Going My Way

Uploaded 1 December 2001 | Modified Friday, 11 January 2002

D-Day, 6 June 1944. John Ford was there. Twenty years later, he said it was the most vivid experience of his life:

Not that I or any other man who was there can give a panoramic wide-angle view of the first wave of Americans who hit the beach that morning. There was a tremendous sort of spiral of events all over the world, and it seemed to narrow down to each man in its vortex on Omaha Beach that day. My group was there to photograph everything we could for the record. In the States, as [the D-Day operation] Overlord got under way, the film Going My Way with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald was a smash hit. I had nothing to do with it, but the title was somehow appropriate when I remembered what we were starting in Normandy. [1]

That John Ford, in the middle of the greatest armada in history, would have been thinking about Going My Way (US 1944) may surprise us today. Going My Way may be one of the most popular movies ever made, but it is also one of the most embarrassing, because it makes people who like it cry, and somewhere nearby there is always going to be some philistine eager to guffaw about “contrived sentimentality.” Yet Going My Way meant a lot to a great many people in the spring of 1944, caught up in worldwide terror and daily death. Even James Agee conceded that Going My Way “points the way to the great films which will be possible when Hollywood becomes aware of the richness and delight of human character for its own sake” [2]  And it is true, as it is true of much of our century’s finest art (which Agee pompously ignores), that the morale and magic in Going My Way is rooted in character, although not just for its own sake. Curiously, however, a more recent McCarey champion is unwilling to grant Going My Way even Agee’s accolade of “pointing the way”; for James Harvey Going My Way‘s characters are “stereotypes…s rigid and hollow, as consolingly counterfeit, as any the movies could offer.” [3]  Indeed, I have read a good portion of everything written during the last forty or fifty years about Leo McCarey and about this movie which Leo McCarey made – and audiences cried over – in the darkest days of World War II, and I have not found anyone except John Ford who notices the war.

John Ford knew very well that there are times when a movie can do something for a society not so much different from what Virgil’s Aeneid was intended to do at the dawn of the pax romana: account for the past and consecrate the community to high principles. Ford himself had made such a movie at the dawn of the pax americana, The Battle of Midway (US 1942). Since such a movie cannot be a monologue, Ford has voices speaking to the movie. McCarey’s movies also try, quite consciously, to have conversations with their audiences. McCarey’s movies were a modern commedia dell’arte which would play an audience, conduct people through kaleidoscopes of melodramatic emotions, and unify viewers and listeners with each other. McCarey declared:

I love when people laugh. I love when they cry, I like a story to say something, and I hope the audience feels happier leaving the theatre than when it came in.” [4]

Movies could be a kind of social “sacrament” that would create a community at that moment, there in the theater–and consecrate it to “Going My Way.” The tears which  Going My Way has evoked for more than half a century are not so simplistic.

McCarey’s architectural notion of a church is one that is almost all door, inviting. Space, for McCarey in these years, is constantly a kind of metaphor for community, or better, an “actualisation” of it. When the boys begin to sing “The mule,” McCarey’s camera tracks back majestically (almost like at Versailles in Rossellini’s Louis XIV[France 1966]), opening up space, in response to the community being forged by the miraculous grace of the music, the boys, and Father Charles Francis Patrick O’Malley (Bing Crosby)–“kindness as permanent catharsis, as providential remedy to all the physical and moral ills of humanity,” Jacques Lourcelles calls it. [5] More frequently, it is by fragmenting space and by crosscutting that McCarey creates a sense of community engagement. At the end of the movie, by crosscutting 180 degrees between old Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) and the small congregation of individuals who are now his friends, McCarey paints the space between them as something they share, as containing their emotions and relationships, their “kindness,” their community. And by showing us beforehand the surprise appearance of Father Fitzgibbon’s ancient mother, McCarey involves us in the conspiracy leading, as in Ruggles of Red Gap (US 1935), to a community apotheosis in which life’s most private moments are consecrated publicly, communally.

In a single shot in an earlier church scene, panning across the pews, McCarey brought together all his story’s diverse characters and plots, just as John Ford would do (in imitation?) in church scenes in The Sun Shines Bright (US 1953), The Long Gray Line (US 1955) and Donovan’s Reef (US 1963). In an aisle on the side, we find O’Malley standing awkwardly, a bit like Danglars in the Moulin Rouge in Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (France 1955), for it is Father O’Malley who has devised this assemblage of delinquent boys, runaway girls, predatory landlords, opera stars, and tin pan alley hucksters.

