Monday, January 17, 2011

John Ford Prints the Legend: My Darling Clementine

Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs in My Darling Clementine.

In 1966, John Ford told film critic and fledgling director Peter Bogdanovich that he had known Wyatt Earp back in the early days of Hollywood, when the aging former marshal of Dodge City and Tombstone would visit the sets of the silent Westerns Ford then worked on as a prop boy. “I used to give him a chair and a cup of coffee,” Ford said, “and he told me about the fight at the O.K. Corral. So in My Darling Clementine we did it exactly the way it had been.”

Ford did know Wyatt Earp, who no doubt told him some version of what took place during the infamous gunfight, but history tells us that the shootout, as portrayed in Clementine, was not the way it actually happened. Of course, it doesn’t matter. As the newspaperman told Senator Ransom Stoddard in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

My Darling Clementine is arguably the best Western by the best director of Westerns in the history of motion pictures, and it may very well represent the apex of John Ford’s long and distinguished career. It was made a few years past the mid point of his filmic pilgrimage, 1946: the first full year of peace following World War II, which was undoubtedly the defining event of both the 20th century and of Ford’s life. (He served as head of the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services, a wartime forerunner of the CIA, and he actually shot 16mm footage of—and was wounded at—the Battle of Midway. He also participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.) As filmmaker and critic Lindsay Anderson observed, Ford's masterful and groundbreaking 1939 Western Stagecoach was prose, very good prose; by comparison, My Darling Clementine was poetry.

 John Ford, 1960. 

His recurring theme of manifest destiny and the inevitable settling of the American frontier, which he treated as progress in his early years (The Iron Horse, Drums Along the Mohawk), and with bittersweet melancholy later (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Cheyenne Autumn) is in full flower in Clementine. The latter day melancholy begins to reveal itself here, possibly due, in part at least, to his experiences in the most devastating war in human history. Film critic and historian Tag Gallagher, in his excellent book John Ford: The Man and His Films goes so far as to view My Darling Clementine as allegory: "Wyatt Earp (the U.S.) gives up marshaling in Dodge City (World War I), but takes up arms again to combat the Clantons (World War II) to make the world safe."

Henry Fonda (also just back from the war), who had been Ford’s perennial leading man prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, plays a sanguine, almost lethargic Wyatt Earp, a classic Fordian hero, removed from society, quietly confident and basically nonviolent, but nevertheless commanding the utter respect of others, partly because of his reputation, which has preceded him, and its inherent threat of violence. And, typically for a Fordian hero, he is ultimately unable to share in the peace and security that he makes possible for others.

It is perhaps Fonda’s finest performance. He never appeared more cool and comfortable in a role as he does portraying the legendary marshal of Tombstone, laconically and assuredly inhabiting and policing the lawless frontier town. Even when displaying exasperation he possesses something like a controlled grace. Early in the film he is getting a long overdue shave, when it is abruptly interrupted by gunfire. Bullets shatter the windows and mirrors of the tonsorial parlor, yet the main reason Wyatt goes to the trouble of incapacitating the offending party is not for the sake of securing his or anyone else’s safety, but apparently so that he can finish his shave in peace.

In contrast to Wyatt’s commanding calm, Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), another outcast from civilization, is a haunted, tragic figure. The first augury of Ford’s encroaching postwar cynicism is visible in him, which would culminate ten years later in The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards. We learn that Doc was once a surgeon (the real Doc Holliday was a dentist, another negligible historical discrepancy), a valued, functioning member of society, his career presumably cut short by alcoholism, consumption and perhaps other undisclosed ghosts which apparently still haunt him. As a traveling player, “Mr. Shakespeare” Thorndyke (Alan Mowbray), falters during a coerced rendition of Hamlet’s soliloquy, we see in Doc’s eyes a mournful identification with the tragic Shakespearean character as he recites the remaining lines:

But that the dread of something after death
…makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than to fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.

The consumption from which Doc suffers—his internal bleeding—takes on new meaning during his recitation.

