Archive for December 24, 2017

Crosby Stille Nacht

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on December 24, 2017 by dcairns

Managed to avoid seeing GOING MY WAY all my life but finally weakened — needed to get more of a Leo McCarey overview. This one’s kind of a tipping point, the moment the conservative side of the Catholic Republican, called “Machiavellian” by John Huston, starts to emerge onscreen. The anti-Communism would follow soon after. (OK, there’s a religious streak in LOVE AFFAIR, but it’s at least subordinate to the story.)

GOING MY WAY is a rather unlikely success story, since it’s plotless and rambling and very long (by 1940s standards — it’s a good but shorter than THE LAST JEDI). But it beat DOUBLE INDEMNITY to the Oscar, one has to assume due to its perceived spiritual uplift (the Wilder Chandler noir has little of that). It’s a relentlessly nice film, whose chief strategy is to defuse dramatic potential rather than ignite it. McCarey, a comedy genius whose humour is subtly rooted in reality (while still embracing all available aspects of movieness) sets himself the tricky task of getting laughs out or priests, without being disrespectful, an almost impossible task, and stringing together a collection of incidents without a driving force of plot or any escalation of conflict (the priest hero always finds a way to de-escalate it). I think the shapelessness is deliberate: McCarey is trying to capture the randomness of his own life, which was interrupted by affairs, marital tiffs, drunken benders, car crashes, Oscar wins, falling down an elevator shaft… much more interesting stuff than we see in GOING MY WAY, now that I think of it. But the church spontaneously combusts in this one, and it truly is random.

Bing Crosby is a young priest. Barry Fitzgerald is an old priest. Some disagreement is allowed to simmer between them about methodology, but nothing ever comes of it. Also, the mortgage-holder is threatening to foreclose on the church, even though his son helpfully points out that this is a thing that never, ever happens. The Church is not a poor organisation as far as I’m aware, so this gesture towards dramatic tension doesn’t convince, but McCarey, having set it up, forgets about it for an hour at a time anyway, so there’s no point getting upset.

Crosby arrives and gets into scrapes. It seems priests get no respect: old women and atheists shout at them in the street. Already, Jean Renoir’s assessment that McCarey had the best understanding of people of anyone in Hollywood, is under threat: such a feeling for humanity can’t thrive with a toxic injection of propaganda. And yet it doesn’t roll over and die: you get unruly eruptions of real behaviour amid the schmaltz. And, near the end of the line for McCarey, you get MY SON JOHN, a film made by a madman, in which the human story is at odds with the political message, resulting not in the complexity McCarey was after but in crazy incoherence.

GMW isn’t quite as chaotic as that, or as it appears. Walking home one night from his boys’ club outing (our priest reforms all the local juvenile delinquents, even though their crimes are presented as merely amusing hi-jinks), Crosby passes the Metropolitan Opera and meets an old flame. And she’s playing Carmen, so we get an entire aria. The film is a kind of musical, or at any rate it’s touting a soundtrack album. It looks like the operatic career is solely an excuse for a bit of culture. But it does come back and play a plot role. McCarey inserts things at random, seems to forget about them, then returns to them and links them to other plot elements to solve problems or create fresh ones. It’s still not a very sophisticated story, but it has a little more design than at first appears. Then the church burns down for no reason. I guess a shot of a candle falling over or something would too forcibly suggest an Act of God, which would raise uncomfortable questions. (SUPERMAN III dialogue: “It was an act of God!” “In a church?”)

Sportswear imparts an uncomfortable Jimmy Savile look to Bing.

It needs mentioning that, in addition to discovering a soulfulness in Crosby, who is elsewhere an effective scoundrel in the ROAD pictures, the movie effects a form of castration on Frank McHugh, wheezing dirty imp of pre-code days, now a gurgling priest, his smutty laugh replaced with a warm chortle which McCarey keeps cutting to until the chubby clergyman leaves humanity behind and comes to resemble a punctuation mark or musical note or piece of found footage, dropped in whenever a warm chortle is needed.

This is a scene where McHugh has come to deliver sad news, which gives you some idea.

And then Crosby gets a new posting and just strolls off, not into the distance as is customary, but sideways, sidling offscreen (into a lucrative sequel, as it happens). THE END appears softly, in Hallmark Christmas card font, without fanfare, the lack of music and closure undercutting its finality. Death is completely absent from the duties of these priests, and from the movie: when a minor character goes to war and is reported injured, everybody is amused by the ironic circumstances of the accident and nobody asks if he’s going to be OK: we can assume he’s fine, apparently. Everybody’s always fine. Everything’s fine.

Merry Christmas!