Director Leo McCarey and screenwriters Frank Butler and Frank Cavett poured a whole bottle of syrup into their sentimental comedy-drama Going My Way. The fact that this “inspirational” tale with religious overtones became the year’s biggest blockbuster and the winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, proves that McCarey, Butler, Cavett, and Paramount Pictures knew exactly what audiences wanted in 1944: the same sort of gooey star vehicle that continues to lure millions of moviegoers, e.g., Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump, Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness, Sandra Bullock’s The Blind Side.
In Going My Way, the goo is provided by the director and the screenwriters’ handling of their tale about a new parish priest, the jovial and progressive Father O’Malley, who tries to win the heart of the crotchety, old-school Father Fitzgibbon while also trying to reach out to a new generation of churchgoers. The star wattage is provided by Bing Crosby, fresh from a series of hits such as the early Road movies opposite Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour.
Yet, as far as this viewer is concerned, Crosby has Going My Way stolen from him by Barry Fitzgerald’s feisty, dark-robed curmudgeon with a heart of solid platinum. (“His performance is one of the half-dozen finer things seen in motion pictures as they complete their first fifty years,” said Life at the time.) To Fitzgerald belongs the film’s emotional climax; and thanks to his unsentimental performance, that moment turns out to be surprisingly touching.
Elsewhere, Going My Way consists of a series of tired cliches featuring kind-hearted, asexual, singing priests (Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Swinging on a Star” won that year’s Best Original Song Oscar) and naughty-but-nice street boys akin to those in, say, Dead End, Angels with Dirty Faces, or the more recent The Chorus.
Not helping matters is that Bing Crosby’s “effortless” acting and singing has always felt calculated to me. Audiences at the time surely thought otherwise. US movie exhibitors voted Crosby as the year’s top box office draw – and as the top draw of 1945 (when he starred in the even more successful Going My Way sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s, opposite Ingrid Bergman), in addition to 1946, 1947, and 1948.
In all fairness, though quite a bit overlong, Going My Way isn’t sickeningly sweet thanks to Barry Fitzgerald’s sour-cream topping. Even so, it’s one of those socio-religious fantasies that bear absolutely no resemblance to reality, whether on planet Earth or anywhere else in this or any other universe. Just in case, those suffering from diabetes – including borderline cases – should definitely avoid Going My Way.
A curiosity: Barry Fitzgerald received two Oscar nominations for his performance as Father Fitzgibbon. Fitzgerald lost to Bing Crosby in the Best Actor category, but won as Best Supporting Actor. Academy rules were changed thereafter. In an even more curious turn of events, Fitzgerald took home his Oscar statuette and chopped its head off while practicing golf moves in his living room. He received a replacement later. (During World War II, the statuettes were made of plaster.)
Also worth mentioning is that among Going My Way‘s seven Oscars were two in the Writing categories: Best Original Story and Best Screenplay. Among the Best Original Story losers was Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, while the four Best Screenplay losers were George Cukor’s Gaslight, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis, and Otto Preminger’s Laura.
GOING MY WAY (1944). Dir.: Leo McCarey. Cast: Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Risë Stevens, Frank McHugh, Gene Lockhart, James Brown, Jean Heather, Porter Hall, Fortunio Bonanova. Scr.: Frank Butler and Frank Cavett; from a story by Leo McCarey