Victor Mature and J. Farrell MacDonald 

Family, whether extended, military, community or immediate, is all to Ford, and the mother, or mother figure, the provider and nurturer of life, reigns supreme within the Ford movie family. Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Beth Morgan in How Green Was My Valley, Mrs. Jorgensen in The Searchers, all hold a special office in the hierarchy of Ford’s universe. The Clanton family, a conspicuously motherless, miscreant tribe—as the Cleggs would be in Wagonmaster—are the antithesis of Ford’s family idyll. They are the embodiment of demented evil, a malignancy that must be expurgated from the landscape of Tombstone in order for the community to survive and move forward. Headed by Pa Clanton (played by the multifaceted Walter Brennan with ominous, understated vitriol), the father of the clan, they steal the Earps’ cattle herd, which has been left under the guard of 18-year-old James Earp. Pa murders James, thus providing the impetus for Wyatt and his two remaining brothers, Morgan (Ward Bond) and Virgil (Tim Holt), to stay in Tombstone and assume the roles of marshal and deputies.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Paradise, Once Lost, Returns

Unlike Frank Sinatra, who elevated the long-playing record album to a near art form after reinventing himself in the early 1950s (with a big assist from Nelson Riddle), the crux of Bing Crosby’s career came in the pre-LP era of the 78 rpm single. In those days a record album consisted of four, five or six of these singles packaged together in a physical album, with record sleeves bound between cardboard covers like pages in a book, and they were usually compilations of previously released material. Partly because of this, Bing’s name rarely comes up when the phrase “classic album” (read: 33 & 1/3 rpm long-playing record) is bandied about, and he has therefore been largely forgotten by at least the last couple of generations of music buyers—unlike the crop of singers who came after and were influenced by him: Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., et al., who made the LP format (and nightclubs) their principality.

Bing did in fact record quite a few memorable albums in his later years, but by that time, after his 20-year contract with Decca had run out, he had gone freelance, farming out his talents to a variety of labels starting in the late ‘50s. In the years since his death the contents of those albums were more or less scattered to the winds, showing up on various compilations here and there, if at all.

As they disappeared, so did the legacy of the most popular entertainer of the first half of the 20th century. Did you know that Bing Crosby began his career as a jazz singer and that he popularized the use of the then-new electronic microphone? That he had more #1 singles than any other recording artist, including Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Michael Jackson? That he was among the top ten movie box office attractions for a span of nearly 20 years? That his radio shows (radio being the TV of the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s) ranked in the top 20 for nearly 25 years?

The recently formed Bing Crosby Archives, in conjunction with Collector’s Choice and under the auspices of the Crosby family, is in the process of reversing the unfortunate series of events that has obscured Bing’s achievements. In the past year they’ve released a slew of his albums to CD, along with several dozen pristine radio recordings that hadn’t been heard since the 1950s, plus several TV specials not seen since their original decades-ago air dates. Included in this embarrassment of riches for Crosby aficionados are a couple of early ‘60s treasures, El Señor Bing and Return to Paradise Islands.

Truth be told, though I've been a Crosby fan for just about two decades now, I'd never found El Señor Bing quite enticing enough to pull off of the old record shelf with any level of regularity, and not just because putting a bulky vinyl record on a turntable became an increasingly inconvenient task in a world of first CD, then MP3, technology. But after listening to this newly re-mastered Collector's Choice release a couple of times, it has jumped several notches on the Bing-O-meter.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Capra's Masterpiece

Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe.

1941 was a watershed year in American cinema. It was the year of the bold and groundbreaking Citizen Kane, the breathtaking and heart wrenching How Green Was My Valley, the grippingly patriotic Sergeant York, the sobering, frightening fable, The Devil and Daniel Webster, the pioneering noir classic by which all others are measured, The Maltese Falcon, the brilliant and hilarious send-up of gangster films, Ball of Fire, and the ultimate thinking man’s comedy, Sullivan’s Travels. All are landmarks in the cinematic landscape, which hold up amazingly well today. But director Frank Capra’s fanfare for the common man, Meet John Doe, also released that year, was arguably the greatest achievement in the careers of Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, character actor James Gleason, and Capra himself.

Gary Cooper was in three of the classics mentioned above, and few actors have ever made a better showing in a twelve-month stretch. Coop availed himself admirably enough as a real life hero forced to make a life changing decision in the Howard Hawks-directed World War I drama Sergeant York to take home 1941’s Academy Award for Best Actor. He displayed impressive comedic chops as a vulnerable and awkward academic with integrity in Hawks’ Ball of Fire (which also co-starred Stanwyck). Either of these performances, let alone both, would be enough to elevate any actor to legendary status. Yet in Doe, Cooper, as Long John Willoughby, a down-on-his-luck, dead armed baseball pitcher who is persuaded to portray the fictitious John Doe, managed to transcend even himself in an acting tour de force that elicits laughter, tears, and the gamut of emotions in between.

