Monday, November 7, 2016

GOING MY WAY (Paramount 1944) Universal Home Video

Going My Way (1944) is director Leo McCarey’s overly sentimental dramedy with music a la Bing Crosby (who won an Oscar) as Father O’Malley; in hindsight, a remarkably sophisticated Catholic priest whose sphere of influence extends into the worlds of pop entertainment, baseball and high opera. O'Malley is assigned by the Dioceses as an assistant to Father Timothy O'Dowd (the irrepressible Frank McHugh), an intermediary of sorts to slowly easy an aged Father Fitzgibbon (an unreservedly magnetic Barry Fitzgerald) from his parochial duties into the emeritus years of his life. However, owing to Fitzgibbon’s feisty refusal to depart on cue he is being kept unaware that his days as a practicing man of the cloth are numbered. Going My Way is a delicious concoction of merrymaking and music; Crosby given the lion’s share of the score to warble in his inimitable style. This cut across many genres, from a stirring rendition of Shubert’s much beloved (and even more re-purposed) Ave Maria to the Oscar-winning hit parade favorite, ‘Swingin’ on a Star’ co-written by Tin Pan Alley favorites, Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke. In some ways, Going My Way represents the culmination of Crosby’s indentured contract career as Paramount Studio’s most bankable star throughout the thirties and forties. Like all of the musical talents eventually fed through the gristmill – though particularly those shot out of a canon at Paramount – Crosby’s appearances in movies up until Going My Way were subservient to a catalog of songs he sang in them; the varying plots, suspiciously similar and loosely inserted as mere bridges in between the singing. Even Holiday Inn (1942), Crosby’s most sizable smash prior to Going My Way, is little more than an excuse for Crosby (paired for the first time with Fred Astaire) to zip through a cavalcade of Irving Berlin standards, including his biggest record of all time – White Christmas.    
By 1944, Crosby had already achieved unprecedented success in virtually every facet of then available ‘mass media’ as a seemingly congenial, laid back bass-baritone; one of the 20th century’s most easily identifiable ‘crooners’ who, to date has sold over a billion records worldwide. In hindsight, Crosby was born for the microphone – the man roughly entering the pop culture at precisely the same interval as this ‘new-fangled’ recording innovation.  And Crosby led the charge in pioneering a more intimate singing style, later to usher in the likes of Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, and Dean Martin; his influence distinctly felt, and occasionally overshadowing their artistry. The word ‘prolific’ seems grossly inadequate to summarize Crosby’s far-reaching popularity, his legacy Teflon-coated, though severely challenged, and perhaps even slightly tarnished by a postmortem ‘tell all’ written by his son, Gary, who claimed Crosby’s disciplinarian edicts bordered on regularly administered ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments – both verbal and physical; a claim later refuted by Crosby’s younger son, Phillip who admits Crosby was strict in their upbringing, but never to the egregious levels outlined in Gary’s memoir, ironically titled, Going My Own Way.
“My dad was not the monster my lying brother said he was,” Phillip stated in a 1999 interview in The Globe, “He was strict, but…never beat us black and blue, and my brother Gary was a vicious, no-good liar for saying so…He wrote ‘Going My Own Way’ out of greed... He knew it would generate a lot of publicity. My dad was my hero. I loved him very much. He loved all of us too, including Gary. He was a great father.” So too should we point out that this memoir was published in 1983, the height of a then insidiously popularized trend in ‘biographies’ expressly meant to topple great names in showbiz with accounts decidedly exaggerated from their personal lives and public indiscretions. Like Joan Crawford’s ‘Mommie Dearest’ and Bette Davis’ ‘My Mother’s Keeper’; these ‘stories’ have long since been contested by each star’s children who grew up in the same household as the author writing about them.     
Going My Way comes at the height of Crosby’s popularity in the movies; begun inauspiciously as part of ‘The Rhythm Boys’ – a specialty act, appearing as ‘Bing’ in Paramount’s all-star spectacle and early talkie, King of Jazz (1930). To contextualize the picture’s monumental success, Going My Way was the highest-grossing movie of 1944; a year dotted by such legendary releases as Gaslight, Meet Me in St. Louis, Cover Girl, Hail the Conquering Hero, Murder My Sweet, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Laura, to name but a handful of the iconic product Hollywood en masse was pumping out. By far, it is Crosby’s most plot-driven movie to date; director, Leo McCarey creating ginger-peachy vignettes from the fabric of wartime and slightly careworn Americana, in which either the centerpiece or bookends of each scene is a Crosby song immediately followed by a transitional ‘fade to black’. “I only know I like my characters to walk in clouds,” McCarey once pointed out, “I like a little bit of the fairy tale. As long as I'm there behind the camera lens, I'll let somebody else photograph the ugliness of the world.” Indeed, McCarey’s forte was begun in the classic thirties' screwball with smash hits like Duck Soup (1933) and The Awful Truth (1937). But McCarey also proved adept at romantic melodramas, his best known – 1958’s An Affair to Remember, actually a remake of his own earlier masterpiece, Love Affair (1939).  
By 1944, Crosby had become one of the most beloved entertainers in the world, tirelessly raising American G.I. morale through his breakneck live concert tour and raising money for war bonds. His stamina during the forties is mind-boggling; committed to making at least two or three movies a year, recording dozens of songs, appearing in his own program for CBS radio, and touring the country and abroad to help raise money for the war effort. In 1948, Der Bingle (as he had been nicknamed) was even given the moniker ‘most admired man alive’ ahead of Pope Pius XII. So perhaps it is not so much of a stretch to discover him here as the benevolent, if ever so slightly enterprising, Father Chuck O’Malley. The picture’s narrative meanders through a series of vignettes that are, in and of themselves, poignantly quaint and unassuming. These include the awkward circumstance by which Father Fitzgibbon comes in possession of a stolen Thanksgiving turkey; Father O’Malley’s reunion with old-time college buddy, Father Timothy; O’Malley’s involvement in molding the singing career of a young teen, Carol James (Jean Heather); and his coaching of the Boys Choir to help raise money for St. Dominic's ailing repair fund.
