Director: Leo McCarey
Screenwriters: Frank Butler, Frank Cavett, Leo McCarey
Cast: Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Frank McHugh, Jean Heather, Rise Stevens, James Brown, Stanley Clements, Gene Lockhart
Nominations: Picture, Director – Leo McCarey, Actor – Bing Crosby, Actor – Barry Fitzgerald, Supporting Actor – Barry Fitzgerald, Screenplay, Cinematography (b/w), Editing, Song – “Swinging on a Star,” Motion Picture Story
Wins: Picture, Director – Leo McCarey, Actor – Bing Crosby, Supporting Actor – Barry Fitzgerald, Screenplay, Song – “Swinging on a Star,” Motion Picture Story
There’s a level of effortlessness to Bing Crosby’s portrayal of Father Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way that it feels less like a performance and more like watching Bing Crosby be Bing Crosby. Father Chuck, like Crosby, is an easygoing, charismatic Catholic who cracks harmless jokes, enjoys golf, and sings with a cool and smooth baritone. Because of the personality overlap, there’s no difficulty in liking the character on sight (even with the knowledge of Crosby’s parenting methods, he still exhibits the charm and suavity he was known for throughout his career).
The laidback attitude of Father Chuck carries over into the film itself. This isn’t a character study, to be sure, but there’s a definite apathy towards advancing the plot—things happen, some of them move the plot forward, most don’t, and we don’t really learn a lot about the characters over the course of the film that we didn’t already know after their introductions. Instead, we’re given a series of vignettes tangentially connected to each other—mostly by the fact that they’re centered around the Saint Dominic parish—wrapped around a thin plot about raising money to pay up the church’s mortgage and install a new furnace.
In all honesty, what exactly does the storyline of Carol and Ted Jr. add to the narrative? It illustrates Ted’s choice to follow Father Chuck’s advice to “go his way,” but the two scenes we have of the characters together are rushed and superficial, and we’re not once given a single indication that Ted was interested in serving in the military. On top of that, Carol’s goal of being a singer is dropped like there wasn’t a ten-minute scene of Father Chuck giving her singing advice. Also—and I can’t know for certain the mindsets of kids in New York in the 1940s, but are we really supposed to believe that 1) these boys are fine with singing in a church choir, and 2) all those kids can sing? Then the timeline is confusing, too, so it’s as if they’ve only had a few rehearsals before becoming a fantastic choir.
I’m on board with the film winning an Oscar for its story, though. It’s uplifting, congenial, and gives us reassurance in the power of the human spirit and doing good deeds; but the screenplay winning is a mystery to me. Compared to the other nominees—Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944), Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944), and Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)—Going My Way isn’t really in the same league, especially with three of those films being top-tier film noir classics and the fourth one of the most revered movie musicals to come out of Hollywood. Being a screenwriter, I know the work and effort that goes into making a script come together, and while Going My Way has a fun story (the narrative), how it’s told leaves much to be desired (the plotting).
At the end of the day, however, this is a delightful and heartwarming film. It puts a smile on your face seeing such selfless and charming characters enjoy what they’re doing. You might not remember much about it—even though I’d seen it before probably 90% of the film seemed brand new to me—but it’s a wonderful escapist fantasy when you’re in need to feel better about the various travails in life.