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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Collars Backward For Boxoffice

Going My Way (1944) A Historic Hit For Paramount

If you asked customers after 1944 to name the greatest of all movies, many would undoubtedly say Going My Way, or at least call it their all-time favorite. How popular, then? More so than we'll comprehend as more and more who were there pass to eternal first-run. I have a friend, now 81, who spent six months of 1945 on a polio isolation floor in Jersey City. The hospital had been spearheaded by political machinist and prominent Irish Catholic Frank "I Am The Law" Hague, then mayor of Jersey City. Hague could make most anything happen by picking up a phone. In this instance, he arranged to have a print of Going My Way brought to one of the larger wards and projected to capacity audience long confined to beds or wheelchairs, including my friend. Here was an event not to be forgotten, a movie fresh and still in theatres playing on demand for the Mayor and invited patients. We can wonder what the Paramount exchange manager said when Mayor Hague sent his request, doubtless via Bishop or some such church hierarchy. My guess: "Yes sir. When and where would you like the print delivered?"

Popular B'Way Restaurant Ties In With The Pic
Going My Way isn't regarded so high by buffs today. They'd rather be edgy and look at Double Indemnity again. Going My Way is about priests, but not religion. Everyone could enjoy it without itch that comes from sermonizing. I didn't used to like it so much, but that has changed. Maybe more growing up was in order. So many great films are ones we mature into. I'll say to start that Leo McCarey deserved all of laurels he received for the perfect story at the perfect time with a perfect cast. Narrative came out of his head, based on observance of church life and personalities within it, including a priest on whom he'd base the Barry Fitzgerald character. McCarey used three writers to hone a script, overseeing each line, then dropping much of that on-set where, after his fashion, spontaneity held sway. Going My Way is a series of conversations to which we have privileged access, all seeming so real as not to have come from any typewriter. Was it brilliance of the players, or McCarey instilling gentle humor to each character and situation? After too-loudness of some screwballs he had done, it's revelation to see/hear McCarey dial down talk to subdued, but so much more effective, level. Priests were understood not to shout, but these would inspire plenty of it from vastly amused patronage in 1944-45.

Going My Way won the "Best Picture," plus every other meaningful award. It was industry-recognized as a most brilliant appeal to sure-thing boxoffice since It Happened One Night. Had showmen and receipt counters named a #1 genius that year, it would have been Leo McCarey. Ideas like his were truly unique to him. Sounds simplistic, but how many such gifted comedy minds, ones who could do it all, were at work in 40's Hollywood? Preston Sturges maybe, but his were more uneven, didn't envelop so wide an audience. McCarey and Going My Way drew people who'd not ordinarily bother with movies. Variety says it took $6.5 million in rentals, a figure bested by precious few during wartime. The immediate sequel, Bells Of St. Mary's, would approach twice that. Paramount marketing played safe with Going My Way ads, offering Crosby in or out of clerical collar. Territories with strong Catholic presence would opt naturally for collar art, while areas more Protestant had neutral imagery of the star to choose from. Exhibs might also lean to straw hat and singing Bing to downplay any religious theme. Para sales had virtually every layout in alternate styles so that showmen could take the plunge, or not, re Crosby as priest. It was a tight wire theatres walked in those days.

Crosby and McCarey were together in dedication to the church. They had spoke for years of teaming before Going My Way came along. Crosby always had a relaxed camera technique, acting that never seemed "acting," his approach ideally suited to McCarey pace and letting humor flow natural from characters and situations. Nothing of screwball entered into Going My Way. As with fresh style he invented for Hal Roach comedies in the 20's, McCarey let laughter happen at natural tempo, never rushed and at all times the stuff of real life rather than Hollywood contrivance. Still, Going My Way was Hollywood, as certainly there were no priests around like Bing Crosby, but he had way of putting truth to any part, never so effectively as here. It's one of the best performances any actor gave in the 40's, probably as near a unanimous vote as Academy members gave that decade for a thesp award. As to Best Direction, I've read that Billy Wilder tried to trip Leo McCarey during latter's walk to the podium. True? Wilder would wait decades for his Double Indemnity to shade Going My Way in history's estimation, but that wouldn't necessarily make it a better picture, only the more fashionable one.


Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Hard to say if 'Double Indemnity' is better than 'Going My Way', but I know which one I prefer. And that goes for 'Miracle of Morgan's Creek', 'Hail the Conquering Hero', 'Laura', maybe 'Lifeboat'. Wow, what a good year for movies.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Man, I love those ad comparisons! Crazy thing, GOING MY WAY was a smash hit but when RKO released the sequel, BELLS OF ST. MARY'S, they still felt compelled to use the same sort of misleading ad art (collarless Crosby and Bergman out of the habit.)

My wife and I revisited GOING MY WAY a couple of years ago and had the same damn-this-is-really-good-I mean-really-REALLY-good reaction. Interestingly, if you set the 'dated' nature of the content aside (OMG! Catholic priests are the good guys!) the episodic structure and light improvisational style make this one's technique look way more contemporary than something as formal and disciplined as DOUBLE INDEMNITY.

Decades ago I read James Agee's comparison of MY WAY and BELLS... he hated the follow-up, found it false and cheap, totally betraying the original (he was particularly repulsed by the subplot of the nuns badgering the cheap old landlord.) As a kid, I didn't get this at all. These were both sweet church-y old movies to be dragged out at holiday time. What was the big dif? Well, as you suggest, John, viewing these things as older adults sure changes your perception. Caught up with BELLS again last Christmas and enjoyed it a lot, thought it well contrived and played. But it is a 100% Hollywood concoction with characters behaving with the sort of logic and motivation known only to scriptwriters. Never rings true like GOING MY WAY.

You are probably right about the box office end of things, but I certainly would gang both McCarey and Sturges as far above the pack around this time. These guys didn't just 'do' comedy... they FOUND it in the world they observed.

12:16 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

So how's this for a cruel double-feature --- "Going My Way" and "Spotlight."

12:20 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Great movie. And I noticed McCarey lifted a gag from a Laurel & Hardy movie (can't remember which one) featuring a hat blowing into a gutter, where it's promptly destroyed by a streetcleaning machine.

My mother saw "Going My Way" on its original release in her heavily Catholic hometown. She said that Barry Fitzgerald's line -- "Oh, take it out of the Ladies Sodality" -- got the biggest laugh she ever heard in her life.

3:24 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Kevin K - wasn't the hat gag from 'The Music Box'? Jimmy Finlayson should've known that. :)

11:27 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Not to be provocative, but casting someone asexual like Barry Fitzgerald or Frank McHugh as a priest is one thing, but Bing Crosby as a celibate is kinda wacky, if not a little creepy to me.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Wow, this post (and subsequent comment thread) have convinced me to take a look. I'm a MAJOR Crosby fan but have always avoided both GMW and BOSM because they looked like they would decay my teeth, but I'm hoping to be happily surprised -- thanks John!

1:18 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon reports on once seeing "Going My Way" at an L.A. revival show (Part One):


I enjoyed you going to bat for Leo McCarey in your current column/blog. I remember finding a screening of "Going My Way" during the heyday of the revival/repertory 'cinemas' (even though we moviegoers in southern California had NOT really grown up with the word 'cinema' in our vocabularies; 'movie' or just 'a show' was more like it), those being theaters which held on awhile beyond the '60s by showing older Hollywood and foreign-made films, as you know. I'd seen "Going My Way" on TV, but it was impressive to see it as intended, uninterrupted in those days of constant, unbelievably disruptive and vulgar TV ads, on a big screen, start to finish. I was very impressed by what a fine and convincing actor Bing Crosby was. His dramatic performances all hold up today. The naturalism he personified which an entire wave of popular singers attributed to his vocalizing (including Frank Sinatra, who took his crown), one which revolutionized popular singing in his day, is equally evident in his acting, which doesn't appear to be acting. Even Bob Hope got better, working with Crosby, as he's equal to or better than comedy 'specialist' Hope in that demanding area. Everybody's familiar with the supposed death bed assertion of Edmund Gwenn that death is hard, but comedy's harder. Not however by the evidence in Gwenn's best work...nor Crosby's. It's the personality, the guilelessness, and the invisible technique which come off as effortless realism, which persuade one to come to that conclusion.

But as you infer, McCarey got wonderful, relaxed, natural performances out of other performers who might seem a bit more formal or mannered in other movies. Everybody, even youngsters, should enjoy "Make Way For Tomorrow" today if they could see it. At the entire other end of the spectrum, thanks to the spotlight thrown upon it by Criterion and another reissue in the UK under Masters of Cinema, McCarey's brilliant adaptation of a terrific screenplay by ViƱa Delmar adapted in turn from both a novel by Josephine Lawrence and a play by Helen and Nolan Leary (not to mention a poem by Leo Robin!---all according to the essential IMDB) shows the same kind of humanity and small-scaled naturalism often rare in films of that day when theatricality was paramount (sometimes with a capital 'P'!) And it's realistic downer ending was not that typical, either....and a certain heart-wrench'er.

4:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:

My dad was raised Catholic just like Mr. McCarey, but it did NOT endear him to the church, and I think as a partial result, I was NOT raised Catholic. I don't relate to McCarey's faith, but I can respect his own devotion to it. If the Catholics could have benefited from a good sales job, they sure got one with "Going My Way". Your reproductions of ads however confirm that it was very much a local flip of the coin whether to stress or to mute the Catholic theme of the picture! I do think that the weakest playing (though, never Crosby's) and the weakest scene in the movie concerns a perky young couple the Crosby character convinces to put a lid on their youthful, shall we say, 'enthusiasm' and conduct their love affair 'by the Book', and head away from 'sin' toward the altar. (As best I remember.) This scene in particular could be subject to derision or rolling eyeballs, today---probably would, in fact. But, it goes with the territory. Most of "Going My Way"'s moralizing is muted in deference to a humanism that holds up much better.

I've heard of McCarey's sad decline due to various factors no doubt including the one that gets most of 'em--age; but, augmented by alcoholism (the 'Irish curse'!), and, possibly, his virulent anti-Communism. I think where the film community and Communism were concerned you clearly had a clash of values, even outside ideology to dollars-and-cents mentality of the film business; and that the anti-Communists certainly were not wrong about most aspects of Communism as practiced, as proven in good time by history. But they were very wrong in their own practical reaction to it, terrifying and pillorying decent Americans through the abuses of the Motion Picture Alliance in imitation of the HUAC. I think perhaps it's easier as always to judge after the fact how defensible motivations spilled over into indefensible actions. Yet I think the simple truth is that McCarey, like many, was a fervent lover of his own country---not Ireland, though you'd think so after "Going My Way"!---but America, of course. That doesn't mean McCarey wasn't proud of his Irish roots, same as John Ford, heaven knows. I think he achieved an effective melding together of those loves in this particular movie. We've become understandably callused and hard-hearted today, but perhaps individually its possible for someone today to watch the scene, beautifully underplayed by Barry Fitzgerald (an actor just as easily given to overplaying at times), when his priest character is reunited with his beloved aged mother from Ireland, due to a loving conspiracy of others in his parish including the Crosby character, and to be deeply touched by that tenderly filmed scene. The sentimental 'Irish lullaby' played in the movie is, I believe, a synthetic one created for this movie, but like so many musical creations from the brilliant people who worked in the film business in the early decades of sound, it feels like a real lullaby from another place and time, and it has a sweet, simple beauty of utterance that is full of nostalgic yearning and sweetness.

McCarey's effective swan song, if not his last film, was of course "An Affair to Remember". It's great, but so is the harder-to-see "Love Affair". They actual complement one another.


4:29 PM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

I`d rather watch THE BISHP`S WIFE.

11:50 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Craig, I really enjoy your posts, but would find them easier to read if you broke them up into smaller paragraphs.

My little central PA town was totally white bread, with a smattering of Jews, a smattering of Black people (relatives of the Mills Brothers), a smattering of Catholics, and handfuls of every others race, religion, and ethnicity. Given this reality, we had very few threatening "Others," those deemed religious, sexual, or financial threats. I grew up blissfully unaware of a lot of prejudices--like against Catholics.

It's a revelation to me to see the censored ads, designed to conceal the Catholic essence of the film! Wow. In my wife's little eastern PA town (coal country), there was rampant discrimination and ill-feelings. One of her relatives: "Whats the sound the water going down the toilet makes? Irish....

3:43 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The studio system was incredible between the years 1938 to the advent of CinemaScope, particularly the war years. A quick glance at 1944 other than those already mentioned:

Arsenic and Old Lace
Buffalo Bill
A Canterbury Tale
Christmas Holiday
Cobra Woman
Cover Girl
Curse of the Cat People
To Have and Have Not
Henry V
The Lodger
Mask of Dimitrios
Meet Me in St. Louis
Ministry of Fear
Murder, My Sweet
Mr. Skeffington
None But The Lonely Heart
National Velvet
Phantom Lady
The Princess and the Pirate
Since You Went Away
Tall in the Saddle
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
This Happy Breed
The Uninvited
The Woman in the Window

What's incredible is the diversity of product.

8:24 PM  

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