Crosby Stille Nacht

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!


12 Responses to “Crosby Stille Nacht”

  1. I find this and almost anything with Bing Crosby an interminable bore. And how that Swing Upon A Star song could get an Oscar, I will never know. I remember being taught that song in kindergarten, before I had ever heard of Bing, this film, or most films and finding the song gawdawful even then. In fact, that experience may have forever coloured my opinion of this film. All in all, I’d rather be a mule.

  2. Oh, and Merry Christmas to you and yours and all your readers. This blog is a daily source of pleasure and insight for me.

  3. Well, that didn’t work. Why is it every damn comment site has a different way to embed youtube videos? Last try:

  4. Bing’s not boring HERE

  5. In “My Son John” Robert Walker’s character is a Bruno Anthony clone. VERY “Coded Gay.” More so than Bruno in fact. It underscores the fact that the “McCarthy Era” found closet gays (McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Whittaker Chambers) attacking the somewhat-less-closeted (Alger Hiss, Jerry Robbins) using “Communism” as an excuse.

  6. bensondonald Says:

    In “Robin and the Seven Hoods”, Crosby sort of parodies his image. He’s a do-gooder from an orphanage (I think the joke was he was a kid who was never adopted and grew into a job) who eventually becomes a Road-movie rogue under the Rat Pack’s tutelage.

    I keep intending to give that one another chance. It’s big and flashy, and the central idea of Robin Hood as a gangster spoof is appealing, but the pieces never quite jelled for me.

    Last night I dug out “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, which was okay when I saw it as a kid and holds up surprisingly well for what it is: Big, lavishly dumb, with nice bits of twistedness (the Baron and his court of grotesques) and James Bondish gloss. One only wishes they didn’t frame the loopiest part of the movie as a fairy tale being told by a character instead of letting it be “real”. And that the process shots were a bit better, considering how solid everything else looks

  7. Every time I catch a bit of Robin & the & Hoods I’m put off by the overlit TV movie look. But I like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a lot — the Sherman Bros songs are very good at parties. Get everybody up and doing Me Old Bamboo.

    Yes, I noticed that My Son John has this weird homosexual panic alongside the red panic, and doesn’t really know what it wants to do with it. That is one weird movie: even it’s screenwriter, a fellow red-baiter, thought McCarey had lost his marbles, as did Helen Hayes.

    Merry Christmas to all Shadowplayers.

  8. bensondonald Says:

    Greenbriar Picture Shows had this piece on “My Son John”, detailing how, on top of everything else, Robert Walker died mid-shoot and it became a lunatic salvage job on what was already a mess:

  9. Yes — the salvage work is actually surprisingly effective but McCarey reckoned it ruined the picture. Obviously a star’s death isn’t going to help. But the movie was in deep trouble long before…

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