But now, at the end of the movie, even though the church has mostly burnt down, a real space exists, an actual “kindness”, a community which no longer requires O’Malley’s “way” to manipulate it into existence. It can do without him, just as the Moulin Rouge can dispense with Danglars now. For the moment, all problems have been solved, everyone is being looked after by a kindly hand, especially Father Fitzgibbon. Abandoning the point-of-view crosscuts (in which Fr. Fitzgibbon and his congregation stared alternately at us), McCarey cuts slightly to the side of Fr. Fitzgibbon: 

through most of the 1930s McCarey, like John Ford, will emphasize a character’s autonomy by refusing the intense subjectivity of the sort of paired 180-degree crosscuts we have just experienced, which prompt us to identify with the characters, whereas most of the time, as now, McCarey wants our empathy to be more objective. And now something magic happens. Father Fitzgibbon looks off camera and we cut to his mother across the space staring directly into the camera (at Father Fitzgibbon; at us), and then back to our “objective” view of Father Fitzgibbon. As always with McCarey, it is the intersection of two points of view, inside and outside, that forms his climax. And this time there is more.

In Going My Way‘s final shot, we find Father O’Malley outside, peering through a window and enjoying the commedia he has created, a bit like Camilla in front of the curtain at the end of The Golden Coach (Italy 1952), and in a benedictory camera movement we follow him a bit as, having reunited a family (and more) he goes on his way, alone in the snow and the night, and we watch him leave the frame (a bit like Judge Priest at the end of The Sun Shines Bright). The rejuvenated Father Fitzgibbon has already predicted the outcome of Father O’Malley’s next assignment: “you’ll bring him around to your way of thinking!” But at the end of the movie’s last shot, space only shows absence. Moreover, there is no one looking at this absent space, no other character around – except me; suddenly I am alone, Going My Way.

Father O’Malley is a hero because he asserts himself. “At one time,” he says, “I had quite a decision to make, whether to write the nation’s songs – or go my way.” He is not so different, then, from the Irene Dunne characters of The Awful Truth (US 1937) and My Favorite Wife(US 1940) who in asserting their interests against rejection in love never pause for self pity or self doubt. Such courage! “Ma” and “Pa” Cooper in Make Way for Tomorrow (US 1937) are kicked around brutally when they fail to assert themselves – but they are the last McCarey characters to fail. Charles Laughton’s moment of self-redemption comes in Ruggles of Red Gap when he comprehends his independence while reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – an American Aeneid in two hundred and seventy one words; no text but the Bible was more sacred. Yet what gives force to this verbal paean to human freedom (this rejection of class status by the lower class rather than through liberation by the upper class), and to Ruggles’ inner revolution, is the way McCarey socializes Ruggles’ individual rite of passage, in a series of cameo-like shots of individual bar patrons drawing together into a Druid-like circle around Ruggles. In putting the action onto this level of separate individual reactions, McCarey draws us into a sudden communal catharsis; Lincoln’s words and Ruggles’ revolution become a ritual in which we all share. In the second stage of Ruggles’ liberation, after Ruggles risks scandal by ejecting a tormenter from his restaurant, his townsfolk cheer him for going his way. “For he’s a jolly good fellow!” they sing, and again McCarey draws us in, now to a more Dionysian celebration, with fourteen rhythmic cameos reprising the commedia‘s animated characters – a sequence which was probably Jean Renoir’s inspiration for the finale of French Cancan. Renoir, like Ford, admired McCarey deeply. In both men’s movies, the result of a series of medium shots of individuals looking out at us is not the fragmentation of the community, but the sum of its parts, and a repeated effort by all of them to involve the movie audience into their communal love-fest.

Silent film comedy was an extension of vaudeville humor. The essence of vaudeville humor was interaction with an audience. This is why vaudeville, like commedia dell’arte, depended on improvisation within an outline. The performer needed to know where he was going but, more importantly, had to be able to adjust his driving to the conditions of the road. A problem in silent film comedy was how to make such adjustments. In cinema’s own vaudeville period, one-shot movies like those by the Lumières could be run slower or faster, backward or forward, depending on the day’s reactions from the audience. By the teens, comics were trying to accomplish the same thing by test-screening their pictures and tinkering with them in between tests. By the twenties, Chaplin was notorious for refilming every gag a million times until he found his solution. In the thirties and forties, McCarey’s solution was to arrive on his set with no one having any idea what they would be done that day, which would be decided during chats or while McCarey played piano, whereupon dialogue would be dictated and the scene discovered for the first time, the fruit of reactions among the director, his players, and their characters. “I think probably 75 per cent of each day’s shooting was made up on the set by Leo,” said Bing Crosby of Going My Way. [6] Nobody knew what they were doing on The Awful Truth, said Ralph Bellamy, “nobody but McCarey.” [7]  Perhaps McCarey’s solution was not so much a solution as the only way McCarey could function fully (like Rossellini). He told Frank Nugent: “It wasn’t until we got on the set that the story began to show itself. One character took over. After ten days we had to suspend production and begin rewriting. We still didn’t have a script when we resumed. We worked nights on scenes to be shot the next day. You can’t tell about a story until you begin shooting, and even then you get surprises.” [8]  Commedia could not be created except in a state of near-spontaneous interaction. “We never knew or cared when quitting time came,” said Victor Moore, of Make Way for Tomorrow [9] . Yet (as with Renoir) the result was primarily the director’s art, and the material for improvisation had been rewritten dozens of times and pondered over for months.

