Friday, October 18, 2013

Going My Way (Best Picture 1944)

One of the most fascinating things about reviewing all of the Academy Award-winning Best Pictures in chronological order is the chance to make sweeping assumptions regarding movie trends from way before I was born. Case in point is this year's winner versus last year's winner. Last year, you may recall, the winner  was the cynical, sarcastic, yet fully patriotic film Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart. This year, however, in an almost 180 degree change of style, the Academy chose the sentimental light-weight comedy-drama Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby. I don't have any answer to why this might be, but I do find it endlessly fascinating to think about. Anyone who has seen both of these films is welcome to start a discussion regarding their respective quality. My guess is that people who love one won't love the other. Let me know if my hypothesis is right or not, please.
If you like Bing Crosby, you will love this film. If you don't like Bing Crosby, my strong suggestion is for you to skip this movie all-together. Bing is in almost every scene, and once he appears he hovers over all the action even when he isn't there (which isn't very often). The other main character in the film is Barry Fitzgerald, who is in all the scenes that Bing isn't, and most that he is.
Bing plays Father O'Malley, a new priest assigned to St. Dominic in New York City. It's a parish that is losing members and money, and the Bishop believes that transferring Bing there to make some changes will help. However, they keep this information secret from Father Fitzgibbons (Fitzgerald), who believes he is still in charge. The two men do not agree on how to solve the church's problems. They continually argue over methods until Fitzgibbon eventually goes to the Bishop and demands that O'Malley be transferred; it is then that he learns that Bing is actually his boss! He doesn't take it well, but eventually realizes that 1. he has nowhere else to go and 2. Bing really is helping out. For example, Bing is instrumental in taking Tony Scarponi and his gang of juvenile delinquents and turning them into the church's Boys' Choir.
You see, Bing is a song-writer and singer, so he tries to solve all of the church's problems with music. When Carol, an 18-year-old who has left her parents to make it in the big city finds her way to the church, Bing sings to her. She then borrows ten dollars and finds an apartment down the street, determined to be a professional singer. Eventually she hooks up with the son of the realty manager who is trying to foreclose on the church. To solve *that* problem Bing tries to sell a song he wrote called "Going My Way" and use the royalties to pay off the church's mortgage. He sings it to Carol and her boyfriend, but neither of them are impressed. Then he sings it to his former girlfriend, Genevieve, who just happens to be a professional opera singer (portrayed by professional opera singer Rise Stevens). She tries to sell it to her publisher friends, but they aren't interested in "schmaltz" either. However, when Bing and his Boys' Choir break out into another song he wrote called "Swinging On A Star," the publishers want THAT. By the way, this song won Best Song, with music by James Van Heusen and lyrics by Johnny Burke. The mortgage is paid off, and all is well.

However, an accidental fire destroys much of the church (which had appeared to have been built of rock, but, whatever) and everyone commits to rebuilding St. Dominic's. However, Bing finds that he has been transferred to another parish, so as his last act of kindness he arranges Father Fitzgibbon's mother to visit him in New York, all the way from Ireland. I said, if you like Bing Crosby you'll be royally entertained by this film. If you do NOT like him, I just saved you two hours of torture. I don't mind him, but I did find it hard to believe in him as a singing, dancing, joking priest. On the other hand, Fitzgerald is nothing but believable as the older, sterner priest who resents the young whipper-snapper showing up trying to "fix" things. This part of the story still seems fresh today. Are we doomed to continually mis-trust the generation we do not belong to? Speaking of Barry Fitzgerald, he is part of a very interesting bit of trivia. This year, for the only time, the same actor in the same role was nominated in both "Best" and "Best Supporting" categories. After this embarrassment, Academy rules were changed so that you can only be nominated once a year in one category for one role. 

There were a few notable casting choices in this film. I noticed that one of the troubled youths was played by Carl Switzer, best known as a child actor as "Alfalfa" in The Little Rascals series. He did a good job in this. Also noteworthy was William Frawley as one of the music publishers; this was seven years before he would gain immortal fame as Fred Mertz on the classic TV series "I LOVE LUCY."   
I didn't actually mind this film too much, but I did not care for all the singing. I can understand the need to practice with the boys' choir, and those scenes worked fine. But when Bing tries to help Carol to sing better, and then when Genevieve sings opera, (twice!!) and Bing sings "Going My Way"....ugh. I think if this film  had starred somebody like Cary Grant without so much music it would have been a better film. Maybe I'm too cynical? Maybe I have seen too many "copy-cat" type films, where the lead with the heart of gold sings his way out of trouble or leads all the other characters down the path of goodness through his example, to really enjoy this. And although I don't really think it deserved Best Picture, it not only won that but Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Story, and Best Song as well. So it obviously struck a nerve with the people of 1943, and how can I argue with that?
Going My Way
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1944*
Produced and Directed
by Leo McCarey
Screenplay by Frank Butler & Frank Cavett
Story by Leo McCarey

Here's the Academy Award-winning song, 
with Bing and the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Double Indemnity
Since You Went Away
If you are a fan of film noir you must see Double Indemnity. It stars Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson in the classic thriller directed by Billy Wilder about Stanwyck wanting to kill her husband. Gaslight is the other side of the story, with Charles Boyer trying to kill his wife, Ingrid Bergman. She won Best Actress for this; newcomer Angela Lansbury was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Since You Went Away is a WWII home-front drama starring Claudette Colbert that I had never heard of before doing research for this review. And Wilson was a biographical film about a basketball trapped on a deserted island. Just kidding; it's about President Woodrow Wilson, but nobody remembers it (or him) today. From this year, the number of nominees for Best Picture were whittled down to five, just like all the other major categories. It stayed this way for the next 60 plus years.

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