Last week, I wrote some about the American musical, a genre that’s so ingrained within our film history, that it might as well have apples and be baked at 425 degrees. The musical is about as American as it gets. But, not all musicals are made equal.
The way I see it, musicals really fall into one of two categories. The first category is the modern, over-the-top musical. This is the kind of musical that I literally wrote about last week with Chicago. Also included in this category is Les Miserables, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Singin’ In the Rain, just to name a few. The main feature of these musicals is that most of the plot ceases while the characters’ emotions are driven to the point of a song. They’ll burst otherwise. Additionally, these musicals go over the top, impressing us with their choreography, lyrics, and general “fun-to-watch-ness.” They can be very complicated.
The second category of musical is much more hard to define from the first: it’s the “simple” musical. Today, this film wouldn’t be considered to be a musical, but rather just a film with some singing. These are much older movies and include the likes of The Broadway Melody, The Great Ziegfeld, and this week’s film, Leo McCarey’s Going My Way from 1944.
Starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, the film centers around two Catholic priests in New York City. Father Charles O’Malley, played by Crosby, tries to bring youth and vigor to a parish that has been in financial decline for years. He’s competing against Father Fitzgibbon, the aging patriarch of the parish.
Like many other films I’ve examined, I don’t know what I expected. But, that doesn’t mean that I was disappointed, either. For a film released at the height of World War II, Going My Way doesn’t try to be preachy (no pun intended) like other war-time films that I’ve seen. Nor does it try to describe a brutal life during the war. Rather, the film tries to appeal to our sense of human-ness, our want to be good people and helps audiences feel better about their lives while so many were dying in the war.
Now, for the rest of the film.
The film begins with the banker Ted Haines, Sr. (Gene Lockhart) and his son, Ted Haines, Jr. (James Brown) paying a visit to Father Fitzgibbon (Fitzgerald) in an attempt to strong-arm the Father into paying the two the money the Church owes the bank. It’s after this scene, where we meet O’Malley (Crosby) who is the new assistant to Fitzgibbon. While finding his way to the church, St. Dominic’s is pulled into a stickball game on the street. He watches as a ball smashes a person’s window. He’s caught having watched the action take place and taking no action to stop it. He handles the scorn from the neighbors on the street with grace and class.
After he gets to St. Dominic’s, O’Malley is thrown into direct contact to Fitzgibbon. In the ensuing scenes, O’Malley and Fitzgibbon continue to clash over carrying out the ideas of the church, and the two men’s duty to it. O’Malley is fresh and young, bringing youthful zeal to the post and trying to encourage the positive change he wants in the parish. Fitzgibbon is concerned at first with upholding his traditional role of priest and piously preaches repeatedly to O’Malley about his misgivings.
Eventually, Fitzgibbon finds out that the bishop of New York sent O’Malley to St. Dominic’s to pull it out of the gutter, to slowly wrest control of the church away from Fitzgibbon. After the old priest finds out about this, he turns the church over to his younger counterpart.
The plot of Going My Way falls into the simple musical category, in that it’s simple as well. The entire story centers around the lives, wants, and fears of these two priests and how they view their roles within the church. The plot meaders like the Rio Grande, slowly making its way to its climax.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t emotionally satisfying, either. We see O’Malley and Fitzgibbon work through serious interpersonal struggles in their relationship. They must work together to keep the church open and out of the hands of a greedy bank. Simple, sure, but it also accomplishes its goal of telling a good story. 1.
Just like in last week’s Chicago, the lyrics matter when composing a musical. Going My Way‘s lyrics in its few musical numbers are good and poetic. They speak about love and heartbreak and life. This is particularly true in the film’s namesake, a Father O’Malley original performed by Crosby of “Going My Way.”
On the dialogue side, the film’s interactions are also very similar to Chicago‘s, very succinct but also terse. The fat is trimmed from the dialogue in the film, leaving the most important stuff in. But this film is different from other movies of the day in that it doesn’t rely on one-liners and zingers. There are some, sure, but not nearly as many as other films of the day. 1.
For a musical, this category is awfully scant, but also effective. There is very little music in the film. The opening credits and the ending credits have the most complex music with a full orchestra.
Throughout the rest of the film, though, the music provided is from Bing Crosby’s sexy voice and whatever instrument (mostly piano but sometimes and organ) happens to be on screen. Unlike other musicals, this one has very few musical numbers so the music is few and far between. Not a bad thing though, just out of the ordinary for a musical. 1.
Also in the simple category is the set for Going My Way. Taking place either on a random street or in a church, the set is a prototype definition of a Hollywood sound stage on a studio backlot. There are few landmarks on the set, but rather just constructed parts of them. 1.
