Monday, May 10, 2010

Going My Way: Too Schmaltzy Is an Apt Description (and the overlooked Best Picture winners of the 1940's)

Okay, so I had a vacation to the Midwest, and a couple of long weekends, all of which makes for a very unproductive blog. Currently, I’ve watched all of the Best Picture winners through The Sound of Music, and A Man for All Seasons, In the Heat of the Night, and Oliver! are burning a hole in my Netflix queue. I’ve seen all but four of the Best Picture winners now (A Man for All Seasons, Oliver!, Chariots of Fire, and Out of Africa). So what I really need to do is catch up on my reviews.

Okay, I was in the middle of a series of reviews that compared five 1940’s Best Picture winners to the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief. It would have been fantastic if I could make a case for the five Oscar winners in a row matching the five stages of grief, but Leo McCarey’s Going My Way simply doesn’t fit the pattern (luckily for me, the next two Oscar winners—The Lost Weekend and The Best Years of Our Lives match up incredibly well to depression and acceptance, respectively). Going My Way is a slight, sweet and sentimental film. I guess if I want to compare it to the mood of the country in 1944—arguably the direst of WWII—Going My Way is exactly the kind of film American audiences wanted: the kind of film where the troubles of reality are temporarily replaced by something uplifting.

The film tells the story of Father Charles O’Malley (Bing Crosby, who at the time was the most popular star in Hollywood), a young unconventional priest who becomes the new curate at St. Dominic’s, a Catholic parish in midtown Manhattan. The head rector is the elderly Father Fitzgibbon, an Irish immigrant who hasn’t seen his homeland in over four decades. Fitzgibbon has clearly lost touch with his parish—he’s very old school and set in his ways—and unbeknownst to him the archdiocese has sent Father O’Malley to St. Dominic’s in a last ditch attempt to save the church, which has fallen behind on its mortgage payments and soon will be repossessed by the bank.

Father O’Malley is a character very typical to film: the “saint” or “savior” who has an uncanny ability to win over and change the minds of the people who most resist him. (Julie Andrews as Maria in The Sound of Music is cut in the same mold, and Whoopi Goldberg in the Sister Act films is a modern interpretation of the character.) O’Malley wins over the entire neighborhood. He makes sure the church collects enough alms to secure rent for an elderly parishioner about to be evicted. He helps a young couple smooth over their new relationship with the beau’s disapproving father. He earns the trust of the juvenile delinquents in the neighborhood and reforms them into a boy’s choir. The person who most resists him is, of course, Father Fitzgibbon.

O’Malley’s past life comes into play in the film. A former flame, Genevieve Turner (Rise Stevens), comes back into “Chuck’s” life and is surprised to find he is a priest. She is now a star performer at the Metropolitan Opera. “Jenny” is appreciative of the choir’s performance, and she offers to help Father O’Malley publish his original songs. She and the boys perform “Going My Way” and “Swinging on a Star” backed by the orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera House. The publishers find “Going My Way” “too schmaltzy” (which is an apt description for the entire film), but see potential in “Swinging on a Star”. In lieu of paying O’Malley directly, the publishers surreptitiously deposit a substantial donation in the collection box at the next Sunday service. This payment is enough to cover the mortgage, and Father Fitzgibbon finally warms up to O’Malley (though the bond had been slowly strengthening between the two men throughout the film) as he joins him in a game of golf.

The final act of the film sees tragedy strike St. Dominic’s, as a fire burns the parish to the ground. The old priest becomes distraught and sick, only able to collect thirty-five dollars after the church is destroyed. However, Jenny has taken the boys choir on a concert tour with her, and she sends a check of $3,500 dollars for the repair of St. Dominic’s. As a new church is being constructed, O’Malley informs Fitzgibbon that he is being transferred to another failing parish, and Fitzgibbon is saddened. In the final scene of the film, O’Malley has arranged for Jenny to bring a very old lady—Father Fitzgibbon’s mother, whom he has not seen since he left Ireland—to St. Dominic’s. The old priest is moved to tears by the sight of his mother and the film ends on an upbeat note.

Going My Way was the highest grossing picture of 1944, with Hollywood’s most bankable star in the lead role. It is a gentle film without real villains, save for the bank that holds the mortgage to the church, but even the most naïve viewer will quickly come to the conclusion that the church is in good hands once Father O’Malley is on the scene. Above all, Going My Way is a film that reaffirms faith in God. This is exactly the sort of entertainment the American public was craving in 1944, and the film was rewarded with eight Oscars.

However, there is always a nice, pleasant, schmaltzy film (or two, or three) in each decade that hasn’t aged very well and didn’t deserve to win Best Picture. The 1944 Best Picture Oscar should have gone to Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s classic noir. (Wilder didn’t have to wait long for one of his films to win an Oscar though. The very deserving The Lost Weekend—a film that is the polar opposite of Going My Way—took home the top prize the next year.) I’ll do a quick rundown of films that Oscar overlooked in the 1940’s, broke down year by year.

