The film, starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, was the top box office hit of 1944 and few were surprised when it claimed seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But what made the achievement particularly noteworthy was the fact that the film portrayed Catholicism in an overwhelmingly positive way. For American Catholics, particularly Irish-American Catholics, it was a clear indication they’d gained a significant measure of acceptance.
“Going My Way” told the endearing story of Fr. Chuck O’Malley (played by Bing Crosby), an amiable young priest sent to save St. Dominic’s, a faltering parish in one of New York City’s tougher sections. The pastor, a crusty old cleric (Fr. Fitzgibbon) played to perfection by Barry Fitzgerald, has presided over the parish’s decline but is leery of the new priest he knows has been sent to set things right. The parish’s wayward youth, on the other hand, take an instant liking to him, especially when they discover that he once had a tryout with the St. Louis Browns and played in a jazz band. Before long O’Malley has the group of ruffians refashioned into the St. Dominic’s choir.
But for all his credentials attesting to his being what a later generation would call “cool” (an athlete and a jazz singer), O’Malley also exudes propriety and restraint, qualities considered essential in a “man of the cloth.” Midway in the film, he meets up with an old girlfriend (played by Rise Stevens) who’s gone into show biz. Standing in her dressing room at the Metropolitan Opera while she changes in an adjacent room, the two catch up on each other’s lives. At one point, she asks through the door why he stopped writing her while she was traveling the world. “What happened, Chuck?” Just at that moment she steps into the room to find that Chuck has removed his raincoat, revealing to her for the first time his clerical collar. “Father Chuck!” she exclaims in giddy surprise.
Another overriding message in the film is optimism about the possibility that anyone can overcome obstacles and succeed providing they are willing to make sacrifices.
“All the songs are songs of aspiration, cultural uplift, and deferred
gratification,” wrote theologian Dennis O’Brien in a 1995 essay in Commonweal.
“The Academy Award winning ‘Swinging on a Star’ is sung by a street gang converted into the Saint Dominic’s choir. The point of the song is that if you don’t go to school, you may grow up to be a mule. On the other hand, attention to the books, and you ‘could be swinging on a star.’ . . . Gratification is deferred — happiness is down the line.”
The film was released in May (interesting, since these days it’s usually shown as at Christmas) and became an instant hit. The light, heartwarming story offered a welcome escape during those tense months of World War II (D-Day would come in June). So too did the string of popular songs that came from the score, especially “Swinging on a Star” (9 weeks at No. 1 on the charts), “Too Rah Loo Rah Loo Rah,” and “Day After Forever.” When the nominations for Academy Awards were announced, “Going My Way” captured nine.
On Oscar night in March 1945, celebrities filed into Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles to see host Bob Hope present the awards. “Going My Way” won seven Oscars, including Best Motion Picture, Best Actor (Bing Crosby), Best Supporting Actor (Barry Fitzgerald), Best Directing (Leo McCarey), Best Song (“Swinging on a Star” written by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen), Best Original Story: (Leo McCarey), and Best Screenplay (Butler and Cavett). Another Irish American, Ethel Barrymore, also won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “None But the Lonely Heart.”
“Going My Way” was not the first Hollywood film to depict a Catholic priest in a positive light. “Boys Town” in 1938 had Spencer Tracy portray an admirable and likeable Fr. Flanagan. But the story had a missionary quality to it, set in remote Omaha in the 1920s and ’30s. “Going My Way,” on the other hand, was set in a typical urban parish, one the audience regardless of their faith could relate to. Many similar films followed, including, of course, the sequel “Bells of Saint Mary’s” (1945), which saw Father Chuck come to the aid of a nun played by Ingrid Bergman.
Father O’Malley helped change Protestant America’s impression of Catholicism and its compatibility with American values. Gone was the sinister priest of the Know Nothing era who plotted the overthrow of the American republic in the name of the pope. In his place was an icon of American virtue, manhood, patriotism, and restraint.
Fr. O’Malley also left a deep mark on American Catholics. He became the iconic parish priest against whom all real priests would be judged for generations to come. He was, of course, too perfect, but few Catholics actually expected their parish priests to be just like him. Still, Fr. O’Malley represented a high ideal in an era of rising expectations for American Catholics, one that brought a rising tide of eager young men into American seminaries in the 1950s. That ideal began to crumble with the turmoil that rocked the Church in the 1960s. What remained of it by the late 1990s has been eradicated in the wake of the most recent scandals.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
March 14, 1991: After 16 years in prison for their alleged role in two pub bombings in Birmingham, England, the “Birmingham Six” are released after serious questions are raised about the evidence used to convict them.
March 15, 1875: Archbishop John McCloskey of New York is invested as the first American cardinal.
March 17, 1737: the Boston Charitable Irish Society holds the first recorded celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in America.
March 12, 1832: Irish land agent Captain Boycott born in Norfolk, England.
March 13, 1913: Spymaster William Casey in Queens, N.Y.
March 17, 1777: Roger B. Taney,, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and author of the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, is born in Calvert Co. Md.