Going My Way, 1944, Paramount Pictures. Starring Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Risë Stevens. Directed by Leo McCarey. B&W, 126 minutes.
Father Fitzgibbons (Barry Fitzgerald), the aging priest of St. Dominic’s parish, is facing hard times. The church is five months behind on the mortgage, and the Father is out of touch with his parishioners.
Enter Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby), a young priest with unorthodox — yet effective — methods. He steps into his role as the new leader of the church with ease and grace. But Father Fitzgibbons is distressed. The two face their troubled parishioners, each in his own manner, and slowly the older man sees the wisdom of Father O’Malley’s ways.
A film about a priest, with no romantic lead, no place for screwball comedy and a need for gentle handling, was a risk for director Leo McCarey, one of the top directors of the time, including The Awful Truth and Love Affair. It also was a challenge to present the practices and creeds of one denomination over another. Studios historically stayed away from the topic.
McCarey managed the topic well, deftly creating a Catholicism that fit the values and style of the country at the time. Father O’Malley is progressive, something the Catholic church was not known for, but not blasphemous. His methods are consistent with the beliefs of the church he represents.
The film was not originally seen as a musical, but when Crosby was signed for the lead role, Going My Way pulled in some top talent to complement his performances. They included Metopolitan Opera star Risë Stevens, who plays a childhood friend of Father O’Malley’s, and the Robert Mitchell Boys’ Choir, taking on the guise of delinquent youths in need of direction. (Stevens performs a number from Carmen, which was to become her most celebrated role.)
In addition to the title song, Crosby introduced “Swinging On a Star,” which won an Oscar for Best Music, Song. The film won six other Academy Awards: Best Picture; Best Actor (Crosby); Best Director; Best Supporting Actor (Fitzgerald); Best Writing, Screenplay; and Best Original Motion Picture Story.
It’s easy to see why Going My Way was so popular. It’s a good film, with an engaging cast, quality music and a sentimental plot line. Perhaps more importantly, however, was the film’s timing. Released during some of the most intense times of World War II, the world sought pure escape. There is never any doubt things will work out for the parish, nor are there gripping moments of drama. It is a simple tale of the best in human nature.