Sunday, May 3, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Going My Way" (1944)

Bing Crosby in Going My Way
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Going My Way
Release Date: May 3, 1944
Director: Leo McCarey
Written By: Frank Butler & Frank Cavett (screenplay), Leo McCarey (story), Lloyd C. Douglas (treatment)
Starring: Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Frank McHugh
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Musical
Running Time: 126 minutes

Oscar Wins: 7
-Best Picture
-Best Actor (Bing Crosby)
-Best Supporting Actor (Barry Fitzgerald)
-Best Director (Leo McCarey)
-Best Original Story
-Best Screenplay
-Best Original Song ("Swinging on a Star")

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Actor (Barry Fitzgerald)
-Best Cinematography
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Double Indemnity
-Since You Went Away

And the winner is...

For those who have been following my weekly series called Best Song, you'll be familiar with the popularity of Bing Crosby. With his soothing crooner voice and acting abilities, he was a threat and a box office sensation for the majority of the 1940's. With films like White Christmas, he didn't only make enjoyable movies, but created songs that are still celebrated in the American songbook canon. While Going My Way may not seem like an immediately recognizable name, it has the sole honor of being his only Best Picture win as a lead actor and in fact almost plays as a biographical account of why America loves Crosby.

The film follows Crosby as Father O'Malley as he joins a new church. He is the youthful sort who enjoys going to baseball games and rallying the children into joining the choir. While the movie was banned in Latin American countries for Crosby playing a priest who wears a white shirt, it was a major success at the time at the box office, earning $16 million. However, the film's real magic is that it is a musical about the power of music and how it unifies us. Despite being a veteran, Going My Way was a heavily Irish film that also expressed new ideals that were still conservative, but expressed the changing tide of America during the ongoing World War II. Crosby was an icon who was reliable to entertain in the face of conflict. It is why he remains an inimitable icon.

The interesting twist is that director Leo McCarey didn't initially want Going My Way to be first. He had written the sequel (and future Best Picture nominee) The Bells of St. Mary's first and wrote the film so that he could borrow Crosby from Paramount Studios for RKO. As a result, they were shot sequentially. The film also features the debut of performer Andy Williams and The Little Rascals actor who played Alfalfa are seen performing with the youth choir in the scene featuring the Best Original Song winner "Swinging on a Star." The film was shot in Santa Monica, CA. The film would first premiere publicly at 65 different military locations located internationally, though mostly in Europe.

Going My Way was also a film of distinct honor in other ways. It was the first film to win both Best Picture and Best Original Song. Barry Fitzgerald would also be nominated in the supporting and lead acting categories and remains the only person to hold this honor as rules have since changed to prohibit them. It was also the first time that the Best Picture category had been whittled down to five nominees; a pattern that would hold until 2008 when the category was expanded back to the original 10. Since WWII was still going on, this was the year that the statues were made of plaster. Fitzgerald notoriously won his and broke the head off of it after practicing his golf swing.

While the film isn't as noteworthy in either the Best Picture camp or even Crosby's own filmography, it has garnered an impressive legacy. Following the end of WWII, Crosby and McCarey presented a copy of the film to Pope Pius XII. It was also the film that solidified Crosby as the big box office draw. The Bells of St. Mary's was also successful becoming one of the few sequels to earn a Best Picture nomination on top of being one of the top 50 most successful films of all time (adjusted for inflation). The films reflected an American idealism that Crosby represented while exploring religious and societal films. The sequel would go on to become one of many of Crosby's holiday standards alongside White Christmas

There was later a TV series based and named after the film that starred Fred Clark and Gene Kelly that ran from 1962-1963. Unlike the film, the hour long dramatic series failed to capture an audience and only lasted a season, producing 30 episodes total. Many claim that the series was unable to maintain an audience with heavy competition from the series The Beverly Hillbillies, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and the last half hour of the 90-minute series The Virginian. The series was released on DVD in 2011. MCA, who owned the film through subsidiary EMKA, bought a series of films from RKO in 1957 including Going My Way and thus produced the series through Revue Studios. 

If there's anything that's astounding about Going My Way, it is how it managed to epitomize Crosby's influence on pop culture of the time both on film and off. It was a movie that promoted idealism, played firstly for the troops and spawned its own franchise. While it would seem egregious to think that a film focusing on priests would be nearly as successful nowadays, it is an interesting time capsule of an era when, as the cliche goes, times were simpler and American pride was more rampant in pop culture. It may not be the most entertaining film, but it isn't the worst either. As it stands, it plays to Crosby's strengths and that's worth something.

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