Monday, April 7, 2008

Review of Going My Way

Fantasy and science-fiction before the 1950’s, both on the page and on the screen, was not particularly noted for its sophistication. For this reason, 1944’s “Going My Way” is all the more impressive, due to its psychological depth and restrained tone, opting for social commentary over swords and sorcery, little green men or giant rampaging monsters. It rightly remained the only science-fiction/fantasy film until 2003’s “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” to ever win a best picture academy award and it snagged six other Oscars as well. It had a rare appeal to a conservative moral majority who accepted the satirical, whimsical tone at face value and a progressive minority which appreciated its studied critique of middle-class wish-fulfillment.

It’s a credit to director Leo McCarey’s multi-layered ambiguity and labyrinthine subtleties that critics today still debate whether it should be classified as sci-fi or fantasy. (Some even go so far as to question whether it should be considered a genre film at all!) The sticking point seems to hinge upon the film’s surreal utopian setting and whether it should be interpreted as a parallel universe or merely a dream, with evidence pointing to the latter.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself, so I’ll stop and fill in the plot summary for those who haven’t yet seen the film:

Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby), a confused, but generally good-natured idealist, wanders into a parallel universe (or enters into a dream) in which he has been appointed the youthful new priest of a fantastical utopian parish. He negotiates a friendly rivalry with the former padre, the curmudgeonly Father Fitzgerald, while encountering several humorously outrageous inversions of real world woes: a street gang that becomes a charitable choir, a vicious landlord who transforms into a noble military volunteer and a runaway prostitute turned charming fiancé, etc. As the grip of the fantasy world tightens, it moves further from reality, occasionally spinning off into musical numbers.

“Going My Way” owes much of its basic format to “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz” (which has since overtaken the other film in stature), with its story of a naïve protagonist who becomes lost in a wonderland that is both exciting and alien. However, McCarey’s film shies away from the Technicolor excess of “The Wizard of Oz” film and the hallucinogenic chaos of “Alice in Wonderland” in favor of an uncanny mirror world that is all the more unsettling because it is so deeply grounded in our own. While other auteurs dabbled in dystopic shadow-worlds (consider the contemporaneous film noirs), McCarey takes us into quite the reverse: a parallel universe of impossibly glaring light. It is a light whose satiric intensity is a searing indictment of 1940’s society with its legislated morality, war propaganda, stifling self-censorship, denial of social problems and lack of universal civil rights.

What makes “Going My Way” even more unusual than flight-of-fancy odysseys made before and since is the lack of a firm framing device to anchor O’Malley’s story. McCarey doesn’t give us the Kansas farm and deus ex tornado of “The Wizard of Oz” or the sleepy hillside and endless rabbit-hole of “Alice” nor even (explicitly) the usual setup of a hospital patient fading in and out of an uneasy dream-state. O’Malley is thrust into his fantasy world without context, leaving the viewers to piece together the truth from the over-the-top morality, delirious cheeriness and subtler clues. Even more disturbing is O’Malley’s attitude towards the thinly-masked fiction. Rather than embarking on the usual episodic journey home (learning life lessons along the way) he enthusiastically accepts the lie, clearly preferring the hollow wish-fulfillment to the abrasive complications of reality. His inability to struggle out from the dream dooms him to repeat the fantasy scenario indefinitely, as hinted by the devastating final scene in which O’Malley is reassigned to a new parish with an identical description and situation.

It’s easy to argue that the edgy choice to forgo a framing device was merely a matter of necessity. The Hays Office would never have allowed McCarey to get away with his daring social critique if he’d spelled out his intentions. Still, I can’t help wondering whether Bing Crosby’s superlative star power might have prevented the Hollywood blacklist if he’d openly displayed his cynicism towards the moral majority.

Personally, I think the absent frame is more than just a fear of production code reprisal. It’s an artistic choice that enhances the puzzle-box structure of the film and its underlying message: we are a prisoner of the lies we live. The most reasonable interpretations [mild SPOILERS until end of paragraph] is that O’Malley is a dying patient, a comatose member of the white male Christian hegemony whose feverish brain is haplessly trying to assemble a version of heaven that fits his short-sighted prejudices and egotistical preoccupations. Bing Crosby’s perpetual dopey grin is perhaps the clearest evidence of his medicated state while the church fire near the end of the film appears to be a clear stand-in for the “burning” fever that threatens to destroy his fantasy world.

