Going My Way (1944)

 

Ah, the forties. A more innocent era, when priests could spend their time with troubled young boys, even offer to take them to baseball games and say to them, “It’s a date,” without raising any questions from the community. A time when a group of boys who stole turkeys off the back of a truck would willingly join a boys’ choir and, after only a few lessons from the priest in the church basement, start touring the country with their road show.

Jokes aside, it’s hard to watch a movie about a priest without the context of the recent Catholic Church scandal. All the same, I think there have been more stories on film about priests than there have been about any other religious figure. How many movies about a monk or rabbi or imam have you seen? Okay, okay, I’ll give you Sister Act.

Going My Way is less a narrative of a priest character than it is a set piece to demonstrate Bing Crosby’s singing talents. When I think of Bing Crosby, I think of two things (which, come of think of it, are basically the same thing): Christmas songs and that version of “Little Drummer Boy” he did with David Bowie just before he died. I re-watched it during the movie – as in, I literally paused the movie at one point so that I could pull up the video of their duet on YouTube because I thought about David Bowie’s recent death and felt sad and thus needed to revisit that poignant moment between the two of them. It turned out to be a worthwhile diversion, thanks to a one-off cheesy joke about the way people sang back in the day, i.e., back in Bing’s era of the crooner. That era is definitely over.

This film is inoffensive enough, but it is, like Bing Crosby himself, of a particular era. These days, our superheroes come in the form of costumed oddballs with unusual powers, but in the old times, they came in the form of Bing Crosby dressed up like a priest, swooping in to fix all the problems of a beleaguered parish using only the power of his magnificent singing voice. We get a sense of a character who has an interesting past – he clearly led a relatively normal life prior to the priesthood, based on his one-time romantic interest and his familiarity with popular music – but unfortunately, if the film makes an effort to explore how he made the transition into a life of faith, I must have missed it.

Maybe the idea of a priest with a normal life was surprising or radical enough to audiences at the time that it didn’t seem necessary to explore why he committed himself to the church. But that would have intrigued me more than this story, where everything moves effortlessly from conflict to denouement. Even the doddering old man who’s been running the church gets to see his wee Irish mother again – and I was convinced that she would have died long ago. They were uncomplicated times. Granted, this movie was released right in the middle of World War II, so maybe audiences needed to have a story in which everything worked out just fine in the end.

On a final note, I’ve learned an interesting bit of baseball trivia that I didn’t know before this film. Prior to becoming the Baltimore Orioles, the team was known as the St. Louis Browns – the uniform Bing Crosby’s character wears at several points during the film. In 1944, the year Going My Way was released, they won their only World Series, where they played against the Cardinals, and also happened to be the last year in which the World Series was played entirely in one stadium. Interesting if true! (It is true.)

 

Theme: Priest

First Time Watching? Yes

Final Verdict: I gave it my blessing, and it gave me the bird.

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Spotlight (2015)

 

 

I waited until after the Oscars before I watched any of this year’s nominees for Best Picture. But I’m honestly glad that Spotlight won, because otherwise I never would have seen it on my own. I moved to Boston about ten years ago (yowza), a few years after the events of the film take place, but this feels like a very current story, its repercussions lingering even today. As the long blocks of text at the end of the film attest, Boston was only one of many towns where the Catholic Church covered up the actions of its priests.

 

There are very few Best Pictures that I’m aware of being set in Boston (The Departed is the only other one I know of offhand), and not many overall, which seems strange for a city with such a rich cultural history. Boston is a fitting setting for a film – of any kind, but particularly this story. It’s small, old, with a long Catholic history, with pockets of powerful and wealthy people, pockets of immigrants, pockets of poor. I really enjoyed how local the film felt, from the newspaper atmosphere – talking about the Big Dig and other Boston stories – to the familiar shots of the city through the seasons. In nearly every city scene, we see a Catholic Church looming in the background, which certainly feels accurate. It felt authentic to me in a way that some other movies or television set in Boston seem to lack. My only criticism is how rare a good Boston accent is in this film, the best one coming from one of the victims, a guy from Worcester who now struggles with addiction. Considering how actors tend to mangle a Boston accent, though, perhaps it’s for the best.

 

I can’t help but watch this in the context of our current political system, thinking about the dangers of systemic abuses, the power of the institution threatened by those wronged by it. You see the truth of the story unfold and wonder, how did this happen? Why did nobody do anything about all these cases of abuse before now? How could people stand by while members of the Church – their neighbors’ kids, maybe even their own children – were being abused? Maybe it tested their faith too much to question the authority of the Church. Maybe the Church didn’t know what to do with the abusive priests. Maybe they hoped that if they kept praying for them, they’d somehow be fixed. That’s maybe the most generous way of looking at it. I liked that some of the characters questioned their own role in not doing more – not breaking the story sooner, when they’d received tips from victims years before the Spotlight story broke.

 

I really enjoyed this movie, more than I thought I would – though enjoy is probably the wrong word. The actors were great, particularly Michael Keaton’s portrayal of the head of the Spotlight team, Walter “Robby” Robinson. Mark Ruffalo seems to show up everywhere, though I don’t mean that in a bad way. Of course, John Slattery inescapably reminds me of Roger Sterling, and I like seeing Stanley Tucci pop up in any movie. Movies of this nature tend to make everything out to be a personal crusade for the story’s heroes, and I’m glad that the tack they took with this was less histrionic. It’s a story about journalists doing their job, working as professionals, and recognizing their own failings in the course of getting the story. So often we see reporters portrayed as sort of unsavory, like weasels preying on innocent mice. For once, that’s not the case.

 

It’s worth pointing out that I’m not Catholic. Admittedly, I’m also skeptical of religious people, because though some part of me was led to believe that the more devout one is, the more generous and loving a person he or she is, I’ve rarely found that to be the case. As an adult, I know more lapsed Catholics than practicing Catholics, and though that’s perhaps reflective of the sort of company I keep, it also probably says something about an institution that doesn’t retain many of its followers in adulthood. If I’d ever had faith in such an institution, I can’t imagine I still would by the end of this movie.

 

For the better part of the decade I’ve lived in Boston, I haven’t purchased an actual physical newspaper. Though I used to read my daily hometown newspaper, I’ve never been really big on following the news, and that casual interest faded even more over the years (to be fair, the fact that when I did subscribe to the Sunday Globe, my paper often didn’t show up also contributed to me abandoning the newspaper). I’m not the only one, and I have to keep that in mind even as I lament the slow decline of the newspaper industry, and particularly of the kind of long-form journalism that allowed a story like this to come out. Investigative reporting is never profitable, but I can’t help wondering whether something is lost with that kind of in-depth work, even as the internet creates amateur investigators all over the place. Maybe there will be more movies made about the hard work of newspaper journalism, but I can’t help thinking that they’ll never again be told in the present day.

 

Theme: Priest

First Time Watching? Of course

Final Verdict: Like a good newspaper, it stands alone.