In this latter endeavor, Father O’Malley is greatly aided by another old friend, Genevieve Linden (operatic sensation, Rise Stevens) who suggests a benefit concert at New York's Metropolitan Opera to raise the badly needed moneys. But it all seems for not when Fathers O’Malley and Fitzgibbons return from the concert's triumph to discover their beloved cathedral destroyed in a terrific blaze; the epic scope of this tragedy crystalized in the intimate sad-eyed reflection caught in Barry Fitzgerald’s magnificently careworn gaze and Crosby’s gentle understanding this old campaigner has just witnessed his entire life’s work literally go up in smoke. As Fitzgibbon’s faith is wounded and his health goes into steep decline, Father O'Malley manages the unlikeliest of reunions; bringing Fitzgibbon's centenarian mother over from Ireland, who comforts her son as only a mother’s love can. While the narrative structure of Going My Way is oft brought into question – it really only hints at a lot of narrative threads it never entirely gets around to fully realizing before the final fade out – the strength of the picture is undeniably in its tear-jerking sentiment; unabashedly warm/big-hearted with Crosby’s priest the somewhat wily puppet master to prevent the enterprise from entirely sinking into rank saccharine treacle.
Going My Way’s screenplay by Frank Butler and Frank Cavett is frequently interrupted by Crosby running through a swath of pop songs – the best still the deservedly Oscar-winning ‘Swingin’ on a Star’ that O'Malley performs with an assist from St. Dominic’s Boy's Choir for Genevieve’s benefit. A bouncy tune, it proves the centerpiece of an otherwise largely forgettable, if eclectic score, borrowing from operatic arias interpolated with a few standards, like the perennial Christmas hymn, Silent Night, Holy Night and 1914’s Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral (a.k.a. The Irish Lullaby; one of Crosby’s biggest radio hits), capped off by the Van Heusen/Burke ballad, The Day After Tomorrow. Going My Way was released at the height of WWII and it is perhaps saying much of the general public’s need for sentiment that it became the highest-grossing movie of the year – nominated for a record 10 Academy Awards (winning an astounding 7: for Best Original Song ‘Swingin’ on a Star’; Best Director and Original Story – both awards going to Leo McCarey, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor – Barry Fitzgerald, Best Actor – Bing Crosby and the most coveted of them all – Best Picture).  Today’s audiences have become far to jaded to truly appreciate the tenderness in Going My Way, and indeed, in spots the picture appears to suffer from a slight, even marginally unnecessarily maudlin strain. Personally, I have always found the McCarey/Crosby follow-up, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945 and oft erroneously referenced as a sequel) as a more cohesive picture on the whole; McCarey’s pacing and direction infinitely tighter. In hindsight, Going My Way also marked the first time Crosby would don the cleric’s collar; again, in Bells (for which he subsequently was Oscar-nominated as Best Actor again) and, a decade later, in the now all but forgotten Fox musical, Say One For Me (1959) where he croons the sublime and underrated, ‘The Spirit of Christmas’.
The curmudgeonly camaraderie between Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way is quite palpable and arguably, the picture’s best-selling feature then as now; Fitzgerald, carrying more than a bit of the Irish blarney stone wit and wiles, thus to endear him to movie audiences herein and elsewhere in the cinema firmament. Aside: I get an immediate warm and fuzzy feel good recalling him as Michaleen Oge Flynn; the sage buggy driver in John Ford’s sublime masterpiece, The Quiet Man (1952). The rest of the cast in Going My Way slightly overplay their hand. Frank McHugh especially, is gregarious to distraction, too much ham and not enough cabbage to give his performance the necessary gutsy good time resolve it ought to possess. Rise Stevens is mere – if absolutely stunning – window-dressing, showcased in several operatic sequences that bring the already methodical pacing to a screeching halt. Yet, in the final analysis, the awkwardness of these misfires takes a backseat to McCarey’s ample gifts as a true – and today, sadly underrated visual artist. In hindsight, Going My Way may not be the ‘best picture’ of 1944, but it is one hell of a top-flight entertainment, guaranteed to enrich the soul during the holiday season.
It is rather insulting Universal Home Video has never come around to remastering Going My Way for Blu-ray. Instead, we still have to grapple with their reissued DVD. This single disc, to be sure, has rectified the absolutely horrid transfer quality – or lack thereof, present on their previous two movie/one disc release from 1999 (the other film included then was Holiday Inn 1942).Whereas the aforementioned DVD was riddled in edge enhancement, excessive shimmering of fine detail and a ton of pixelization, this new dual-layered disc is virtually free of all these distractions. However, the B&W image is far from smooth or refined. Persistent and heavier-than-usual film grain registers as more harsh and gritty than indigenous to its source. Age-related artifacts are everywhere. The gray scale has been nicely balance with deep solid blacks and, on the whole, generally clean whites. The audio is Dolby mono and adequate. The only extra is a brief introduction by TCM host, Robert Osborne and the film's theatrical trailer. In keeping with previously issued classic titles – Universal does not provide a separate menu for chapter stops, though one can advance at ten minute intervals throughout this disc, simply by pressing the arrow key on one's remote control. Bottom line: a middling effort for a movie deserving far better. We will wait in the hope someone at Universal is listening. Hear our pleas: Going My Way on Blu-ray for 2017!!!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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