going-my-way-movie-poster-1944-1020143688Neither of us were that thrilled going into the viewing of Going My Way, the 1944 American musical comedy-drama starring Bing Crosby. While I knew his name, I don’t know if I had ever seen the man in anything before this. Also, “musical comedy-drama” isn’t exactly my genre, if you know what I mean. But the film was fairly enjoyable. We follow the story of Father O’Malley (played by Crosby), an unconventional priest coming in to shake things up at St. Dominic’s Church in New York City. While he initially doesn’t impress the church’s pastor Father Fitzgibbon (played by Barry Fitzgerald), it becomes clear that O’Malley has a method to his madness. He connects with parishioners on their level – through music, frank conversations, and helping them meet their immediate needs. Music is peppered throughout the film, and plays a major role in inspiring hearts and building community. And O’Malley is front and center for this, crooning all the while.

I was raised in the Catholic Church, and while I don’t currently practice, I’m sentimental enough to always love when priests are portrayed as good guys or when we see them as likable or relatable. I attended six years of Catholic school, and it was only some time later when it occurred to me that clergy were actual people with lives of their own, rather than just distant and somewhat shadowy adults observed from the pews, sometimes seen walking around near the school office.

Crosby’s Father O’Malley is the type of fictional priest a lapsed Catholic would have wanted his real-life parish priests to be. Evidently he’s quite happy with his vocation, but seems to have had a rich life before being called to it that included baseball, writing and performing popular music and even romance. Now he’s a dedicated priest who still finds time to enjoy a game of golf. He’s really more of a character with a lot of interests rather than an interesting character, one who is mainly brought to life by Crosby’s warmly charming persona.

O’Malley’s task is to right the finances the church without upsetting the more staid Fitzgibbon. Barry Fitzgerald was rightly rewarded on Oscar night for his portrayal of the cranky pastor who eventually comes around. In fact, he not only won Best Supporting Actor, but was oddly nominated for Best Actor as well, something not possible under current rules.

There is, of course, a dark side to Roman Catholicism, one that has been explored in films such as Primal Fear, Doubt and even the Godfather trilogy. Going My Way, though, is a film from a different time in popular culture, and there is no thought given to any of the moral corruption or social divisiveness that often taints the Church in modern consciousness.

What is so compelling about this film is its portrayal of the church’s critical role in the neighborhood/community. The church steps in when the young ruffians in the neighborhood are going astray, successfully so since O’Malley fuels their energy into a boys’ choir. The church is there when a woman can’t make her rent payment to ensure that she isn’t thrown out on the street. And the church, also through O’Malley, keeps a watchful eye on a young wayward woman who has run away from her controlling home at 18. With the new oversight of O’Malley, the parishioners experience this watchfulness in ways that are loving. Mouse is right – this is the kind of priest I would have rooted for (as the daughter of a Catholic woman who ended up joining the Episcopal church when she married – in terms of my own faith, I now identify as Agnostic). While we don’t see the corruption and hateful attitudes many of us witness from organized religion today in Going My Way, I don’t think that means everything was fine and dandy back then. The makers of this film just made a decision to show the softer, kinder side. It would be interesting to see a film made in modern times depict a church in this way – as pivotal to a neighborhood, and integral to the well-being of those living nearby.

Not every modern movie presents Catholicism so damningly. Sister Act has quite a few things in common with Going My Way- the struggling parish church, the outsider who builds a choir, the curmudgeonly authority figure.  And while it has decidedly more modern sensibilities, it is ultimately sympathetic to the Church.

There’s a romantic subplot involving Ted Haines Jr. (son of the slumlord who holds St. Dominic’s mortgage) and Carol James, an aspiring singer who has set out on her own. As a young woman who is willing to do whatever she needs to get by, she is one of the few hints of real sin in this Hayes Code-friendly movie. Aside from my uncertainty over how this subplot relates to the movie as a whole, I found both characters a little unsettling. They spend the movie in a weird flat cheerfulness, as if under the influence of some euphoric. Are they a couple of emotionless sociopaths?

It’s always my hope that this blog will move people to check out the movies we discuss if they haven’t already seen them, and so I try to avoid divulging plot spoilers. In this case, though,  I have to comment on the story’s resolution, so if you haven’t seen the movie, perhaps you should skip ahead to the next paragraph, or better still go watch it. Now, at what would appear to be the conclusion of the film, Father O’Malley has not only won over Father Fitzgibbon, but has sold a song to a publisher that will solve the parish’s money trouble. One would think this is the end of the movie, but no- it is followed by several scenes of the priests playing checkers, going out for a round of golf, just hanging out. This goes on for a while and had Katy and I exchanging glances, wondering if someone forgot to stop making the movie. And then the church burns down. Seriously. I get that this sets up the ultimate emotional payoff, wherein Father Fitzgibbon reunites with his mother. OK, think of it like this. Imagine if, after blowing up the Death Star, we had to watch Luke Skywalker and Han Solo fixing up the Millenium Falcon and flying some cargo around for a while. And then there was a spaceship accident that killed most of the Rebel Alliance. That’s sort of what the closing minutes of Going My Way felt like.

America (and most of the world) had been at war for several years when Going My Way was released. In fact the Oscar statues given out were made of plaster rather than metal, due to wartime rationing. Unlike Casablanca, the previous winner, you’d never suspect that there is a war on while watching this movie, until late in the story when someone puts on a uniform and enlists. I have to wonder if the public was tiring of the war at this point. To further the comparison, in 1943, fully half of the ten films nominated were themed around the war in one way or another. The following year, only one of five nominees had any substantial connection to it. It’s unsurprising; by then the Axis powers were in retreat and folks at home must understandably have been looking forward to peacetime.

Carol James’ character made me really nervous when she first entered the film. There is a flirtation she seems to adopt with every male character she interacts with, but her story is presented in such a way that you are never sure if you are going to find out she has been through some great tragedy. We know she has run away from home, but it’s unclear how legitimately grave the reasons for doing so are. Part of me was terrified that there would be a romantic interlude between her and Father O’Malley, and part of me was on edge about what would happen throughout the course of her relationship with Ted Haines, Jr. What nefarious plot twist could come up? Who would more squarely take advantage of whom? This is a problem I have watching films when I can sense a potential for sexual exploitation, manipulation and violence. I was pleased to see this film not go this route deeply, but it’s worth mentioning that the tone of her presence in the film made me feel a hypervigilance I am far too acquainted with when consuming media/movies/culture. Mouse is right, ultimately – she and her love interest eventually do just seem like two kids that overstayed their blissed out time at the rave.

Also nominated in 1944:
Double Indemnity
Since You Went Away

Next film: DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)


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