McCarey is ruthless in laying bare O’Malley’s psychology. Evidence of probable childhood abuse comes in the guise of Father Fitzgerald, an explicit father figure who wields a cane (kept largely tame in the mirror world), refuses to pass the torch to O’Malley and resists the young man’s attempts at progress. A short scene involving Fitzgerald’s drinking habit and references to an absent maternal figure, hint at the household conditions of O’Malley’s real world youth.

Meanwhile, a fixation with a former flame reveals a history of rejection while a flirtatious runaway exposes O’Malley’s frustrated sexual preoccupation. The material is heavily sublimated, with O’Malley displacing his sexual desires into music and song and projecting himself as a priest (insights into his past, including much camaraderie with an even less likely priest suggest that he is really nothing of the sort) as a rationalization for his impotence. One particularly memorable example of this repression at work is when O’Malley forces an attractive aspiring nightclub performer to sing without moving anything below the neck (even to sway or snap!).

Most scathing of all is the depiction of O’Malley’s pathetic ego, which McCarey arguably takes a little too far. Our “hero” not only imagines himself to be a literal messiah figure, bringing salvation to a community in crisis, but also a rock star (Bing Crosby, who had 383 top-30 hits, was the 1940’s equivalent) whose talent is a financial success. He is admired by all the boys in the local gang (an idea so out of place that it sends up red flags about a friendless, bullied past) and by women of every age and background.

The harmful aspect of this “idealized” wish fulfillment is evident in the regressive values and strict homogeny that O’Malley simulates in his dream world. Notice the lack of racial minorities. Notice how women bend to the will of the male cast members, with marriage offered as the only acceptable choice. Listen to the constant refrain that righteousness can be achieved only through the Catholic church, which demands regular attendance and frequent donations. One can hardly overlook the hypocrisy of O’Malley’s self-serving justice, in which the police allow him to gorge on stolen goods while violently pursuing others who commit identical crimes, or even infractions as minor as vagrancy.

It’s hard for modern viewers to imagine that the mainstream critics and audience of 1944 were largely blind to the anti-establishment subtext of “Going My Way.” Yet the truth is that its Best Picture victory was as much a matter of unwitting conservatives sharing in O’Malley’s fantasy without perceiving its terrible ironies as it was liberals overjoyed to see a film cut through the choking miasma of bourgeois contentment. Today, the film deserves to be openly acknowledged in its proper place: as a film that provocatively challenges viewers to reject escapism, isolationism and solipsism and to face their personal demons with honesty. It asks us to turn back from O’Malley’s path towards the false utopia of whitewashed paternal theocracy and to engage with the complicated moral ambiguities and vibrant multiculturalism of the modern life.

Walrus Rating: 2.5


Anonymous said...

pa-DOW Leo McCarey. That 1944 Best Picture Oscar must have been so sweet!

Patti said...

Wait, you gave it a 2.5? That seems awfully low in light of everything you just wrote about it. I'm confused.

Mad Dog said...

I guess I'm also a little confused that you give the movie a 2.5 after seemingly praising it so much. (I only skimmed through after the spoiler warning, though, so maybe I missed the other shoe dropping.)

At any rate, what other fantasy/sci-fi movies out there do you think were deserving of winning the Best Picture of their year?

Anonymous said...

Brian, your sarcasm is not sarcastic enough (...just like the movie's...)

I wonder how many kids are going to get Ds on film class papers because of this post.

Anonymous said...

"O’Malley is thrust into his fantasy world without context, leaving the viewers to piece together the truth from the over-the-top morality, delirious cheeriness and subtler clues."

John and Pat: as a hint, Brian's mom would really like this movie.

Patti said...

I re-read it and now I think I understand. I apologize for my readiness to accept what's put in front of me. Rock.

Mad Dog said...


FilmWalrus said...