McCarey has been credited for introducing slow and deliberate reaction shots in his many Laurel and Hardy shorts, thus slowing down the rushing pace of Sennett-style silent comedy. Of course both the slow double-take and the “non-reaction” of controlled dismay are as hallowed as theater itself, precisely because it requires a give-and-take between the player and the audience, and much of the magic of any McCarey movie occurs as his characters react (which maybe explains why Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way was nominated for Oscars in both the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories but only won for supporting himself). As James Harvey writes, McCarey shows us:

the involuntary motions of temperament, of people’s deepest natures, those instinctive signals of sympathy or recoil that can’t be taken back once they’ve been given away, and that nearly always tell more about ourselves than anything we choose to tell….Carey captures romantic intoxication so extraordinarily well exactly because he includes it all: all the elements of satire and prickliness and even irritation that other filmmakers might leave out or not even know about.” [10]

Such performance tricks – tried and true in vaudeville and commedia – succeed in drawing us in to the characters because they compel us to figure out what, for example, a blank face means, and in making this effort we are converted from being merely passive watchers; we become off-stage prompters. In Love Affair (US 1939), it is when grandmother hears the boat whistle, or when Terry puts on her shawl, or when Michel sees his painting hanging in Terry’s bedroom that we feel closest to these people and share the multiple layers of their emotions. Present time takes on a haunted aura; lines of dialogue are made to resonate, characters are posed iconically, gestures are unfolded mythically, even though everyone appears to be behaving perfectly normally, because both they and we know these are images to be remembered always. We have already become the lovers’ co-conspirators, as their half-expressed emotions oblige us to complete their thoughts. Even when a character is in action, like Ruggles reciting the Gettysburg Address, it is the character’s own reactions to his own actions that most affect us. These are the moments of change, of redemption, of grace, of revolution, of going one’s way.

At least in the years 1935-57 McCarey’s movies are always about change, about people changing or being changed, by others, by themselves, but not by physical environment, which is one reason why people say McCarey lacked a visual style – a lack sometimes noted also apropos of Hawks, whose sets (interiors or exteriors) are even less interesting than McCarey’s, because the only environment that counts for him is people. But in McCarey, what changes is also the space between people. Space in Going My Way even becomes grace. As do camera angles, when McCarey is at his best. We noted that, rather than looking at one person from another person’s exact perspective, McCarey often insists doggedly on his own point of view. Especially in Love Affair.

Michel and Terry gather around the piano  and Grandmother plays “Plaisir d’Amour.” But when Terry (Irene Dunne) joins in, nothing has prepared us for close shot of her from a perspective deliberately high, so that we can not attributable it to Grandmother or Michel (Charles Boyer).

Terry is in her own world here, an autonomous person. And autonomous also, because again in each case shot from “no one’s” perspective are the scenes close shots of Michel , Grandmother (Maria Ouspenska)  , and even Grandmother’s hands.

Each detail is thus autonomous. What unites the shots is their common viewpoint inside the triangle formed by the three people. This is a space which the three share, which becomes their love for each other, which exists independently of them, transcendent. As McCarey repeats these four close shots, these pockets of space, these fragments variously ordered, their reiteration around a common point celebrates togetherness more rhythmically and forcefully than the single shot of their ensemble can achieve.

Thus there is a powerful jolt of absence when McCarey cuts to an angle outside the triangle as Grandmother hears the boat whistle signaling Michel’s and Terry’s departure. What McCarey’s camera angle really tells us, along with his unrelenting stare (like Vidor’s at the end of The Champ [US 1931] or Rossellini’s in Una voce umana[segment in L’amore, Italy 1948]), is about the solitude in which Grandmother will be going her way, as she is well aware.

