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Best Picture: GOING MY WAY (1944)

In the seventeenth week of Witney Seibold’s quest to watch and write about every Best Picture winner, he finds a sweet and sentimental (and now-dead) form of storytelling in Leo McCarey’s Going My Way.

N.B.: 1944 was the first year in Academy Award history to winnow down the number of Best Picture nominees to five. It was previously at ten. The number of nominees would remain at five all the way until 2009. Having been raised with the five-only rule, it feels more natural to me.

Going My Way comes from a genre of filmmaking that is now pretty much dead: That of the Benevolent Helper. If one were to look at Hollywood movie stars of the day, one might think of manly charmers like Clark Gable, or suave-yet-vaguely-sinister semi-heavies like Laurence Olivier or Humphrey Bogart. But there was a special segment of fame reserved for calming, aw-shucks, totally innocent men as well. People like Jimmy Stewart. In many films (and radio dramas of the era), Stewart – and others with similar personalities – would play down-to-Earth, wise sages whose function in their stories would be only to help others. Either they would calmly and knowingly offer just the kind of aid their beleaguered friends would require, or they would simply be so sweet and innocent, that their own purity of soul would rub off on the cynics around them. Frank Capra was a master at this kind of story.

 

We don’t see that kind of story so much anymore. These days, dramas tend to be more complex, offering up many layers of ambivalence, vice, and personal struggle. It’s rare you find a character in a movie who is fully formed the instant they step on the screen, ready to help people as best they can, using their own inner peace as a guiding light. Bing Crosby plays such a character in Leo McCarey’s Going My Way. This is a film about a local priest named Fr. O’Malley (Crosby) who has been sent to a financially flagging church to replace the grumpy old Fr. Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) who preaches there. Fr. Fitzgibbon doesn’t know he is to be replaced, and sees Fr. O’Malley as a frustratingly laidback presence; he sings more secular music (this is the film that introduced “Swinging on a Star” to the world), tries to relate too closely to the local JDs, and seems to behave like, well, a real Christian.

The real drama of the film, then, lies not with our protagonist, but with Fr. Fitzgibbon, and how he is the one who needs to learn to be more open, replaced, and ultimately, accepting of his fate. The main character, meanwhile, is always calm, always resolute, and always knows what to do. He is an appealing aspirational figure. One we like watching because of his philosophical certainty, his humility, and his blessed assurance. In the film’s central speech, Fr. O’Malley explains that he, like all people, is just going his way. And that way is to look at the joyous side of religion. He wants consider the happy aspects of life and of his faith, rather than adhering to stodgy rules, sternness, and stone-faced formality.

I imagine aspiring clergymen look at Fr. O’Malley the same way parents look at Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. He is, in many ways, an ideal of that position. Someone who seems to naturally understand the pain an injustices of the modern world, and seems to be able to face them all with a dignified smile and a natural need to help. Although in Fr. O’Malley’s case, he’s also quick with a song, a cup of tea, and a kindly piece of advice you never knew you needed.

 

These days, we don’t really present audiences with aspirational figures anymore; perfection doesn’t seem to interest most people, coming across as corny and sentimental. Even when we make a character like Superman in 2013, he’s a struggling, Earthy brooder, figuring out his identity, rather than already being comfortable with it from the get go. The genre of the triumphant optimist is a moribund one.

Which is a pity, because I find films like Going My Way – for however sentimental they are – to be inspiring and enjoyable. At the time, Going My Way was the most financially successful film of the year, and was deemed to be better than Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and George Cukor’s Gaslight. It seems like a slight film in comparison, but here’s what it does: It makes you feel happy. And that’s not nothing.

Join me next week for The Lost Weekend.

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Comments

  1. yorgod says:

    The ‘Benevolent Helper’ archetype identified above survives only in the person of Morgan Freeman, and I think it took its last stab at viability with Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance.

    Freeman so thoroughly embodies that nerve impulse in audience response that he’s the defacto voice of God (speaking of aspirational figures).

    What made the genre you identify unique to its time and moribund in the present is that figures like Capra and McCarey were humorists who knew how to keep sodden profundity from overwhelming entertainment.

    McCarey directed Duck Soup for the Marx Borthers and made a star of Carey Grant in the screwball classic The Awful Truth. Capra directed silent comic Harry Langdon and worked with Laurel and Hardy, so its no surprise that when they reached for sentiment later in their careers always the crackle of humor was there to keep things moving.

    Now the dividing line between drama and comedy is much more stark, there is less bleed through. And a benevolent character without humor is like a statue of a saint, and who wants to see a movie about that?

    • yorgod says:

      correction: Capra did not work with Laurel and Hardy. It was in fact McCarey who wrote and/or directed a number of the duo’s best known films.