Sorry about the confusion. "Going My Way" was so astoundingly sappy, trite and conventional that I was outraged that it could win a best picture oscar. I find all of McCarey's work to be pretty much conservative drivel. Bing Crosby's "perpetual dopey grin" is just the way the mediocre actor looks, but the statistic about 383 top-30 hits is true.

In deciding how best to tackle my shameless rant (it was tagged as such, along with "Humor") an idea occured to me: what if I were to reappropriate the film for my own purposes! Use film criticism for evil!

I chose not to go overboard with sarcasm, instead simply reviewing the film as I would have if I actually had thought is was the opposite of what it is. This was partially meant as a critique/sendup of the way critics (even me!) impose their own agendas on films they view. Seeing the film makes the whole thing much funnier, but then again, I'm not sure I can recommend it.

It would please me greatly if anyone watches this movie because of my review and is so colored by my "interpretation" that they walk away with the opposite message of what McCarey intended. If that ever happens, I'll have done my small bit towards recovering the ground this film lost.

Mad Dog,

It is definitely conspicuous that no sci-fi film has ever won a best picture. Your question is a great topic in itself, but I'll have to think about it (and do some research) before I can answer. Anything in mind?

Patti said...

Brian, I certainly forgive you - I just took too much stock in what you said at face value. I tend to do that sometimes (with anyone). In any case, it certainly made my re-reading that much funnier.

Part of my problem is that I read your blog via RSS via Google Reader, and Reader doesn't display tags if you use the default Blogger RSS. Hence, I missed a key part.

Unknown said...

Brian- so this is what you've been up to all this time. I'll dig up a list of recommendations from my 4 years of film school notebooks for you if you email me--

Shit man, I think back to the days of college recruiters and what might've been. Ah well. Hit me up-

Joe D said...

The story goes that Billy Wilder, sure of winning the Oscar for Double Indemnity, started to stand when they read out Going My Way. Wilder was so incensed that he tripped Leo McCarey as he ran down the aisle to fetch his gold statue.

FilmWalrus said...

The contrast between Going My Way and Double Indemnity is so deliciously pure. Sad that the academy wasn't ready for noir yet. It does make a great story though! Gotta love that Billy Wilder.

Anonymous said...

I think your "review" was great! I actually just watched the movie, well, the last half. I've seen the whole movie though, they tend to play it too much on Turner Classics. The reason I came across your review, was that, this is pretty funny, I was searching to see if there was any information about Bing Crosby being on morphine, or some other narcotics, or maybe tranquilizers... LOL! I mean, I can't fathom how he could be that way naturally! But, aside from his famous "dopiness", I was marveling while watching the movie at how the whole film seemed so s-l-o-w, and even Ingrid seemed like she was nodding out half the time! Really WEEEE-YURRRD!

I was thinking during the Graduation Ceremony, "Is this the way it would have been at this time in the USA, at this kind of school, or is this over-the-top even for that time?" I guessed that it MIGHT have been that way, since everything was kind of O.T.T. in those days. But, nothing in real-life could have been as absurd as some of the plot devices in that movie, like when: The Doctor tells Father that Sister has TB, and she should go to AZ, and maybe work in an "old people's home", and, no, we shouldn't tell her because that would ruin her cheerfulness and optimism, so, it will be better for her to just out-of-the-blue send her to the Catholic Desert Old People's Home without telling her why, or even making up a reason, and then, Father happens to run into Sister, so, since everything happens automatically for Catholic Clergy, Father tell Sister the news... no phone calls to the Desert Home, no talk with the Bishop or the Mother Superior... and that's only one small example of how things work.

So, I think your review was a great idea, and, it was spot-on!

Anonymous said...

Oh, sorry, just realized that I saw "The Bells of St. Mary's", and "Going My Way" is the sequel. It doesn't matter at all, really, except to give credit due... they're both have the same unreal-almost-narcotic quality!

FilmWalrus said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it and reassured that I'm not the only one who thinks Bing Crosby was on drugs. If you like this style of humor, you might also like my review of "Incredible Cat Tricks" (real movie) which I dubbed "The Citizen Kane of Cat Trick movies." Anyway, thanks again!