Wholesome Hokum That’s Outstayed Its Welcome | Bing Crosby’s Going My Way At 80

Time is a cruel mistress. It does no favours to mankind or its creations. Indeed, even the finest works of art are subject to changing tastes and circumstances. And there is no material under more scrutiny in this regard than the celluloid creations of the past. With their acutely staged and precisely edited presentations of reality, they function less as a record of our world and more like a reflection of it, perhaps glanced at in some broken mirror in some dusty old antiques shop. Sometimes we like what we see, aspire to it even. Other times, the credits roll and we must watch the sun set on yet another fairytale ending that few of us will ever enjoy outside the edges of the silver screen. Ultimately, a film can age like a fine wine or curdle like milk. There is little variation in between. And eight decades on from its original release, Going My Way is beginning to stink. 

The film serves as a starring vehicle for legendary crooner Bing Crosby, who plays the role of Father Charles O’Malley, a young priest with the voice of an angel. Hip, trendy, and holy, Crosby’s singing priest set the template for all manner of strange clerics to follow in his footsteps, including Ireland’s own Michael Cleary. Naturally, he’s charming and likeable from the moment we first lay eyes on him. Eschewing scene-stealing antics in favour of a more restrained approach, he serves as the perfect straight man to all the broad comic characters around him. 

Notably, Crosby’s talent was deservedly recognised by his peers when he was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. 

Co-star Barry Fitzgerald shines as an elderly priest befuddled by his younger counterpart’s fashionable ways. Fitzgerald’s career had begun back home in Ireland more than twenty years previously. He performed in the first productions of Sean O’Casey’s famous Dublin Trilogy plays onstage at the Abbey Theatre. Already well-established in Hollywood as a character actor when production began on Going My Way, the film helped him gain wider recognition amongst the viewing public – and earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

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Interestingly, Fitzgerald was also nominated alongside Crosby for Best Actor, making him the only person to be nominated for both awards for the same performance. The Academy changed their nomination criteria shortly afterwards to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.

Surprisingly, Going My Way remains a pleasure to sit down and watch today. Producer-Director Leo McCarey was an experienced professional who had worked with everyone from Laurel and Hardy, to Carey Grant, to the Marx Brothers. He was as famous for encouraging onset improvisations as he was for his slow-burn comedic timing. In the hands of a lesser director, the film would have been inconsequential. But under McCarey’s supervision, it’s a sheer joy. 

McCarey won the Academy Award for Best Picture for his work on the feature. But while on his way to collect the Oscar, he was tripped up by filmmaker Billy Wilder, who felt that his own film Double Indemnity had been robbed. Looking back at both films today, it’s hard to disagree with Wilder. 

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to reconcile the depiction of the Catholic Church in Going My Way with the grim reality that has emerged over the last forty years. Let’s assume that the average modern audience member is even going to tolerate a black and white film in the first place, fine. But will they be able to tolerate its sentimental portrayal of a notoriously corrupt organisation? 

Well, you may still find yourself bowled over by the sheer force of the film’s good nature. But it remains something of a relic, a story that simply would not get made today. 

And talk about separating the art from the artist – yikes. Bing Crosby’s family-friendly image was later damaged by accusations that he was physically abusive to his children. And Leo McCarey became a controversial figure after testifying to the US Senate’s House Committee on Un-American Activities during the Red Scare.

If all that weren’t enough to put you off the film, there’s also the bog-standard Paddywhackery, which is not exactly a popular quality amongst the Irish public today, oh bejaysus and begorrah! 

Of course, it’s important to remember that Going My Way was a wartime production intended to help boost morale. And given its critical and commercial success, it’s fair to say it was something of a cultural phenomenon. After all, it was closely followed by a sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s, for which Crosby was to become the first actor nominated for an Academy Award for playing the same role twice. Later still, a television adaptation starring Gene Kelly was produced. 

Is the film going to convert anyone to Catholicism? Nope. More likely than not, it will leave them humming a catchy song or two. No more, no less. 

Yes, Going My Way stinks. But if you can hold your nose long enough to ignore the smell, you’ll find a wholesome slice of spiritual hokum. Just don’t look too closely at the sell-by date… 

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