of whiskey did they drink? Why that's the most important part. They even gave us a bit of a peek at the label.

    1. Exactly. Great synopsis and right about the unfortunate loss of respect of servicemen/women. But are they drinking Bushmills? It's from Northern Ireland,but doesn't necessarily mean Protestant.

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