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Leo McCarey Film Schedule: Religion, Politics, Romance, Sentiment

Going My Way movie, Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Gene Lockhart
Bing Crosby, Gene Lockhart, Barry Fitzgerald, Going My Way

Leo McCarey is Turner Classic Movies’ Director of the Evening this Christmas. Considering that McCarey was an ardent Catholic, TCM has made quite an appropriate choice.

Unfortunately, McCarey’s anti-Red My Son John — despite the fact that the Bible plays a prominent role in that film — hasn’t been included on the TCM film roster. Instead, TCM watchers will have the chance to check out Going My Way, Make Way for Tomorrow, Duck Soup, The Milky Way, Love Affair, and Once Upon a Honeymoon.

The year Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Double Indemnity was nominated for Best Picture — and Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis, and Otto Preminger’s Laura weren’t — McCarey’s sappy, feel-good Going My Way was chosen as the Best Picture of 1944 by enough members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. If you’re into shamelessly sentimental stories, you shouldn’t miss this one. But if you suffer from diabetes, beware. Take your medications first.

In Going My Way, Bing Crosby plays the personable new priest in parish, which makes the conservative local leader quite uncomfortable. That’s Barry Fitzgerald, who is actually fine as the crotchety old Father Fitzgibbon. Now, without wanting to give anything away, the film’s final scene is surprisingly touching — unlike what comes before: a series of cliches featuring singing priests, naughty-but-nice youthful gang members, and no sex scandals to spice things up a bit. In sum, Going My Way is nothing at all like the Catholic school I went to.

A huge hit when it came out, Going My Way made a star of Fitzgerald, who was nominated for two Academy Awards for the same performance: Best Actor (he lost to Bing Crosby) and Best Supporting Actor (he took home the statuette, chopped its head off, got a replacement later). Following Fitzgerald’s feat, Academy rules were changed to prevent that from happening in the future.

Ah, for those who believe that sequelitis is a recent Hollywood disease: A Going My Way sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s, was released the following year. Starring Crosby and Ingrid Bergman, the sequel was even more successful at the box office than the first film.

McCarey was so fond of Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) — a total box office flop — that when he won the Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth that same year, he told the Academy they’d rewarded him for the wrong film. Some consider Beulah Bondi’s performance as the old mother and wife to be one of the greatest of the ’30s. Bondi, by the way, was about 48 when Make Way for Tomorrow was made.

Duck Soup (1932) is a political farce starring the Marx Brothers — which makes me, once again, wish that TCM had bothered showing My Son John this Christmas. I’m not a fan of the Marx Brothers, but those who are will surely enjoy Duck Soup, considered by many to be their zaniest vehicle. Personally, I find the religious/right-wing melodrama in My Son John (Patriot Dad hits Commie Son on the head with the Bible) infinitely funnier. (McCarey was as ardently right-wing as he was ardently Catholic.)

McCarey’s Once Upon a Honeymoon was considered tasteless and vulgar when it came out in 1942. A comedy about Nazis! Well, so was Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, released that same year. But unlike Lubitsch’s film, Once Upon a Honeymoon has never achieved cult status. It’s been a while since I last saw it, but I remember finding hilarious this tale of an American golddiger and her Nazi husband. In fact, I find Once Upon a Honeymoon much funnier than To Be or Not to Be, chiefly because of its cast: Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant, and scene-stealer Walter Slezak.

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