One could cite any number of scenes as examples, but a moment that particularly stands out for me is when the people of a small town come forward to tell John what the burgeoning John Doe movement means to them and how it has changed their lives. Cooper displays, in his face, wordlessly, an eloquent range of nakedly moving emotions as he listens, at first reluctantly, to their stories—culminating in an utterly indescribable look of shame, modesty, guilt and love as an elderly woman kisses his hand.

Stanwyck is at her most effervescent as the street savvy but idealistic columnist Ann Mitchell, who creates, then falls hard for, Cooper’s Doe. She’s in there fighting not only for her man, but also for the ideals her late father taught her, which she infuses into the stirring, heartfelt speeches she writes for John. And we pull for her as she overcomes manipulation and machination by repugnant powers-that-be while fighting for what is right.

Left to right: Walter Brennan, Cooper, Irving Bacon, Stanwyck, James Gleason.

This was undoubtedly James Gleason’s finest hour, as Stanwyck’s boss, the seen-it-all, hard-bitten newspaper editor Henry Connell. His drunk scene in a diner with Cooper, in which he eloquently sums up the value of freedom and why it’s worth defending, to the death if necessary, is enough to stir men’s souls—which of course was the intention. He’s speaking from a late 1940 perspective—with war raging in Europe and Asia and an unemployment rate of 14.5% at home, the twin threats of fascism and communism are very real—hearkening back to “lighthouses in a foggy world”: Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. But looking back today through the spectrum of what has transpired in the seventy years since, it’s difficult not to get a little choked up by the stirring lines penned by screenwriters Robert Riskin and Myles Connolly, and Gleason’s masterful, off-the-cuff delivery of them.

More than a passing nod is due Edward Arnold, as the personification of opportunistic corporate-political evil, D. B. Norton, and to the incredibly versatile Walter Brennan (who also supported Cooper in Sergeant York) as Doe’s Jiminy Cricket-like conscience and sidekick, who is referred to only as “the Colonel.”

The main character’s correlation to Christ is undeniable, and Connell even makes a reference to Pontius Pilate following what can only be described as a crucifixion scene. Capra, who was Roman Catholic, imbues his hero with the Christ-like characteristics of a sacrificial lamb, offering him up for the greater good of Mankind. Ultimately, though, Doe’s motives aren’t quite on the level of  “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” as his intentions are somewhat vindictively (though perhaps justifiably) geared toward sticking it to the D. B. Nortons of the world. Ultimately, Ann convinces him that his sacrifice is unnecessary, that “the first John Doe” took care of it nearly 2,000 years ago, again drawing a Christ comparison, and on Christmas Eve no less.

John contemplates the ultimate sacrifice.

Though most would choose It’s a Wonderful Life as Frank Capra’s crowning work in a heartbeat, I can’t help but lean toward the somewhat forgotten John Doe. Capra was at the top of both his game and the movie world when he began shooting Doe in the summer of 1940, teamed with his best screenwriter, Riskin. Though his achievements would eventually be eclipsed by those of the great John Ford, he was at the time the most decorated director in Hollywood, having won three Oscars in the previous five years. His hallmark optimism and populism are palpable in nearly every frame of Doe, and while this film and Wonderful Life both celebrate the exceptional everyman, Doe resonates as a more personal work.

With rampant unemployment serving as the impetus for nearly everything that transpires in the film and a nationwide grassroots movement of the people as its centerpiece, plus ominous allusions to a new world order, Meet John Doe is open to a variety of sociopolitical interpretations from a 21st century perspective, which I’ll leave to you. But more than a few of the warnings and lessons therein are certainly pertinent today. What we are left with in the final analysis is a wonderful, thought provoking, inspirational film, with all the best of what the Hollywood studio system had to offer at its peak, by one of its finest directors.

© Jon Oye, 2011

Friday, January 14, 2011

Seamless Blending of the Sublime and Ridiculous: The Jayne Mansfield Collection (The Girl Can't Help It / The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw / Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?)

This long overdue collection (released by 20th Century Fox in 2006) deserves a place on your DVD shelf as much for archeological as entertainment value. The two Frank Tashlin-directed films The Girl Cant Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, which parody the more garish aspects of Fifties life but manage to work equally well as celebrations of it, make this set worth the price. The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw is icing, provided by the otherwise formidable Raoul Walsh.

