Sunday, January 23, 2011

GOING MY WAY (1944)



GOING MY WAY (DIR: LEO MCCAREY) (SCR: FRANK BUTLER & FRANK CAVETT, BASED ON AN ORIGINAL STORY BY MCCAREY)

After picking  propaganda films for two straight years, the Academy decided to award much lighter fare with director Leo McCarey's  genial GOING MY WAY (although the war is mentioned in the film, it is only in the lightest way possible.)  Along with best picture, the film was also given six other Oscars, and it was the number box office hit of that year. Interestingly, Paramount studios originally had misgivings about the film, and forced McCarey to take a cut of the profits instead of a director's salary; the result was he had the highest reported income ($1,113,035) in the US that year!

Despite the glory heaped on it 1945, I personally feel that GOING MY WAY has dated badly: although it has a pleasant, breezy charm and some good songs, it's so lightweight and episodic that it often feels pointless, and downright silly.  It is, in many ways, an odd film, in that it's a comedy-drama-musical without many laughs, but with a featherweight tone that  kills any attempts at serious drama; even its musical numbers are woodenly directed, without a single dance step or interesting camera movement.  The drop in quality from the previous year's winner CASABLANCA is shocking.

Leo McCarey's career began at the Hal Roach comedy studios in the silent era, where he is generally considered to be the man who teamed up Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy.  He eventually moved into comedy features, such as RUGGLES OF RED GAP in 1935 and DUCK SOUP (1933), the best Marx Brothers movie.  He also showed that he could do drama with the excellent MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW in 1937.  In 1942, he had an idea to make a buddy film about two priests, basing the characters on people he actually knew.  After Spencer Tracy and James Cagney were considered, Mc Carey suggested Bing Crosby to play the lead role of the young priest.  At first the studio balked at Crosby playing a more serious role than audiences had seen him in before, but McCarey persevered, and he was cast. 
It is hard to believe today what a huge, multimedia star Crosby was in the 1940's; after first emerging as a singer in the early 30's he racked up hit after hit, culminating in his 1941 recording of "White Christmas", which was the number one single of all time until Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" in 1997.  Along with hit records, Crosby appeared in a number of popular films, like the ROAD TO movies he made with Bob Hope.

Bing Crosby and the choir

I find it a bit stunning that Crosby was awarded a best actor award for GOING MY WAY; it may be a more serious film than those ROAD TO movies, but he plays it in much the same manner: his character just floats, nonchalantly though the film, never raising his voice or looking particularly concerned (even when the church burns down!).  The only thing different about this performance when compared to his previous ones, is that, being a Catholic Priest,  he doesn't get any romantic interest.  While he is likable enough (I did enjoy the scene where he tells a young couple that he was almost a song writer instead of a priest while tinkling at a piano), he does very little serious dramatic acting, and surely did not give the best male performance of the year.

The film's plot involves Crosby's Father O'Malley being sent in to help a financially desperate church, run for forty five years by Father Fitzgibbon(Barry Fitzgerald).  Inevitably, the two men butt heads, but eventually O'Malley's more good natured manner wins over the older man and saves the church.   Now, according to Crosby himself, McCarey threw out the script on the first day and came up with new scenes to shoot daily, while he encouraged his actors to improvise.  Apparently, this lackadaisical manner was nothing new for McCarey, but, what worked so well with the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, does not turn out so well here; the film's story has no thrust, and there are too many predictable subplots.  And what story there is is often ridiculous.  Consider this chain of events: Father O'Malley decides that the church needs a new choir, and he recruits a bunch of street kids, who go from small time robbers to angelic choirboys in about ten seconds, and who, wouldn't you know,  just happen to turn out to have beautiful voices.   Then Father O'Malley chances to run into Genevive (Rise Stevens), an old  friend of his who has become a professional opera singer.  Eventually, she agrees to record an original song he has written, backed by the church choir, naturally.  And, in another lucky break, Father O'Malley's old pal, Father Timothy (Frank McHugh) has a relative in the music business who agrees to give them an audition!  I'm all for suspension of disbelief, but that is one amazing run of coincidences; if the film were more of  a comedy, I might be more forgiving, but in a relatively serious film it is just too much for me to swallow.
Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald

In contrast to Crosby's low key charm, many of the actors in the film give broad, silly performances, and I don't think encouraging them to improvise was such a great idea, as it leads to some annoying mugging for the camera.  And as Genevive, Rise Stevens, who certainly had a lovey operatic voice, is quite simply, hopeless as a believable actress.  On the other hand, I do think that Barry Fitzgerald is very good as the aging Father Fitzgibbon; in perhaps the film's best scene, he tries to send Father O'Malley away, saying things aren't working out between the two of them.  Then he discovers that Father O'Malley is actually the one in charge of the church now (Father O'Malley hadn't told him to protect his feelings), and the old man is broken, wandering the streets in the rain.  Although we know that he will eventually snap out of it, Fitzgerald really does let us see the sadness and pain his character is in, finding a level of seriousness that the rest of the film could use more of.  Fitzgerald also gets the film's comic highlight when Father O'Malley and Father Timothy convince him to join them in a game of golf, his first ever, and he proceeds to annoy them with his constant questions and badgering.  The strength of Fitzgerald's performance makes me wish the film had focused more on his and Crosby's character and less on the pointless subplots (like when Father O'Malley plays cupid for a young couple).

Finally, I should say a few words about the music; this film gave us the debut of the classic "Swinging on a Star", written by James Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, and the rest of the songs are all well performed by the cast too.  Still, I wish McCarey would have come up with a more cinematic way to present them than having his characters stand stock still while singing.  Sure, the songs sound good, but the visuals are a dud.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

I think I made it pretty clear that I'm not a big fan of this film, and I would argue that the film's relatively rare appearance at revival houses these days bears me out.  Amazingly, two outright classics that are often revived today were also released that year: Billy Wilder's DOUBLE INDEMNITY and Vincent Minnelli's MEET ME  IN ST. LOUIS (now there's a movie with well directed musical numbers!).  Also very good are Otto Preminger's LAURA and George Cukor's GASLIGHT, and I would have taken any one of those films over the uneven GOING MY WAY.