When I began The Legionnaire, one of my initial thoughts was to not talk about movies that are self-consciously Catholic. My logic was to cover the ones that have nothing to do with my Faith in order to show how aspects of popular motion pictures can reveal Christianity. Often, this takes some mental gymnastics, but the effort is worth it. To be able to see the world and the things in it through the lens of Jesus is a personal goal, and one to which we are all called. Now that we are approaching 1,000 films reviewed, I can open up to the ones that one might expect from a blog such as this one. Indeed, when I first began brainstorming about it (and the same thing happened with my dissertation, “‘The Costumed Catholic’: Catholics, Whiteness, and the Movies, 1928-1973”), the one movie that would first come to people’s lips when I discussing these ideas was Going My Way (1944). Inwardly, I would roll my eyes. It is a particularly bad fault of mine that I can be dismissive of the obvious. Hence, consider this the beginning of me for making amends for that sin.
We begin Going My Way with Father Chuck O’Malley (Bing Crosby), topped with a jaunty straw boater, showing up in the struggling New York City parish of St. Dominic. His first impression is not the greatest, and the straw boater is a small part of it. Initially, an unspoken reason for this is the fact that he has been sent to the parish by the bishop to turn around its fortunes, though he does not tell its aged pastor Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). While Father Fitzgibbon interrogates the new arrival about his habits, Father O’Malley’s friend Father Timothy O’Dowd (Frank McHugh) stops by to entice Father O’Malley to playing golf. Father Fitzgibbon sees such pursuits as silly, and Father O’Dowd almost lets Father O’Malley’s position slip before being shushed. Introductions concluded, Father O’Malley settles in to parish life. What emerges in this sequence is the different styles that Fathers Fitzgibbon and O’Malley have for handling these affairs. Though Father Fitzgibbon is well-loved by the parishioners, Father O’Malley takes a more direct approach. The first time their differences truly comes out is in the handling of a local gang of boys led by Tony Scaponi (Stanley Clements). They steal a turkey from a delivery truck nearby. In their escape attempt, they run through the church grounds and are met by Father Fitzgibbon, who is out on a stroll. Their excuse, which Father Ftizgibbon accepts, is that they are bringing the animal to the church. Later, the regular beat cop tells Father O’Malley that the kids had pilfered the fowl. Father O’Malley informs Father Fitzgibbon of the crime just as they are sitting down to dine on the bird. Father O’Malley instead decides to befriend the boys. He takes them to baseball games, and does other things to redirect their energies. In return, he asks that they form a choir. The noise of their practices prompts Father Fitzgibbon to go to the bishop and ask that Father O’Malley be transferred. It is then that Father Fitzgibbon learns the truth of Father O’Malleys position. When Father Fitzgibbon returns to the parish, he dramatically hands his authority to Father O’Malley and decides to leave, though he is soon found and returned. The other issue is what to do about the late teenage runaway Carol James (Jean Heather). She is also brought to the parish by the police, and when she arrives she is greeted by Father O’Malley, who (being Bing Crosby) is sitting at the piano. He tries to reason with her somewhat, but such is her headstrong nature that she insists that she does not need her parents and that she can survive on her own as a singer. Father O’Malley agrees to help her with her singing, and puts her up in one of the unoccupied apartments owned by the parish’s primary mortgage holder, Ted Haines Sr. (Gene Lockhart). After some time, Father O’Malley pays a visit, and notices that Carol is not entirely alone. Mr. Haines comes, too, and it is clear that he is not happy about the arrangement. Carol has taken up with Mr. Haines son, Ted Haines Jr. (James Brown). Before Mr. Haines could get too upset, though, they reveal that they have gotten married in anticipation of Junior going away to fight in World War II. This softens Mr. Haines considerably towards Carol and St. Dominic’s. The final hurdle to be cleared is the church’s financial troubles. Using the connections that Father O’Malley has with rising opera star Genevieve Linden (Risë Stevens), whom he knew from before he was a priest, they arrange to have their choir sing before a record producer. Though initially unimpressed, they persevere and secure a contract with enough money to save the parish. It is also enough for it to also survive a fire. Such are the relationships that Father O’Malley has built that they are able to pull together and commit to rebuilding. Father O’Malley has one last gift for Father Fitzgibbon, bringing the aged priest his even more aged and beloved mother (Adeline De Walt Reyonolds) from Ireland. And with an Irish ditty playing in the background, Father O’Malley slips quietly into the night.
If there is one Going My Way has, it is that it has its share of schmaltz. Part of this you can blame on the era. The movie was made during World War II, and many motion pictures of the time portrayed a picture of domestic bliss meant to cheer people through dark times. Still, what is wrong with a little schmaltz? One of the prevailing stereotypes about Catholicism is that it is a faith of doom and gloom. This thoroughly Catholic movie presents a different side of the Faith. There is, of course, the day-to-day running of things. As somebody who has worked in a few parishes, this aspect of the movie had an air of familiarity. What I wonder is whether people looked at the relatively opulent looking rectory and other surroundings and were mystified by the financial trouble. There are two reasons why this is not the correct way of thinking. First, the buildings are old, and they display an aesthetic from a different time when more care was put into how things looked. Secondly, as Father O’Malley puts it, the Church does not have or want anything. A good illustration of this is the turkey incident. While it is the result of ill-gotten gains, it is something that they did not previously have, and as providence would have it, ended up in their possession. The clergy, and the whole Church by extension, carries on based on this kind of generosity, without the stealing part. The biggest way that the Church is a source of joy comes through Father O’Malley’s singing. The title song is meant to represent the way that God is the best way of bringing one closer to happiness. This is reflected in the parish community at the end. They are all better off for the good deeds they have done. The Church would tell you this is an example of God showing His love for His people. I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly.
I am not aware of any parish that has survived because of the kinds of efforts you see in Going My Way, but I suppose it is not out of the realm of possibility. Still, if you take out the singing and relationships with famous opera singers, you have a nice little snapshot of parish life. A key component of being a Christian is being a part of a community. That was one of the more damaging aspects of the COVID lockdown: people were not allowed to congregate anywhere, much less at their churches. I have yet to see my own parish return to the numbers that it had before the lockdown, and that is worrisome. Yet, if the film is any lesson, it is that God provides. Hopefully, people will watch this movie and take more part in their community.