1940: If the kind accountants at pricewaterhousecoopers ever released the vote totals for Best Picture, I’d bet that John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—with Henry Fonda’s iconic performance as Tom Joad—was the runner up. My vote though, goes to George Cukor’s screwball comedy The Philadelphia Story, with Katharine Hepburn as a snobby heiress who has two men—Cary Grant and James Stewart—vying for her affections. It’s a delightful and smart picture, and definitely proof that the classic romantic comedies are much better than the new ones. Jimmy Stewart won his only Oscar for his role, but Grant is clearly better—the Oscar was a make-up for his performance in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Also—Walt Disney’s not nominated Pinocchio may just be the finest animated film to ever be released.

1941: Okay, it has been discussed ad nauseam that Citizen Kane should have beaten How Green Was My Valley. Also overlooked is John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, which stars Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett’s cynical private eye. Bogart’s Spade is a nice warm-up act for Rick Blaine, and the film is generally credited as the first in the noir genre. The famous line in the film (a re-worded Shakespeare quote) “the stuff that dreams are made of” is used in great ironic fashion.

1942: Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons—which used many of the same actors and crew as Citizen Kane—is as well regarded (well, maybe not best-film-ever praise, but still very acclaimed) as his most famous film.

1943: Casablanca was absolutely the right choice to win Best Picture. Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt—the director’s personal favorite of all his films (though I haven’t seen it)—wasn’t nominated but probably holds up best in a weak year.

1944: Double Indemnity. Billy Wilder’s noir basically spawned the entire erotic thriller genre. A sap (Fred MacMurray) is completely and utterly seduced by a femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck). The sap is an insurance salesman, and the lovers scheme to bump off the vixen’s much older husband—but make the death appear accidental—and thus collect on the “double indemnity” clause in the husband’s life insurance. A dogged claims investigator (Edward G. Robinson) unravels the mystery. “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” Double Indemnity makes the answer to that question crystal clear. The film is awesome.

1945: The Lost Weekend was the right choice, but Hitchcock scored again with Spellbound, a thriller starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman.

1946: In my opinion, The Best Years of Our Lives deserved its Oscar. However, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is far and away his most popular film, and I’m sure many people could cast their vote for this film if given the opportunity to have a mulligan. It tells the story of down on his luck George Bailey (James Stewart), who attempts suicide but is rescued by a guardian angel who shows him what his town would have been like if he had never lived. The stage is set for one of the all-time great endings in a film, and It’s a Wonderful Life has since become a perennial Christmastime staple. Casablanca aside, this is the most enduring film of the 1940’s.

1947: A weak year for films in general. However if the voting were recast, I’d bet Elia Kazan’s parable on anti-Semitism (Gentlemen’s Agreement) would lose to another perennial holiday favorite, the original Miracle on 34th Street.

1948: Humphrey Bogart once quipped that the only true way to judge Best Actor would be to have all the nominees play Hamlet and see who does it the best then. How ironic then, that the best performance of his career—as the paranoid Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—wasn’t even nominated and the eventual winner was Lawrence Olivier for playing Hamlet. Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptation also won Best Picture, but John Huston’s half-Western, half-Noir about three men who strike gold yet struggle to overcome its corrupting influence. Bogart is fantastic as the guy who almost immediately becomes consumed by paranoia, and Walter Huston (John’s father) gives an all-time great supporting performance as the old prospector who knows better. The senior Huston was justly rewarded with an Oscar, and this is the film that really should have collected more gold in 1948. It was way ahead of its time.

1949: Another noir, director Carol Reed’s The Third Man, fails to even receive a Best Picture nomination. This one also boasts what was probably Orson Welles’ finest work as an actor. He kills it as Harry Lime, the surprise villain. His speech about a cuckoo clock, delivered on a Ferris wheel in Vienna, is the highlight of the picture.

No genre is more closely associated with a decade than noir and the 1940’s; it’s criminal that not one true noir (Casablanca and The Lost Weekend have noir elements but aren’t truly part of the genre) took the top prize in the decade when the genre was the most creative. Comedy is again looked over. Many of the films that won Best Picture in the 1940’s are incredibly strong films—and Casablanca is probably the best Best Picture ever—but the true flavor of the decade is not completely reflected amongst the winners.


Going My Way (1944) (The 1944 Oscar ceremony was the first to standardize the number of Best Picture nominees to five. This remained the case until controversially; the field was again expanded to ten for the 2009 nominees)

Director: Leo McCarey

Starring: Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Rise Stevens, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer

Studio: Paramount Pictures (though many of Paramount’s early films have changed rights; Universal now distributes the film—as is the case with many Hitchcock films)

Total Oscars: 7 (Best Picture, Best Director—Leo McCarey, Best Actor—Bing Crosby, Best Supporting Actor—Barry Fitzgerald, Best Original Screenplay—Frank Butler and Frank Cavett, Best Original Motion Picture Story—McCarey*, Best Song—“Swinging on a Star”) from 10 nominations (Best Actor—Barry Fitzgerald*, Best Cinematography (B&W), Best Editing)
*Leo McCarey was the first man to win Oscars for both directing and writing in the same year. He was soon followed in the decade by Billy Wilder, John Huston, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz
**Barry Fitzgerald was indeed nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same role as Father Fitzgerald in Going My Way. There was no rule that said an actor could not submit himself for consideration for both acting categories, but after the 1944 Oscars, a rule was created that an actor could only be nominated for one performance in one category. However, an actor can be nominated for different performance in both categories in the same year, most recently achieved, I believe, by Jamie Foxx.

NEXT BLOG: The Lost Weekend

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