The Girl Cant Help It is unlike any other film of its time, or of any other time for that matter. Equal parts comedy, love story, Hollywood musical, gangster movie parody, comic book fantasy, crass titillation, live action cartoon and rock n’ roll road show, it somehow succeeds in engaging the viewer to the point that he or she genuinely likes the main characters—even the felonious ones—and inexplicably soars above and beyond the sum of its parts. Sentimentality is held in check by the adept lunacy of the script, broad visual humor, and the strategic inclusion of then-embryonic rock acts, and perhaps its those acts that cause the film to transcend itself.

The rock n’ roll, rockabilly, and R&B stars, near misses, and never-would-be’s featured in TGCHI are showcased regally. This isnt one of those low budget, black and white, Alan Freed-mentored roxploitation vehicles that were so common at the time. While the acts are presented in a more or less traditional manner for popular musicians in movies (similar to the way, say, Glenn Miller or Harry James were in the 40s), theyre nevertheless the recipients of some perks that were usually reserved for A-list leading ladies and men, such as dramatic, heroic low angle shots, dollying boom shots, eye-popping color by de Luxe, and the grandeur of Cinemascope,” suggesting that something bigger than life was being archived for the ages. With the benefit 20-20 hindsight, we now know that it was. 

Abbey Lincoln spreads the word. 

Or at least in the cases of Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, The Platters, Abbey Lincoln, the Treniers, and Fats Domino—the same, sadly, can’t be said of the Chuckles, Johnny Olenn, and a few others. But, after all, rock n’ roll was still a new thing in 1956, foreign to an incredulous world of worrying adults. Many no doubt thought it a passing fad, a novelty—as a result, every type of youth act the kids might have possibly liked was thrown in for the purpose of reaping immediate dividends. Perhaps, strange as it may seem, the producers saw no difference between Little Richard and The Chuckles, other than the color of their skin. On the other hand, the naiveté of including those otherwise long forgotten performers on the same bill as soon-to-be bona fide immortals adds a certain charm to the film, as well as a sense of time and place of an increasingly distant, more innocent past.

Besides the music and top-drawer production values, an engaging story and some solid actors (Seven Year Itch alum Tom Ewell, Academy Award winner Edmond O’Brien, and Jayne Mansfield, who does a spot-on impersonation of Marilyn Monroe) all playing to the hilt for laughs help to elevate the film above the B-level status it seems likely to have been originally slated for. Director Tashlin, who honed his chops in the trenches of Warner Brothers’ storied “Termite Terrace” as an animation director, can’t resist exceeding a reasonable quota of sight gags and visual irony, which negates any possibility of the love story waxing maudlin.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bruce Springsteen's Period of Transition

Back in the ‘70s, any recording artist worth his or her salt was expected to release an album per year, every two years tops. If there were a lapse in this rote pattern, the record company would put out a “greatest hits,” or some type of “best of” compilation to appease hungry fans. Everybody thought Dylan was finished (or dead, due to a serious motorcycle accident) when there was no follow-up to Blonde on Blonde within twelve months of its mid-1966 release, and after an unheard of three-year lull in Van Morrison's recording career, Van the Man released an LP with the apparently explanatory title A Period of Transition in 1977.

I remember the seemingly endless barren stretch that followed Born to Run (was Springsteen not really “Rock and Roll Future” after all? my friends and I wondered aloud). It would be years before I found out Bruce had actually written and recorded several songs in the limbo between his 1975 epic and 1978's Darkness On the Edge of Town. Now, three decades later, this material is finally, officially, seeing the light of day.

The Promise is best appreciated not as a fully realized whole like Born to Run or Darkness, but as a transitional journey between the two, from the wide-eyed optimism of the former, when Bruce believed (and we did right along with him) that rock and roll was bigger than life, to the harder-edged latter, forged by the trials and stresses of an increasingly imposing real world. It makes for an engrossing, sometimes downright intoxicating mix, and serves as a welcome, long lost bridge between two masterpieces seemingly half a world apart. It’s also, to me, an invigorating reminder of why I became a Springsteen fan all those years ago. 