In contrast in the re-make twenties year later, An Affair to Remember(US 1957), rather than shooting the triangle from a single interior point of view, McCarey’s camera jumps around all four corners of the room. These characters’ love has no space of its own; their love is no longer transcendent, with a force of its own. It exists only within each of them. Exactly opposite the poetry of Love Affair, the lovers now link eyes in 180-degree cuts, and exist only for each other.

McCarey often seems unsure how to edit in Cinemascope, and awkward at times when he tries for the sorts of articulations that were workaday in the 1930s, as in this series:  In An Affair to Remember, in contrast to the elaborate découpages of his black-and-white pictures, McCarey much of the time relies on long takes and mise en scène to make his points, and gags tend to be geometric movements of characters. There is nothing like the play of angles that is at the soul of Love Affair as a movie. In An Affair to Remember McCarey does not manipulate the audience, or invite them in as he once did.

Autonomy and space are again the issue in Love Affair when Terry tries to launch herself as a nightclub singer, in order to find her own way as an independent woman and become worthy of Michel. Her debut is shot entirely in close shots of her, with only a single cutaway to the audience, which, not coincidentally, seems as alien in the nightclub as in the single cutaway of the “audience” in the ship’s dining room that was staring at Terry and Michel at their separate tables. But Terry triumphs in the nightclub, and returns for an encore, and suddenly not only is she part of the crowd through frequent cutaways but even within her solo shots we see musicians who were hidden earlier.

Love Affair‘s heroes spend a lot of time deliberating with objects. McCarey’s lack of interesting interiors is in fact usually a stripping away of “extra” reality in order to focus emotions on one specific object. In contrast, in An Affair to Remember the riot of widescreen clutter and jangly colors creates so much background “noise” that deliberation in impossible. Thus Terry’s wheelchair appears briefly and matter-of-factly after she encounters Nicky at the theater in An Affair, but in Love Affair her wheelchair is revealed and brought down the aisle slowly and ceremoniously. More importantly, when Michel returns to Grandmother’s room after her death, his emotional resonances with certain privileged objects goes deeper than their obvious associations, because they are all parts of a shared reality, their love external to themselves; the piano, the shawl, the sounds of Grandmother’s playing and Terry’s singing are merged with Michel’s inner self.

Charles Boyer (for whom McCarey made Love Affair) cited it as his favorite of his American movies and it is not difficult to discern why. In place of Boyer’s usual laid-back, fin de siècle charm, Michel has a hard, angular edge to him, bitter aggressivity, and deep currents that come only gradually to the surface. Curiously, Boyer, after pronouncing McCarey “an unappreciated major artist” and anticipating a methodical, reflective collaboration, was surprised to find the director dreaming up the story piecemeal as they went along, and even halting production completely halfway through in order to figure out what the lovers would do after getting off the boat. [11] McCarey even seemed indifferent about character analysis and expected Boyer to help create his own dialogue just before shooting each day. But if Love Affair resembles Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia(Italy 1953) in the apparent chaos of its production, it resembles it also in the near perfection of the result, in both cases charting the combustion of something deep within the characters with a spiritual space outside of them. This is what is so disturbing, for instance, when Michel finds himself holding the shawl. Once again McCarey combines two points of view: Michel’s war within himself to distance himself from Terry, and the fact of this directive from beyond the grave. Terry’s bantering line earlier, “Going My Way?” takes on a new meaning. Eventually he paints what he feels: grandmother bequeathing the shawl to Terry. McCarey never gives us a good look at the painting. In the gallery it’s obscured by foreground objects and distanced. But the gallery contains only three other pictures, all of women in various phases of rapture and triumph.

Michel’s painting is distanced for the same effect that the Empire State Building is distanced as a reflection in a glass door when Terry gazes at “the nearest thing to heaven that we have in New York”–where she will be reunited with Michel in a few months.

Probably she is recalling the story she told him about her father and the song she is writing and will repeat like a mantra after her accident:

Wishing will make it so.
Just keep on wishing,
and care will go.
Dreamers tell us dreams come true.
It’s no mistake.
And wishes are the dreams we dream
when we’re awake.
The curtain of life will part,
if you are certain within your heart.
So if you wish long enough,
wish strong enough,
you will come to know,
wishing will make it so.

Terry is in the foreground, the building in the background, so we concentrate on her and the building becomes a reflection, not-yet tangible, a dream, a “wish.” Like Michel’s painting. Here is the heart of melodrama.

Again and again, McCarey articulates the heart of this melodrama as much with his angles and cuts as with his objects, his music, or the nuances of gesture and voice. As much as in a Bresson film, the characters come to life, emotionally, through the artifices of cinema.

