Leo McCarey’s Going My Way, the favorite movie of a million old Catholic ladies, swept the 1945 Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bing Crosby), Best Supporting Actor (Barry Fitzgerald), Best Screenplay, Best Story, and Best Song (“Swinging On a Star”). I found it odd that the title song, “Going My Way,” is performed twice in the film—once by “famous contralto of the Metropolitan Opera Association” Risë Stevens—even though within the film itself it is agreed to be not very good. Why not milk the value of the vastly better “Swinging On a Star,” which only gets played once?
Anyway, it got me thinking about Leo McCarey, many of whose films suffer from at least one utterly terrible musical number, even (especially?) when they’re not musicals. I don’t particularly mind the songs in Duck Soup (1933), which add to the surreal vibe of the whole thing, but I still can’t get over how bad the “Tiny Scout” number is in An Affair to Remember (1957). I remember watching that one with a kind of pained embarrassment for the movie itself, thinking, “please let it be over soon.” It begs the question: did McCarey actually believe in the cheap pap he was selling in songs like “The Tiny Scout” and “Going My Way” and My Son John’s “If You Don’t Like Your Uncle Sammy,” and even “Swinging On a Star” (which, while catchy, is unabashedly didactic), or were these just requisite concessions made to the studios? They turn up so frequently in McCarey’s work that I’m inclined to believe the former may have been the case. He has his defenders (the great Jean Renoir apparently was a fan), and he has made a handful of masterpieces, including Make Way For Tomorrow and The Awful Truth (I’m actually partial to My Son John, a Red Scare movie so out-there it verges on the psychotronic). But many of them, Going My Way included, seem compromised by I want to call a politics of kitsch—the type of conservatism that takes dumb songs, cornball platitudes and “cute” kids as its objects. The multiculturalism of the kid songs also strikes me as vaguely suspect; every close-up of a child of color singing about good citizenship seems to carry the subtext, “I'm a credit to my race!” Whether or not McCarey was strong-armed into putting this into his films, it’s there, and it’s cringe-worthy.