And it's a tribute to the Boss that he could produce such a vast storehouse of great songs--some of which (“Because the Night,” “Fire,” “Talk to Me,” et al.) provided success for other artists--and withhold them from release simply because they didn't fit the overall concept, the Big Picture, of the LP he was determined to make. Or, in some cases, as he recently mentioned on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, he didn't want to be perceived as a “revivalist” or to put out an album that “wore its influences on its sleeve.” This strict adherence to his forward-looking vision was our loss for several decades (save for the resulting Darkness album, of course), and has now, thankfully, been remedied.

There are some shimmeringly beautiful tracks here that hearken back to Born to Run, of which Sprinsteen has said he wanted to make “the greatest rock and roll record ever.” A number of these lush mini epics bring to mind a line from a review of Neil Young's Live Rust, written by Tom Carson some 30 years ago: “It's so massively stately that you get the feeling of huge mountains on the move.” And we get a feeling of just how important Springsteen's then-recent influences were to him, as well.

As for wearing them “on its sleeve,” well, perhaps there was the fear at the time that those influences were too recent and recognizable. Whatever the case, they have since aged gracefully, and to anyone born after, say, 1970, these songs’ inspirations are likely to be all but invisible.

Nevertheless, the giants on whose shoulders Bruce stood were among the tallest of the 1950s and ‘60s. There's the euphoric, Spectorian wall of sound of “The Little Things (My Baby Does)” and the glorious “Gotta Get That Feeling.” Mighty Max channels Jerry Allison in the Buddy Holly inspired “Outside Looking In.” “Someday (We'll Be Together)” conjures up the Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll.” “Breakaway” is steeped in Orbison-like majesty. The rhythmic rawness of Gary “U.S.” Bonds permeates “Ain't Good Enough For You.” The horn arrangements on “It's a Shame” hearken back to the Stax/Volt Memphis Horns. “One Way Street” brings to mind Percy Sledge's soul classic “True Love Travels On a Gravel Road,” which was covered by Elvis, for whom Bruce wrote “Fire.” Come to think of it, this is the music that made me fall in love with rock and roll in the first place, before Bruce even came on the scene.

On the more somber Darkness side of the coin is “Wrong Side of the Street,” a full band version of “The Promise,” an alternate take of “Racing In the Street,” “Come On (Let's Go Tonight),” which was the forerunner of both “Factory” and “Johnny Bye Bye,” and “Candy’s Boy,” which obviously morphed into “Candy's Room.”

It's all good, but two songs, to my ears, stand above the rest. “Rendezvous” actually gave me goose bumps upon hearing it for the first time--something that, at my age, hasn’t happened in quite awhile. It simply blows the live Tracks version out of the water. “Save My Love,” written in 1977 and recorded in 2010 according to the liner notes, brings it all back home. It's what rock and roll is all about.

Which brings up the issue of Bruce's tinkering with some of the original material for this package. “Where needed, I worked on them to bring them to fruition,” he says in the liner notes. I thought this would bother me, but it ended up not being the case. The end result is what counts, and these songs, some of which were in an unfinished, unreleasable state prior to Bruce's intervention, ultimately deliver.

© Jon Oye, 2010

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

One For the Ages - The Forgotten Virtues of Going My Way

Some movies are simply beyond criticism. Despite having been written off in recent years by many mainstream critics – with much repeated, off-base allegations of over-sentimentality – this is one of them. It belongs in the pantheon of truly great films. The cynicism of the world we live in today no doubt prevents countless viewers (and critics) from looking beneath the placid surface of Going My Way, but it's definitely worth the effort.

Part of this reluctance to delve may be due to the film's pastoral ambience and relaxed pace, which could have easily inspired the creators of The Andy Griffith Show a few years later  (check out the checker game scene). It takes its time, telling its story on its own terms, and this simply doesn't sit well with the majority of modern multi-taskers who've been fed a steady diet of breakneck CGI action orgies, sophomoric sex comedies, and formulaic, artificial romcoms. But if you give it a chance and let it work its charms it will eventually win you over. To borrow a line from the film, it will grow on you. Maybe not in the first viewing, maybe not even in the first couple... but eventually.

Its charms worked instantly on audiences in need of hope, inspiration, and a chuckle or two during the Second World War, making it a huge box office hit in the year of its release, 1944. It even won over critics of the day. James Agee stated that Going My Way "points the way to the great films which will be possible when Hollywood becomes aware of the richness and delight of human character for its own sake." It earned seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Leo McCarey) and a Best Actor Oscar for Bing Crosby (as Father Chuck O'Malley), who was just starting a run as the #1 box office star for a record five consecutive years. 

