Going My Way (1944, Leo McCarey)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!!
[2017 note: Though there’s no point in deleting it now, this is a review I regret posting, not because I was wrong about the movie but because I clearly didn’t have enough to say about it to fill out an entire essay-length entry, which results in me flailing to compare it to the other Best Picture winners up to this point, an obviously pointless exercise since this shared distinction is basically a coincidence. It’s the first of many cases in which, if I were to come across the film now, I would just write a quick Letterboxd capsule and never think deeply on the matter again. I’m sorry.]
“You throw like an atheist,” Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley chides a local business owner during an incompetent stroll down to his church during which he radiates his well-to-do smug humor all along the neighborhood, trotting along like a true man-of-God nincompoop. Welcome, friends, to the first Best Picture winner that is not just awful but is actually terrible enough to break your brain — the first of many, sadly. Like Cimarron and How Green Was My Valley, it’s a painfully dull film. But it’s so much more besides — it’s flat, self-satisfied, and offensive all while espousing the worst kind of empty movie-spirituality. It is syrupy Hallmark pap aimed at the same sensibility as a commercial for a florist. Rock critic Robert Christgau’s old immortal adage applies: it’s fine by me if this trite bilge got you through your night… but if it did, how dark could your night possibly have been?
I’m an atheist but I don’t believe I’m incapable of appreciating a religious film (I love The Gospel According to Matthew, run on TBN every Easter, idolize The Passion of Joan of Arc, and don’t mind Ben-Hur — there have to be some I’m forgetting); it’s just that this is in every sense an awful and truly clueless example of a Christian film. It mostly revolves around the improbable tale of Crosby’s O’Malley being brought on to “rescue” a parish, having joined the Catholic church after a hard-living life of wine, women and song, and to use his streetwise knowledge to round up the neighborhood kids into a choir (?!) and preach to them not to have fun of their own, now that he’s had his share indeed. In other words it’s the usual Christo bullshit, only with nothing graceful or persuasive about it. It mostly follows the strained, polite “comic” mischief of O’Malley until he finally wins favor with all. Indeed, Catholicism itself is treated as something wholly beside the point, a typically Hollywood perception of religion, a benign trimming for what looks like a constant Elks Club meeting or a series of ponderous community-calendar gatherings. Maybe Paramount really wanted to make a secular movie, but if so, why pretend it was something else? Depending on where you stand, it’s likely you see religion as either a public menace or a savior, and in either case this film gives you nothing.
Crosby is horrendously miscast, and however fine a singer he was, he was a rock-bottom actor with no empathy or intelligence to his performing. He does plenty of damage here but most of the problems are inherent to the character he’s playing. O’Malley makes no sense, and his life’s story is an unlikely fabrication that is calculated to try and curry up a universal sympathy; it doesn’t work. The biggest forehead-slapper comes when, upon seeing a former college lover, he announces “You remember Timmy? He’s a priest too!” as if that’s something people just do after graduation. It’s as though there’s some deep psychological trauma or revelation we’re missing out on, but there’s no elaboration. That would require actual storytelling; saccharine beyond belief, this movie’s too dunderheaded to investigate, too shallow to offer anything of consequence for us to discover.
As with the majority of the Oscar victors up to this point (all except It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty, You Can’t Take It with You, Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, and Casablanca), Going My Way lacks a linear narrative, opting instead for the episodic format that in something like Mrs. Miniver or All Quiet on the Western Front is quite warm and engaging but in this or How Green Was My Valley renders an already dim and uninvolving story terribly dull and superficial. Did we mention that occasionally, the film decides it’s a musical? Bing’s here, after all. And that when it does, the songs being sung are, not kidding, the worst pieces of music we have ever heard in a major motion picture? To the point that the actors look pained and embarrassed to be involved (except Crosby)? To the point that you’re absolutely sure Crosby’s title tune is supposed to be “bad” or a “joke” and will later be spruced up, but then clearly not, and then they sing it again and it’s even worse?
I mean, is this any more idiotic than the rampantly racist Cimarron or lower class-loathing Cavalcade? In fact, yes — those films were at least explicit about their sinister agendas and had some technically worthwhile sequences. Hard to say what on earth had happened to director Leo McCarey since his life-changing Duck Soup a decade earlier, but whatever it was, it’s lamentable; there is not one sequence or shot in Going My Way that isn’t the most rote and lifeless kind of filmmaking. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film so irksome in its inexplicable desire to put us all to sleep. Its sole redemptive moment is its final shot, in which curmudgeonly priest Father Fitzgibbon (a one-dimensional Barry Fitzgerald, similarly wasted in How Green Was My Valley) sees his mother, traveling in from Ireland, for the first time in decades. Their embrace is moving. But it’s like the Lubezki cinematography in The Tree of Life or RZA’s music in Kill Bill — a lonely virtue thrown on top of an unworthy, irredeemable film.
That last shot is the only thing, frankly, to praise about Going My Way; there’s no context in which I can recommend it. Even if you’re a diehard fan of Bing Crosby, this is likely to be a painful watch. Acting and technical attributes provide nothing, and there’s no artistic imagination. Quite literally the only reason to watch this film today is if you’re working on a project like I am to see all of the Best Picture winners. Of the first seventeen, despite plenty of competition, it is handily the worst. So I can’t stop you if you’re doing that, but — drink something. Something strong. Prepare yourself.