It would be hard to find a pairing of more complete opposites than these two. I suppose pairing SILENCE OF THE LAMBS with MY FAIR LADY might be more extreme, but you get my point.
Going My Way (Best Picture, 1944)
In GOING MY WAY, Bing Crosby plays a young Irish Catholic priest, Father O’Malley, who comes to an impoverished parish in New York City. His assignment is to take charge and try to get things back on track at St. Dominic’s, but with the added complication that he must pretend to everyone, especially the aged Father Fitzgibbon, who’s run the parish for the past 45 years, that he is the new curate – not the new priest-in-charge. Apologies to any Catholic readers – I’m not familiar with any specific terminology for the positions within a parish, but I don’t mean to offend.
In some ways the film is predictable. The first half highlights the differences between the approaches of the two priests. The elder is traditional, almost innocent in his approach. Crosby’s character is more savvy and takes the time to observe the behavior of the parish inhabitants as well as talking to them. The film focuses in particular on his interactions with the boys of the parish, who are a bunch of low-level hooligans at the beginning. Two even have the temerity to steal a turkey and give it to the two priests. A modern movie would have made it harder for Father O’Malley to win the boys’ trust. I’m not sure whether it’s more realistic to make the gang more hard-bitten as they would be in a movie today or as good-hearted youngsters with a veneer of toughness portrayed in the actual film. In any case, Crosby’s character talks them into forming a church choir in about thirty seconds. Eventually they are able to sing a setting of Ave Maria like angels.
The tension of the story revolves around the finances of the parish. The mortgage on the church itself is so high and the parish so poor that the firm holding the mortgage is threatening to repossess the church itself. This is an oddly modern-feeling element to the story, what with all the uproar about foreclosures and the economic climate in general these past several years. Not all that unexpectedly, O’Malley runs into an old girlfriend who is now a headliner at the Metropolitan Opera, and combined with his talent for songwriting and the boys of his church choir, they manage to sell one of O’Malley’s compositions and thus pay off the mortgage.
After a few more exciting moments, including a fire which guts the church, it seems that St. Dominic’s parish has been put back on a good path. While the elderly Father Fitzgibbon greets his mother, who he hasn’t seen since leaving Ireland 45 years earlier, and the choir sings, O’Malley quietly slips out the door to take up his new assignment: he’s to go to a poor parish headed by an aging priest and he must quietly and unobtrusively put things back on track.
So, basically, Father O’Malley is an Irish priest version of Mary Poppins.
One of the best things about this movie is the role of Rise Stevens, a famous mezzo-soprano opera singer from the mid-20th century. Her easy acting, bright smile, and lovely voice make a wonderful foil for Crosby’s heavy-lidded, and somewhat languid style. Furthermore, it’s something of a relief to watch a film that doesn’t focus on a love story. A lot can happen to a main character when romance is off the menu. And this leads me to the one completely weird connection between GOING MY WAY and THE LOST WEEKEND: both feature famous arias from operas. GOING MY WAY has CARMEN and THE LOST WEEKEND features “Libiamo” from LA TRAVIATA. Weird, no?
The Lost Weekend (Best Picture, 1945)
I should start here by saying that this is is not the kind of movie one emotionally likes. I see why it won – it is well-written, well-acted, and very powerful. But it’s not a story that one likes.
THE LOST WEEKEND, starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman, tells the story of an aspiring author who has sunk pretty much as far down as one can go in the realm of alcoholism. He steals, he sneaks out of the alcoholic ward at the local hospital, and each day he wakes up unable to remember the day before. He is unable to function without alcohol – he doesn’t even eat. Just drinks. THE LOST WEEKEND is exactly that – a four-day bender to end all benders, during which time he manages to hurt everyone who shows him kindness, trashes his apartment in search of the bottle he hid the day before, and steals from his brother, his girlfriend, and a random woman at a nightclub.
It is raw, upsetting, and a truly amazing picture of how alcoholism is in fact a disease that is larger than the sufferer. But it also shows how the sufferer can try to regain control. Early on in the film, Milland’s character utters a variant of the old excuse that he could stop anytime he wants. He says that he doesn’t NEED to drink, he just needs to know the alcohol is nearby so that he COULD have some if he wanted. By the end of the film, he has realized that he will always want to have a drink, and then another and another. His decision has to be to stop drinking, cold turkey, or to stop the problem by killing himself.
Like GOING MY WAY, THE LOST WEEKEND takes a route that wouldn’t pass in modern movies, which feel the need to constantly up the shock value. In a modern version of this film, the alcoholic writer would succumb and kill himself. The actual film is redemptive. It doesn’t say he’s cured. It says he’s going to try. And really, isn’t accepting the existence of the problem the first step?
Next Up: The Best Years of Our Lives (Best Picture, 1946) and Gentleman’s Agreement (Best Picture, 1947)