Leo McCarey and Bing Crosby on the set of Going My Way.

Not quite a comedy, not quite a drama, this slice-of-life tapestry gently sets an example of all generations helping one another, ultimately working together as one extended family. It's basically an enactment of how one person can make a difference by helping his or her neighbor – an important message in any era, but especially in the war-ravaged one into which this film was released. That helpful, caring attitude is infectious to the point that disparate members of an urban neighborhood eventually come together as a community. 

The twist is in Father O'Malley's appealingly relaxed methods, which appear unorthodox to the staid, older, by-the-book Father Fitzgibbon, providing the conflict of the main plot line. Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald, Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner) has been the pastor of St. Dominic's Parish for forty-five years, and as the neighborhood around him has changed, his old school ways have become less effective. Gangs of unsupervised boys roam the streets getting into trouble (a real-life consequence of fathers fighting overseas and mothers working in war production plants during WWII), and the church is deeply in debt and about to be foreclosed on. The financial state of the church reflects the spiritually bankrupt community around it, and the physical structure itself will ultimately undergo a literal baptism by fire in order to be born again. In the meantime, young Father O'Malley is sent by the bishop to put things right, basically being assigned to take over for Fitzgibbon without letting the old man know it.

After assuming he's no longer needed, and having left in despair (only to be summarily returned by the local beat cop), the contrite Fitzgibbon eventually comes to understand and embrace O'Malley and his methods, and puts complete faith in the younger man. It all comes together in a delightfully subdued, justly celebrated scene in which the two men bond over a "wee drop of the creature," as Bing endearingly intones a couple of choruses of "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral" while sitting at the convalescing Fitzgibbon's bedside. Whoever came up with the term "screen chemistry" must have had something like this scene in mind.

Sooner or later, nearly everyone in the film gives of themselves: young Ted Haines, the son of the banker who's foreclosing on the church, leaves his father's line of work to volunteer for military service; an opera star (Risë Stevens) auditions a Father O'Malley-penned song for a music publisher, the royalties of which it is hoped will raise badly needed funds for St. Dominic's; the members of a street gang provide their (previously unrealized) singing talents for the (also previously unrealized) church choir; even the greedy banker (Gene Lockhart) forgives the church its mortgage. All the giving is sparked by the efforts and example of O'Malley, whose ultimate gift is saved for a no-dry-eye-in-the-house ending, just before he leaves for another parish he's been called on to save.

Sentimental? Certainly. But every iota of moisture in every teardrop is earned, and one doesn't feel foolish for blubbering like a fool.

That's partly due to the effortlessly smooth, confident persona Crosby projects in an immaculate performance, the perfect counterweight to the story's inherent sentiment. Bing's acting has sometimes been dismissed as that of someone merely playing himself (this having even been perpetuated by the self-effacing Crosby), and his Oscar win has been attributed to the fact that much of the crop of top `40s actors was away in military service (though he was up against the likes of nominees Cary Grant and Charles Boyer). But just watch him – he carries the picture, despite sharing scenes with a couple of the best scene-stealers in the business, Frank McHugh and especially Abbey Theatre alum Fitzgerald. Crosby's acting style appears modern in an era of now-antiquated theatrics. We look across the years at him and he seems familiar, contemporary.

1944 Oscar winners Fitzgerald, Ingrid Bergman and Crosby. Bing would co-star with Bergman in the sequel to GMWThe Bells of St. Mary's, in 1945.

He handles the role of a priest convincingly – a daunting task for the best of actors in any era – and almost casually, without the slightest hint of stiffness or self-consciousness. There is no trace of the sanctimoniousness that frequently crept into Spencer Tracy's performances in the Boys Town films, or Pat O'Brien's in Angels With Dirty Faces. Crosby's priest comes across as a likeable guy, yet one who's just tough enough to deal with whatever situation is at hand – without having to use his fists. Perhaps the greatest tribute to his achievement is that young men in the 1940s and 50s actually joined the priesthood because of their having been inspired by the Father O'Malley of Going My Way and its sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's.

Going My Way's writer-director Leo McCarey probably summed up his film best when he stated his storytelling philosophy: I love when people laugh. I love when they cry, I like a story to say something, and I hope the audience feels happier leaving the theatre than when it came in.

From where I'm sitting, Going My Way succeeds on all counts. If it doesn't for you, give it a chance. It just may grow on you.

© Jon Oye 2006, 2011