THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Going My Way’ (1944)

In 1945, the 17th Academy Awards ceremony was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1944 and December 31, 1944 the awards were held on March 15. After the Academy agreed the Best Picture category was becoming too broad, and the race to secure a nomination was quite as hotly contested as other categories, it decided to limit the number of nominees to five films. The members also hoped this would bring more prestige to the films deemed worthy of a nomination. The category would remain this way until 2010.

1945 marks the first and only time an actor was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for playing the one role. Barry Fitzgerald scored nominations in both categories for Going My Way, after voters seemingly could not decide if his performance was lead or supporting. This was a time before studios submitted performances for consideration, and thus dictating which category they deemed the performance should be considered for. Fitzgerald ultimately won for Supporting Actor, and the Academy would change their rules to specify a performer could only be nominated in one category per performance, thus avoiding this bizarre feat from ever occurring again.

Going My Way led the field with an incredible ten nominations, and ultimately walked away with seven, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Screenplay. It still stands as one of the most awarded films at the Academy Awards, coming in at equal-fifth.

The nominees:
Double Indemnity
Going My Way
Since You Went Away

The winner:
Going My Way

A saccharinely-sweet musical-drama, Going My Way tells the story of Father Chuck O’Malley (Bing Crosby), a young and unconventional priest who is sent from St. Louis to the St. Dominic’s Church in New York City. Tasked with reviving the languishing parish, Father O’Malley has also been tasked with taking charge of the church from the current pastor, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), who is unbeknown of these new arrangements. After initially greeting Father O’Malley with disdain and a sense of uneasiness at his modern ways, Father Fitzgibbon soon warms to the priest, and the pair work to revitalise the church, and help the local community.  Father O’Malley takes a group of young hoodlums under his wing, and turns them into a choir. And the choir just may be the answer to saving the languishing church.

Why did it win?
Released at a time where victory in World War II was still rather uncertain, Going My Way was the perfect antidote for a country full of cinemagoers in desperate need of some light and escapism. After years of films concerning the war effort, and its devastating results, Americans clearly needed some relief. And who better to provide it than the most beloved performer in the music industry, Bing Crosby? His casting may have been initially met with disdain from critics (in 1944, he was still far better known as a singer than an actor), but audiences didn’t seem to care.

The film was a box-office triumph, taking in $6.5 million in the US to become the highest-grossing film of 1944. It also solidified Crosby as the biggest box-office draw of the year – a title he would hold for the remainder of the 1940s. The songs featured in the film were also wildly successful, with “Swinging on a Star” topping the Billboard singles chart for nine consecutive weeks, and the film’s soundtrack “Selections from Going My Way” also reaching the top of the album chart. There was simply no other film that made an impact on audiences in 1944 quite like Going My Way.

On the critics side, the film received generally favourable reviews. While no one was calling the film groundbreaking or masterful, Crosby was often singled out as the film’s highlight. The New York Times called it “his sturdiest role to date” and Variety writing it was “a tailor-made role,” and the film was “top-notch entertainment for wide audience appeal.” While critics were clearly not taken by the film, they could recognise its purpose and intent, and seemed to overlook the film’s lack of anything genuinely remarkable.

For the relief and joy the film provided its beleaguered audience, it’s clear the Academy found it a perfect piece of cinema to call their Best Picture of 1944. There were certainly better films, but none that spread so much happiness to a nation in need. It was a film the public wanted, and Crosby gave it to them. It’s hard to judge the Academy too harshly for recognising the achievement this film represented.

Did it deserve to win?
In the annals of Academy history, Going My Way does not exactly stand out as one of the greatest to take home Best Picture. When it’s compared to other winners, it doesn’t come close to measuring up. It also doesn’t compare to one of the films it defeated, Double Indemnity – a film many consider to be the beginning of the film noir genre, and the standard of this new form of cinema that would soon become such a Hollywood staple. There’s really nothing special about Going My Way, besides two charming performances and some lovely musical numbers. In a 2017 context, it’s the kind of Sunday afternoon film you can lazily enjoy, but not the sort of movie that’s going to grab or strike you.

That’s not to say the film isn’t particularly good. It’s well written and finely crafted, with subtle and simple direction from Leo McCarey. It’s hard not to be captivated by Crosby, particularly when he starts crooning with those legendary dulcet tones. His character Father O’Malley is kind-hearted and deeply caring, and the message of helping your fellow-man is always a theme that’s going to touch your heart. Likewise with Fitzgerald’s performance, starting out gruff and standoffish, but as his layers unfold, we see the gentle and sweet man beneath his defences. And the film’s climax features a touching surprise for Father Fitzgibbon that will no doubt bring a tear to your eye.

If this film had not been so successful at the Academy Awards, perhaps it would have held up better over the years. But its success of seven awards seems rather ridiculous, given how far greater films have walked away with far less. When you investigate the events surrounding its release and resounding success, you get a better appreciation for just why it won. And maybe a charming and heartwarming film that helped a nation cope with an immensely difficult time isn’t such a bad choice for Best Picture in 1944. That may not make its victory any more deserving, but it does make it a little more understandable.