Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Frank McHugh, James Brown, Gene Lockhart, Jean Heather, Porter Hall, Fortunio Bonanova, Eily Malyon, Ris‘ Stevens, The Robert Mitchell Boy Choir
Written by: Frank Butler, Frank Cavett, based on a story by Leo McCarey
Directed by: Leo McCarey
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 126
Date: 05/03/1944

Going My Way (1944)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Beauty and the Priest

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Today, we may prefer 1944 releases like Double Indemnity, Meet Me in St. Louis or To Have and Have Not, but during WWII, audiences really responded to Leo McCarey's gooey, warm, comfortable Going My Way. It showed a world in which faith still existed, and in which a smile, a wink, a little humor, and a small miracle could preserve a way of life. The movie received ten Oscar nominations and won seven of those. Part of the reason for one of the losses was that Barry Fitzgerald was nominated twice, in both the leading and supporting categories. (He won for supporting, while star Bing Crosby won in the lead category.)

Fitzgerald stars as Father Fitzgibbon, an appealingly cranky old fellow who crunches up his face and walks around with his hands clasped behind his back. He helped build and has helped maintain New York's St. Dominic's Church for decades, but now it's crumbling and about to fail. Enter the young, happy-go-lucky Chuck O'Malley (Bing Crosby), who knows how to sing, knows about baseball, and appeals to the kids. Over the course of the easygoing film, he fixes various problems, saves the church, straightens out a few stray souls, and sings a few songs. At one point, he sings "Silent Night," which makes this something of a Christmas favorite for many families (along with its 1945 sequel The Bells of St. Mary's).

Director McCarey had won his first Best Director Oscar for the screwball comedy masterpiece The Awful Truth, and indeed his pedigree was in comedy, going all the way back to Laurel & Hardy's silent-era shorts. But he had also crafted the tender drama Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), and he proved that he had a sure touch for sentimental drama as sure as Frank Capra's, and a gift for inserting warm comedy therein, to make it go down smoother. It helps that McCarey crafts a big-city feel for his movie, along with a touch of wise-guy cynicism, rather than a generic Hollywood set. Likewise, though it's hard to imagine Crosby winning an Oscar for his acting chops, his brand of New York charm really helps.

When James Agee reviewed the film in 1944, he wrote such praise as "it points the way to the great films which will be possible when Hollywood becomes aware of the richness and delight of human character observed for its own sake." Going My Way made even Agee hopeful for the future.

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