Like many other categories, I’ve talked about thus far, Going My Way‘s cinematography is simple, yet effective. Whereas Chicago and All About Eve featured a number of camera movements, Going My Way featured nearly zero.
Instead, the shooting style was basic from a stationary tripod. Long and short shots were used as well as close-ups and medium shots. There were few long-shots in Going My Way. This fits with the rest of the movie in its use of a simple set up for cinematography. 1.
Barry Fitzgerald plays Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way, the pious old Irish priest who arrived in America and literally built St. Dominic’s 45 years ago. He knows his stuff and faithfully performs his duty to his church and his parish.
Father Fitzgibbon is a traditionalist in every sense of the word. He’s the latest in a long line of traditionalist Catholic priests over the centuries. He is not afraid to give a dressing down to anyone at any time.
Fitzgibbon, though, does not live in a vacuum. Many of his unnamed critics within his parish believe that he’s “slipping” in his old age. I don’t agree, but that opinion doesn’t matter. What does matter, though is that Fitzgibbon continues about his duty as if he doesn’t hear all that other commotion going on within the church. He also realizes that the church is in dire financial straits.
After reflecting on this film, I realize that the story is about Father Fitzgibbon, even though Father O’Malley gets the acclaim. He’s got a character arc. At first, he and O’Malley don’t get along at just about every turn and Fitzgibbon even pays the Bishop a visit to ask him to transfer O’Malley to a different parish.
By the end of the film, though, Fitzgibbon relinquishes the power within his church to Father O’Malley. Slowly, Fitzgibbon realizes his own fate, his own old age keeps him from being the man he once was, the man that got the church into trouble in the first place. It is he who must adapt to this changing world where he no longer fits. Like most of us, myself included, he resists it at first, but then accepts it.
Opposite Fitzgerald is Bing Crosby. Literally, the only other Bing Crosby film I’ve seen was White Christmas. Because EVERYONE seems to have seen that one.
Anyway, Crosby plays Father Chuck O’Malley, who recently moved from St. Louis to New York to help out Father Fitzgibbon at the struggling St. Dominic’s church.
From the beginning, even while O’Malley is vilified by the locals for taking place in hooliganism and for trying to change the church, O’Malley remains a happy, go lucky priest with no bones to pick with anyone.
It’s O’Malley’s actions that catch the attention of others in the community. While Father Fitzgibbon keeps his guard up and dresses down anyone who steps a tow out of line, O’Malley approaches each situation with kindness and compassion. He is the very embodiment of the idea of being the change you wish to see. He listens and helps all. He’s not beholden to the traditional idea of a Catholic priest.
Along the way, he forms a boys choir with the troublesome sons of the congregation and takes them all to baseball games and theatre performances. He doesn’t chide them, but rather helps to build them up into upstanding young men.
On a different note, I was enraptured with Crosby every single second that he was on the screen. His voice sounds much better than I remembered it and his bright eyes and charismatic smile warmed me over.
It’s worth noting that both Fitzgerald and Crosby earned awards for this film: Crosby winning Best Actor and Fitzgerald taking home Best Supporting Actor. 1.
Taking the director’s seat for Going My Way was Leo McCarey. He won Best Director for this film.
Normally I’ll try to analyze a movie in the context of the time when it was released. Many of these Best Picture winners have layer upon layer of history behind them that I have to sort through and figure out. Not this film.
World War II was definitely the most pressing geopolitical and domestic issue of the time. The Allies launched the invasion of Europe in 1944 and the war raced to its bloody crescendo, seeing the swift demise of the Axis powers. The world was perched on the edge of a radical shift. In 1945, the atomic bomb would be dropped, changing the dynamic of world politics and warfare.
Going My Way explores none of these themes. It’s also a movie about religion, but it’s not a religious movie. You’re not preached at while you watch it. Instead, McCarey sought to show audiences at home, with parents losing children in the war, that we can be good people and love and accept each other. Sure, Father Fitzgibbon is a pious jerk throughout most of the film, but he’s worn down by Father O’Malley’s acceptance of all. This film simply serves as a distraction away from the war which dominates domestic life for most Americans. 1.
Final Score: 7/10
Going My Way won the 17th Academy Award for Best Picture at on March 15, 1945, at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. It beat out Double Indemnity, Gaslight, Since You Went Away, and Wilson for Best Picture. The award was presented by Hal B. Wallis and accepted by producer and director McCarey. In total, Going My Way won seven awards out of a total of 10 nominations.
We spend the next two weeks in the second decade of the 21st century, starting with 2015’s Spotlight. After that, it’s 12 Years a Slave, American Beauty, All Quiet on the Western Front, The English Patient, An American in Paris, Gigi, and Hamlet.