Sunday, October 26, 2014

Going My Way is a film of a certain age, and has one of my all-time favorite endings.

Leo McCarey was a deeply religious film director who got his start in silent pictures. Handsome and talle, McCarey wanted to be a songwriter and actor, and through a friend got a job as an assistant director to Tod Browning in 1919. He proved an adept comedy director and writer, and moved to the Hal Roach Studio. He helped pair Laurel and Hardy, and wrote and directed most of their early films. He easily made the transition to sound, directing Gloria Swanson, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup), Mae West, and Charles Laughton (Ruggles of Red Gap). His career seemed over in 1937 when he directed Make Way for Tomorrow a film about an elderly couple during the Great Depression who have to split up in order to live with their greedy, disrespectful children. His contract at Paramount was dropped, and he took an odd job at Columbia Pictures directing the B-movie star Cary Grant.

The picture he made was The Awful Truth, which starred Grant and Irene Dunne as a couple who divorce, only to realize they are still in love. The film was a smash hit, and got nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor (Ralph Bellamy), and Best Screenplay (Viña Delmar). McCarey won for Best Director, but the picture lost in all other categories. McCarey followed it up with the smash hit Love Affair (RKO). Once more, a film of Leo McCarey's was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Dunne), Best Supporting Actress (Maria Ouspenskaya), Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Song. It didn't win a single award. McCarey tried to follow up on The Awful Truth with a semi-sequel, My Favorite Wife, but he was in a bad automobile accident and was unable to direct the picture.

McCarey's career skidded to a halt during World War II, largely due to problems outside his control. He had a three-picture deal with RKO, but despite endless work none of the scripts met with the approval of studio head Howard Hughes. McCarey moved back to Paramount, where he directed a lackluster rom-com (Once Upon a Honeymoon with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers). Another year of work led to a series of failed scripts.

McCarey sister had entered a convent and taken vows. McCarey himself was moving more and more rightward politically, deeply influenced by ultra-conservative radio priests and the Vatican's relentless campaign against "godless Communism". McCarey very much wanted begin making religious pictures and films with a strong anti-communist bent. But with the war on, and the Soviet Union a firm ally, anti-communism was out. So McCarey decided on religion.

Going My Way became the film. Released in 1944, it stars Bing Crosby as young priest Father O'Malley sent to take over a failing Roman Catholic parish from the crotchety old Father Fitzgibbon (played by Barry Fitzgerald). The film touched lightly on issues of hooliganism, young girls on their own, and the passing of the older generation (due to changes being wrought by the war). World War II was completely ignored by the picture, which was highly unusual. But Going My Way nonetheless managed to touch on the issues raised by the war in highly metaphorical ways.

Going My Way was the highest-grossing picture of 1944. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning seven -- Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Crosby), Best Supporting Actor (Fitzgerald), Best Screenplay, Best Original Story, and Best Original Song ("Swinging on a Star"). Fitzgerald was nominated for Best Actor for the same role, which Academy rules permitted at the time. (That changed after his double-nomination.) The film also lost the Best B&W Cinematography and Best Editing noms.

It is this scene at the end that always makes me cry. The church has suffered a terrible fire, just as things were going well. Risë Stevens (a real-life opera singer) has taken the church choir on the road for a series of concerts, which is raising money for the rebuilding. Father Fitztgibbon's crisis of confidence has passed, and it's now Christmas...

A while back, Fitzgibbon admitted to O'Malley that he hasn't gone home to Ireland in 55 years. Every time he has some money saved up to make the trip, something else comes up that requires him to spend his cash on the church. If he has one regret in life, it's that he won't be able to see his mother again -- a woman now in her 90s, whom he has not seen since leaving Ireland.

As Christmas Eve services begin in the blackened ruins of the church, the choir begins to hum "Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral (That's An Irish Lullaby)" (a song written in 1914, but not popularly known until this film used it). As Fitzgerald smiles indulgently as the choir, his aged mother comes in a side door. She hobbles toward her son, arms reaching out. He sees her, begins to weep, and hides his face against the crook of her neck.

Outside in the snow, O'Malley departs, off to save another failing parish somewhere else...

It gets me every time. I tear up just writing about it.

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