Film Friday: The Adventures of Father O'Malley, starring Bing Crosby and directed by Leo McCarey

By Daniel S Levine,
A look at 'Going My Way' and 'The Bells of St. Mary's'

In one of the many famous sequences in The Godfather, Kay (Diane Keaton) and Michael (Al Pacino) walk out of Radio City Music Hall, with Kay visibly in tears. Of course, Michael soon learns that his father has been shot, which is far more tragic than anything that had gone on during the movie they just saw. That movie was The Bells of St. Mary's, the sequel to Leo McCarey's 1944 smash Going My Way.

Today, Going My Way seems like a curio, a look at the escapist movies Americans rushed to see during the days of World War II, and The Bells of St. Mary's is an answer to a trivia question. But these two films are much more than that, if you can believe in a world where goodness exists and everyone can learn to see the beauty in life.

Going My Way introduces us to Father Charles O'Malley (Bing Crosby), who is assigned to St. Dominic's Church in New York. There, the elderly Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) has been leading the congregation for over 40 years. Unfortunately, the tough Fitzgibbon is struggling to pay the bills and O'Malley is brought in to save the day. He does much more than that, though, helping thaw Fitzgibbon's personality, helping children stay out of trouble and to teaches the businessmen hounding Fitzgibbon to enjoy more than money.

In 1944, Going My Way became the most successful film since Gone With The Wind and took home seven Oscars in early 1945. The film famously beat Billy Wilder's dark noir masterpiece Double Indemnity, which coincidentally, was also made by Paramount. Even back then though, the Academy went with the crowd-pleaser, and that's exactly what Going My Way was. The film is still charming, if a bit cheesy at points (the children make me cringe...).

The one problem McCarey had with Going My Way is its episodic nature. It really does feel like several little bits strung together, as O'Malley fixes problem after problem. The unifying force of the film is O'Malley's never-ending optimism and faith in people. So much goes on in the film's 126-minute run time, that it doesn't actually feel as long as other movies that fail at putting together a strong, single plotline.

After Going My Way's success, McCarey left Paramount to found his own production company. First on the docket was The Bells of St. Mary's, which picks up right where Going My Way left off. O'Malley moves on to another parish, this time one with a school and a headstrong nun, Sister Superior Benedict (Ingrid Bergman).

St. Mary's is actually much better than Going My Way, a fact that perhaps gets lost because people who don't like the earlier film aren't going to see the sequel. That is a disservice though, as St. Mary's is one, tight 126-minute story, nothing like Going My Way.

The only key relationship in this film is O'Malley's rapport with Benedict. Her school's financial difficulties is central to the plot and the only problem O'Malley has to fix. If they can't get a new building – preferably the one being built by businessman Bogardus (Henry Travers) – the school will be condemned.

It helps that Bing Crosby has Ingrid Bergman in St. Mary's. Sure, Barry Fitzgerald and the rest of the supporting cast for Going My Way were some of the best character actors available to McCarey, but you always feel that Crosby is carrying that film solo. It's certainly not the case with St. Mary's, as the great Bergman often out-acts Crosby and pushes him to prove his own skills.

On Home Video: Going My Way is owned by Universal, which has only released it on DVD sadly. Paramount does somehow own St. Mary's and licensed it to Olive Films, which recently released it on Blu-ray. It's very odd that the sequel is available in hi-def, but not the original.

With Father O'Malley, McCarey and Crosby had a character that America could latch on to during the war. Sure, he was religious, but he was not a slave to convention. O'Malley always found a way to make life better for everyone he met, whether it was helping a girl meet the right guy or helping a businessman understand his true calling. Sentimentality is the name of the game here, but there is nothing wrong with that when it is presented so well and enjoyably.

Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's are both far more fun than they should be, decades after their release, especially the second film. It's really surprising how great St. Mary's is and how much better it is than My Way. McCarey revives the light touch of humor that made his screwball comedies the best and mixes it with the tear-jerking talents perfected in Make Way For Tomorrow. If you'd rather swing on a star than be a pig, these are the movies for you.

You can talk about this film and others at the Film Friday Facebook page. You can check out past Film Friday columns here.

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