Going My Way (1944)
Release Date: May 3rd, 1944 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Leo McCarey Actors: Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Frank McHugh, James Brown, Gene Lockhart, Jean Heather, Rise Stevens, Stanley Clements, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer
ather Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) of the Church of Saint Dominic needs a new furnace for the parish, since last winter found three of his employees catching pneumonia. But the Nickerbocker Savings and Loan Company isn’t interested in paying for improvements. Instead, representatives Ted Haines (Gene Lockhart) and his son (James Brown) threaten to foreclose on the building – but not before disgustingly suggesting that the pastor mention in his next sermon that the church is in need of funds to stay afloat. The company has made a bad loan and they unapologetically reiterate this to Fitzgibbon.
A short time later, the new curate Charles Francis Patrick O’Malley (Bing Crosby) arrives in town, but he’s off to a bad start. The church’s neighbors aren’t too friendly and they’re quick to criticize or accuse. But O’Malley is unsinkable; despite confronting an unappeasable atheist and a grouchy gossip, he retains an uncommon cheeriness that can’t be dismissed. Contrastingly, Fitzgibbon is a generally irritable man, firmly stuck in his ways, but it’s not long before O’Malley’s infectious charm and cordiality rub off on just about everyone.
The equally effervescent Father O’Dowd (Frank McHugh) becomes a suitable sidekick, matching wit and energy with O’Malley, as the notion of the young pushing out the old comes into play (confronting mortality and usefulness as times change is a crushing blow for the elderly Fitzgibbon; the thought of being replaced is akin to an abrupt firing). A progressive attitude seems to be the antidote for the stubbornness that put Saint Dominic into its financial bind, though many of the town’s residents seem to have run afoul of mortgage payments, implying that money is tight and that faith isn’t the obvious solution to such woes. Additionally, O’Malley gains a love interest surrogate in Carol James (Jean Heather), a conveniently young and attractive runaway girl who is, of course, penniless (and a character who represents maturer themes than what the film can honestly approach).
Carol is also an aspiring singer, which segues nicely into Crosby’s crooning, though it’s more than a half-hour before he finally sits at a piano for a proper number (and, later, when the title tune arrives, it’s entirely underwhelming). With Leo McCarey (who had just won an Oscar for 1937’s “The Awful Truth”) behind the story, the producing, and the directing, “Going My Way” is more about wise observations and good spirits than conforming to the routines of a traditional musical. There are opportunities for singing, but Crosby’s signature (and solo) performances are fairly sparse.
Despite the continual geniality, there’s something off about the subplots of cold-blooded business versus charity, and a local gang of kids getting suckered into forming a choir for the church (going so far as to give up daylight hours to sing instead of playing baseball). Only in this fantasy world could kind words and religious ideals solve so many realistic predicaments. But the picture is intended to be a feel-good comedy-drama (though the comedy is very understated, predictable, and dawdling, especially for McCarey), wherein the concerns and horrors of the ongoing WWII couldn’t be further from the characters or the subject matter (regardless of an inkling of patriotism from a supporting role).
In the end, the most striking moments don’t involve music or levity at all; O’Malley’s sacrifice of a former flame for priesthood, and a run-in with an atheist (who not only doesn’t believe in a higher power, but also harbors a broad dislike for religion itself), contain a certain candor not found in the rest of the production. Strangely, O’Malley’s money situation at the start is never clarified, yet he has the funds to pay for a number of things prior to the inevitable success and saving of the church at the end. And as the film focuses on resolutions for all the characters after the primary contention (generating extra strife that is easily resolved, in a poorly designed third act), it becomes evident that the finale carries on far too long – for the sake of a circular storyline with participants who require no such redundancies. Fortunately, the parting shots are quite rewarding.
– Mike Massie