Saturday, February 9, 2013

Going My Way (1944)

Director: Leo McCarey                                 Writers: Frank Butler and Frank Cavett
Film Score: Robert Dolan                             Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Starring: Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Frank McHugh and Jean Heather

I’m not sure I really understand Going My Way. It’s obviously a Bing Crosby vehicle, although there’s precious little singing in it until the final twenty minutes. The script is all over the place, with juvenile delinquents, a runaway girl singer, grouchy neighbors, the bank managers trying to foreclose on the church, the old flame opera singer, and the replacement of the venerable priest with the young upstart. Then there’s also the fact that Bing Crosby looks no more like a priest than Montgomery Clift in I Confess. Now there are a lot of old films where priests figure prominently, some of them with great success, but this one keeps me at a distance.

Gary Giddins, in his book of reviews, Natural Selection, calls the film a “neglected masterpiece.” He praises Crosby for his natural acting, but for me it's like a lot of acting. In this case it’s the way Bing always acted . . . like Bing. Another aspect of the film that underwhelms is the mix of comedy and pathos. Again, Giddins likes this: “the tears it elicits are hard-won” and claims it “generates much empathic laughter in a theater.” But for me the two seem to cancel each other out and leave me unable to really enjoy either.

The story has Crosby as a priest coming to his new parish, currently run by the irascible Barry Fitzgerald who doesn’t like the young father’s progressive ways. Crosby proceeds to ingratiate himself in the community, turn the delinquents into a boys’ choir, and seemingly solve the problems of everyone who comes in the church door. While the eventual replacement of Fitzgerald with Crosby is the apparent conflict, it really doesn’t play out that way, and eventually the conflict becomes getting money to save the church. As far as the music, the songs aren't integrated into the plot in any way either. It puts me in the mind of another Academy Award winner that left me equally as cold, How Green was My Valley.

All of which brings me back to my mystification that it won the Oscar that year, especially given that it was going up against Double Indemnity and Gaslight. The film practically swept the Academy Awards in 1945, not only winning for best picture, but for Crosby in the lead, Fitzgerald for supporting, director, screenplay and the song “Swinging on a Star.” It’s not the first time the Academy has made some bizarre selections, and I’m sure there are lots of folks like Giddins who love the film. For me, however, I’m going to have to say Going My Way is not a great film.

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