I've been watching all the movies that have won Oscars for Best Picture. The next one I hadn't seen was Going My Way, the 1944 winner, starring Bing Crosby as a priest who saves a troubled parish through his charm and musical talents.
Of the musicals to win Best Picture by that year, it was by far the best.
First, I want to mention the 1943 winner, a little film called Casablanca. You might have heard of it. It beat out challengers For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, In Which We Serve, Madame Curie, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Song of Bernadette and Watch on the Rhine.
Directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains, Casablanca is set in unoccupied Africa during World War II. It tells the story of Rick Blaine (Bogart), an American expatriate, who meets a former lover, Ilsa Lund (Bergman), leading to complications.
A lot has been written about this film, which deserves its reputation as a classic. Every aspect of the production deserves praise, from the script to the acting to the cinematography, costumes and sets. Through excellent craftsmanship, the director and cast raise a simple, personal story into a universal story on larger than life issues.
If you watch Casablanca again, put it into its historical context. The movie came out while the United States was fighting World War II, when countless movies, such as another Michael Curtiz film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, lauded patriotism and urged viewers to support the war effort.
So to make a film starring an anti-hero of sorts, a man who had essentially run away from the troubles, in a corner of the world where some form of hedonism still existed, was a pretty stark contrast. As much as Casablanca is a film about romance, a film about intrigue, it's also a film about facing global political realities.
I believe I won't spoil anything by mentioning the famous airport scene, where Bogart sends his love away to be with her soldier boyfriend. He does it for her own good but also for the good of the world. So in a sense, this is the sneakiest of war effort promotion movies, making the subtle argument to do what you can, however great the personal sacrifice.
Rating (out of 5): *****
Now to turn once more to Going My Way, which is definitely not about the war. But it is about a man who tries to save the world, except in his case he does it through one small neighborhood. Its competitors in the 1944 field were Double Indemnity, Gaslight, Since You Went Away and Wilson.
Directed by Leo McCarey, a former silent film director, the film stars Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O'Malley, an easy-going, musically-talented priest who is sent to save a troubled parish, run by the cranky, world-weary Father Fitzgibbon, played to perfection by Barry Fitzgerald. In order to save the older priest's dignity, Father O'Malley doesn't mention that he's there to take over. Instead, he acts as his assistant, gently pointing out and then correcting the parish's problems.
Among the problems: the neighborhood boys, who have become miscreants, in part because they're bored. At the same time, the church is threatened with foreclosure due to a bad loan with a local banker. So the solution to both problems, Father O'Malley decides, involves starting an after-school choir for the boys, who then hold a benefit concert to raise needed funds for a loan payment.
This sounds like a hokey premise, and it might have been an intolerably saccharine movie if handled differently. Bing Crosby, however, has a talent for delivering even the most hackneyed lines as if he truly means them. The friendship between Father O'Malley and his older colleague, Father Fitzgibbon, becomes more than a young man correcting an older man's foibles. Throughout it all, the kindness in Crosby's eyes suggests that, far from just helping the parish, he aims to heal his friend's emotional hurts, to cure his cynicism. By the end of the film, the two men are as much family as they are colleagues.
This is why I say Going My Way is the best musical up until that date to win Best Picture. While there are many musical numbers scattered throughout the film, the film focuses just as much on the story. There are many moments of wry humor, plus moments that are touching or even sad. Crosby handles both well.
If his young supporting cast is less believable as street toughs, they are remarkable singers, which should be no surprise, given that they're the Robert Mitchell Boy Choir! One of the few who gets a speaking role is Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, renowned for his rols in the Little Rascals shorts, who despite the bad singing he displayed in that series, was actually a talented singer.
The only flaw in the movie is a weak subplot which was clearly designed to introduce a female singer, Carol James (Jean Heather). She enters the story as a teen runaway who comes to seek asylum so she can escape her home life. Of course, if this were a modern film, they might have given her a better reason to have run away than the fact that her parents put a curfew on her and try to boss her around, which is her given reason in the film. In the process of talking to her, Father O'Malley discovers that she wants to be a singer, and they engage in an impromptu singing lesson at the piano.
But when the older priest hears her plea, he tells her to go back home, give up her silly dreams and wait for the right man to come along. Kindhearted Father O'Malley gives her ten dollars to tide her over, knowing she doesn't plan to return home. She disappears from the movie for a while and reappears later in the film, conveniently, close to the time of the benefit concert. Carol has gotten herself into trouble: staying in an apartment she can't afford, by the good graces of the banker's song, with whom she's in love. The neighborhood gossips are starting to talk, saying that she must be repaying him by doing something that proper girls don't do.
Father O'Malley visits her and discovers the young couple is in love, so in order to fend off the gossips, he marries them then and there. This was a bit frustrating, he had been the one who encouraged her to pursue her dream, and yet, he solves her problems by marrying her off. But I guess the audience at the time wouldn't have seen it that way but simply as a young romance brought to fruition by the kindly priest. Still, it seems a mixed message.
And there's an even more obvious wrenching of the plot in order to bring in another singer. Father O'Malley pays a visit to a professional stage actress and singer, Genevieve Linden (Risë Stevens) whom he used to date. Of course, he'd never bothered to tell her that he had since become a priest, which might have forced the average woman to cope with conflicting emotions. Not so with Genevieve, who cheerfully accepts his new status and offers to help with the benefit concert. How convenient.
Despite some plot issues, the film tells a cohesive story with some surprisingly thoughtful moments. It's not just a light, fluffy, little piece. If you wonder why America fell so much in love with Bing Crosby, it's a good one to see, because it focuses on him, more so than the ensemble film White Christmas, for example. Here, he's really the star, and this film aptly demonstrates his appeal.
One more note about this film: it makes interesting use of lighting. Usually, a comedy or a musical is lit very brightly, looking very much like a theatrical stage. In this movie, the sets, in combination with more realistic lighting, make the film seem as if it really is taking place inside a neighborhood church. The first time he meets with the choir is in a somewhat dimly lit basement. This only adds to the movie's charm: as improbable as the story seems, it feels a bit more plausible when shot in a more realistic way.
If you want to discover for yourself the charm of Bing Crosby, rent this movie.
Rating (out of 5): ***
You can't fake talent.