Popcorn & Inspiration: ‘Going My Way’ From 1944: Faith From the Emerald Isle

Films that uplift the soul
March 14, 2020 Updated: March 16, 2020
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Celebrating all things Irish on St. Patrick’s Day can mean more than leprechauns and green beer. The Feast of St. Patrick is a religious holiday honoring the Irish faith, not “plastic Paddy” commercialism. One film that honors Irish traditions and faith is Leo McCarey’s 1944 “Going My Way.” This movie centers on two Irish priests of a New York City parish who disagree on issues of formality while struggling to save their church. It shows how faith can make life “bright and beautiful.”

Father Charles O’Malley (Bing Crosby) arrives in town as the new assistant pastor at St. Dominic’s. After finally finding the church, he meets Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), a stubborn older priest whom he immediately displeases. Father O’Malley came to St. Dominic’s to help its failing finances, since it has a hefty mortgage and a heartless landlord (Gene Lockhart).

Going My Way poster
Poster for the 1944 film “Going My Way.” (Paramount Pictures)

Little does Father Fitzgibbon know that the bishop sent Father O’Malley to run the church without informing Fitzgibbon. Although hampered by their disagreements, Father O’Malley is determined to help St. Dominic’s and the community.

The neighborhood is filled with young hoodlums. Realizing the boys need guidance, Father O’Malley befriends them by taking them to a baseball game. Then, after earning their trust, he organizes the reluctant rascals into a choir.

Meanwhile, he advises a young woman who left home with aspirations to be a singer, Carol James (Jean Heather). When she attracts the attention of the landlord’s son Ted (James Brown), he sets the young couple on the right path.

Before becoming a priest, Father O’Malley contemplated being a composer. He still enjoys singing, playing the piano, and composing. He decides to use his talent to earn the church some much-needed money. His boyhood friend, Father Tim O’Dowd (Frank McHugh), arranges for him to present one of his songs to a music publisher (William Frawley). Meanwhile, Father Fitzgibbon begins to see Father O’Malley’s good heart.

3 Types of Music

Since this film stars Bing Crosby, a famous crooner, it features popular music. Although he couldn’t be too jazzy as a priest, he does sing three new songs. After Carol James tells Father O’Malley that she wants to be a singer, she demonstrates by singing “The Day After Forever.” But Father O’Malley shows her a more emotional rendering, teaching her that real feeling beats schmaltz. Later, O’Malley and his boys’ choir (the Robert Mitchell Boy Choir) sing “Swingin’ on a Star” (which won the Academy Award for Best Song). The film’s musical climax is the beautiful title song, which summarizes O’Malley’s views on faith.

Bing Crosby is not this film’s only famous musician. Risë Stevens, a Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano, plays Father O’Malley’s old friend Genevieve Linden. Linden performs the famous “Habanera” from “Carmen,” a role for which Miss Stevens would become famous. Linden also sings “Going My Way” with the boys’ choir for the publisher.

In Risë Stevens’s second of only two Hollywood films, this lovely singer brought opera to the masses.

Since this film has a religious setting, it also features beautiful sacred music. Most notably, Genevieve Linden sings “Ave Maria” by Schubert, accompanied by the once unruly boys’ angelic voices. The other hymn is “Silent Night,” a Christmas carol that Father O’Malley sings with his boys’ choir. This film has music for all tastes.

A Great Day for the Irish

When this film was made, the Irish were very influential in Hollywood. In addition to stars Bing Crosby and James Cagney, supporting actors Frank McHugh and Alan Hale, and directors Leo McCarey and John Ford, many of Hollywood’s insiders were Irish. Irishman Joseph I. Breen was the Production Code administrator from 1934–1954 and ensured that films followed the Motion Picture Production Code guidelines for acceptable film content throughout production. The Code was co-written by Martin Quigley, an Irish film-trade paper publisher.

The Code forbade insulting nationalities. This included the Irish, who were often caricatured as brawling drunks. Resenting this stereotype, the 100 percent Irish Mr. Breen demanded fair, dignified representation of his ethnicity. As “Going My Way” shows, 20th-century Irish Americans were serious and moral as well as fun-loving. Although playful, they cherished family and prized their Catholic faith.

Joseph Breen’s grandson Jack Benton recalls that there were two “tribes” in old Hollywood, the Jewish and the Irish. For the 20 years when Hollywood’s morals were supervised by a popular member of the latter, it was, as the song title claims, “A Great Day for the Irish.”

An Irish Lullaby

Earning over $38 million worldwide, “Going My Way” was 1944’s highest-earning film. It was critically acclaimed, receiving enthusiastic reviews from The New York Times and Variety. In addition, it received seven Academy Award wins, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Bing Crosby), Best Supporting Actor (Barry Fitzgerald), Best Director, Best Original Story, and Best Screenplay. It also won Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (Fitzgerald).

going my way with barry fitzgerald and bing crosby
Barry Fitzgerald (L) and Bing Crosby in “Going My Way.” (Paramount Pictures)

It’s easy to understand this movie’s popularity. Its charming simplicity is still heartwarming and inspiring. Father O’Malley shows that you can enjoy life while serving a higher purpose and helping others. Life can be cheerful and pious.

Father O’Malley’s choice to serve God instead of his career is very moving. Although a talented singer, a gifted composer, and a handsome man, he decided to “go my way.” His way meant that he helps a young couple, wayward boys, and even Father Fitzgibbon, as well as motivating his friends. Of course, we in the audience are inspired too.

You don’t have to be Irish to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and you don’t need to be Catholic to appreciate this film. Although the protagonists are Catholic priests, it isn’t overtly religious. It’s more about faith’s uplifting power than Catholicism.

When you’re wearing the green on St. Patrick’s Day, complete the celebration with “Going My Way.” Your heart will be warmed as O’Malley sings “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral,” an Irish lullaby with music box accompaniment. Like everyone at St. Dominic’s, you will be happier for knowing the good Father.

‘Going My Way’
Director: Leo McCarey
Starring: Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Frank McHugh, James Brown, Gene Lockhart, Risë Stevens
Not Rated
Running Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Released: May 3, 1944 
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Tiffany Brannan is an 18-year old opera singer, Hollywood historian, travel writer, film blogger, vintage fashion expert, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.