Every Christmas, I try to write about Christmas movies, especially about old Hollywood, because the best directors at the time considered it worthwhile to make movies that would chastise and cheer up the nation, indeed remind people of the spirit of Christmas and thus try to fit Christianity into the new entertainment that dominated the American imagination. This year, I’d like to introduce you to Going My Way, which stars Bing Crosby as a Catholic priest looking to save a New York parish, St. Dominic’s.
Going My Way in 1944 summed up America at its most endearing. It was accordingly a blockbuster, the biggest hit of that year, and then the year after it became the big Oscar winner, nabbing the seven major awards out of 10 nominations: Leo McCarey won Best Picture as producer, as well as Best Director and Best Original Motion Picture Story—well, he was simply the most American director of the century. Bing also won Best Actor, as did his costar Barry Fitzgerald in the supporting role category, and Bing’s hit song, Swinging on a Star, by Jimmy van Heusen and Johnny Burke, was also celebrated with a statue.
Bing plays Father O’Malley, a modern or progressive priest from East St. Louis, sent by his bishop to New York to help save a parish led by Father Fitzgibbon, a venerable man but set in his ways. Over the fall and holiday season, O’Malley proceeds to do just that. Progressive in this case turns out to mean three things: he is a consummate singer, he considers discretion the better part of valor, and he has every intention of putting those two skills in the service of paying off the church’s stacking bills, starting with its mortgage. It’s a story about the part religion can play in a commercial republic by standing up for democracy, by reminding people that they all depend on a more fundamental faith.
For example, the local policeman one day brings over a runaway girl, who came to New York to try her luck at freedom, being unhappy with her family. She’s of age, but on the other hand, a vagrant. The police could deal with her, but it would be fundamentally unjust. The policeman is also aware that the young woman is herself fundamentally unjust and hence brings her to the priest, to remind her to honor her father and her mother. Where would America be without the Commandments? Old Father Fitzgibbon accepts a church responsibility over the girl and tells her she could have a job as a maid in someone’s home; the modern girl demurs. Father O’Malley figures he can still help her—well, see the movie, it all comes around.
Discretion is advisable under modern conditions, as people are not obedient and authority could come to seem mere curmudgeonliness and hence become ineffective. The modern solution, of course, is what we call charisma, but should more honestly be called charm, talent, flattery. Going My Way makes a spirited effort to restore the divine grace in charisma, hence music. Further, Father O’Malley understands that more is necessary in our ungentle times. He is a modern man, a priest who plays golf, tennis, and baseball, the perfect mix of gentlemanly and everyman activities that do not earn disrepute but add a necessary mix of friendliness and strength, competition and conversation, shared joy and admiration.
The music helps him soothe the spirits of the rowdy local boys whose trust he earns by taking them out to the ballgame, as the song says. Beauty turns them from a gang of poultry truck hijackers into a choir; you may think that you’ll lose your dinner in the bargain, but people have been known, as your loyal author here, to sing for their dinners—it works. This may seem, as everything else in Going My Way, mere schmaltz—a line a music publicist in the movie uses. Another says such choir music is too high for the American public. McCarey & Bing with their success prove both wrong. They suggest a non-moralistic answer to the question of why boys should sing in a choir: because their anger implies a certain fear and suffering and a hope for deliverance. They would willingly obey a man they trust, serve a community they belong to, even if they’re unhappy there to begin with. Religion has a power over the soul that should not be neglected.
This is the discretion of Father O’Malley, the consideration that unjust boys would not be unjust unless in their hearts they believed in justice and felt themselves victims of injustice in the first place. There is a limit to the padre’s powers—e.g., the local atheist, who ends up with his window broken by the local boys playing baseball in the streets. But everyone else comes around to recognizing a divine providence that underlies justice, because they are not compelled to do so, only to look into their own hearts—of course, this is a comedy, so there are always inducements—it’s also reasonable and neighborly to have a community. Part of the seriousness of the religious message of the movie is the knowledge that Father O’Malley is an orphan himself and has sacrificed romance to follow his calling.
I won’t spoil the plot—let me just say that the McCarey mix of the comedy of ordinary life with sentimentality and sacrifice is never more perfect than in this movie. The modesty and the pride of American civilization, therefore, are both on display without ostentation, and the civilizing mission of the church is helped along by entertainment. Hard to offer a more beautiful vision of community for Christmas. Bing sings—as do the boys, not to mention Met mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, then at the beginning of what turned out to be a remarkable career—and gets his best film role, and for once we can see clearly what made him a star, why people wanted to look up to him, what America really longed (and longs) for. The story has a fairy tale character, of course, but that only serves to enhance enjoyment; I think every element of the story makes sense in the way I indicated, a very intelligent psychological and social study dressed up as schmaltz. Enjoy the movie and Happy Christmas!
Readers who’d like some more Christmas viewing and perhaps some thoughts about the America we’ve inherited could look to my previous essays: Cary Grant as an angel in The Bishop’s Wife, Jimmy Stewart finding love and respect in The Shop Around the Corner, Barbara Stanwyck falling in love with American nostalgia in Christmas in Connecticut, Maureen O’Hara finding a father for her child in Miracle on 34th Street, and Humphrey Bogart as a cutthroat with a heart of gold in We’re No Angels.