At the beginning of Love Affair‘s final scene, there is almost no shared point of view. The camera is roughly perpendicular to the couch in both the two-shot and the detail of Michel; but off to the left side for the detail of Terry. There is no innerspace like in the “Plaisir d’amour” scene; Michel’s space and Terry’s space only scarcely intersect. The dividing barrier of the couch makes the same point, more obviously but less forcefully. When Michel draws closer, pressing Terry, the shared space seems to diminish. Voilà: The function of each element of cinema has emotional value only in context, like notes on a piano. The same sort of 180-degree crosscuts that in Going My Way articulated community, and in the nightclub in Love Affair alienation, here torment the lovers as invincible opposition, a glass wall separating them. Subjective point-of-view shots, in pairs, tend not only to diminish some of a character’s autonomy, but also to cancel some of the camera’s mediation (the camera seems almost to disappear, to be replaced by the other character’s stare) – and, indeed, it is precisely the lack of self-confidence (autonomy) and the lack of mediation (the angle of view; the shawl) that are keeping our lovers apart.

In vain Michel keeps changing position, trying to resolve their opposition but only finding variations of the same invisible wall. Finally he finds the solution, as the camera pans to show his discovery of his painting in Terry’s room. Superficially, Michel realises Terry did not show up for their rendezvous because she has had a terrible accident. More importantly, the painting is reflected beside Michel like Terry with the Empire State Building, and now again the dreamer is part of the dream, as though in another world, where the love of “Plaisir d’Amour” was located. The solution to Michel’s unresolvable opposing angles with Terry is an image within an image within an image. Michel sees his dream, sees it come true, sees himself seeing it, feels himself changing, an immense change, like for Ruggles. We feel it in each tiny twitch. Often in McCarey paintings and photographs evoke this world beyond the stars-which is above all a world of “values,” and distant from here and now. A retreating camera swiftly distances a photo in Make Way for Tomorrow, adding spatial distance to the temporal distance of the photo’s evocation of the hotel as it used to look, when the movie’s old couple were young. The past takes on something of the aura of the Holy Grail.

The shawl, we realise, is Michel in some stange way. There does exist a moral universe outside humans. An elaborate camera movement (similar in spirit to the benedictory one which ends Going My Way) accompanies Michel back to Terry. In a coda, a variant of the French Cancan-like finish to Ruggles, shared space at last is celebrated in an accelerating montage of three pairs of crosscuts. The alternating two-shots creates something of the effect that other directors try to achieve by spinning the actors or the camera itself. McCarey cuts across the axis each time, so that each of the lovers occupies the other’s space half a dozen times. It appears it was McCarey who showed Ozu what a camera angle is.

McCarey told Cahiers du Cinéma that the difference between Love Affair and An Affair to Remember “n’est autre que la différence entre Charles Boyer et Cary Grant. Cary Grant ne peut jamaias réussir à masquer tout à fait cet extraordinaire sense de l’humour qu’il a; en dépit de tous ses efforts, il n’arive pas à se débarrasser de cet humour. C’est pourquoi la seconde version, même dans les plus émouvants scènes d’amour, reste assez drôle….Je préfère la première version pour sa beauté, et la seconde parce que, financièrement, elle a été un beaucoup plus grand succès.” [12]
In fact, Cary Grant seems as out of place as he would have been in De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette. He is not, as McCarey says in other words, an actor capable of world-shattering emotional change. Grant is Teflon; Boyer displays every blemish. If McCarey made Love Affair for Charles Boyer, he made An Affair for Deborah Kerr.

As Terry McKay she is delicate and petite, charming pouring tea or doing anything, each movement exquisitely graceful, yet down-to-earth; with no other director does this actress seem so vulnerable and at the same time so rooted. One always senses her Terry’s origins: one of 10 kids; a drunk father; poverty; everyone worked. It’s a unique occurrence, like Grace Kelly or Ava Gardner with Ford in Mogambo; Audrey Hepburn with Vidor in War and Peace; or Françoise Arnoul with Renoir in French Cancan. Irene Dunne, in contrast, in Love Affair (and The Awful Truth), is more like a professional tennis player, sturdy, and self-advancing; we admire her for her courage and strength: she never has time for feeling self-doubt or rejection. And she is not in the least embarrassed at being a kept woman. McCarey was forced to remove not only any mention of sex, but also a scene in which Terry’s lover visits her in the luxury apartment he provides for her (although there is such a scene in current prints). Yet everything is clear immediately, when Terry-Dunne fingers her pearl necklace and brassily explains, “He sends me on a buying trip every once in a awhile. You see, he’s my boss, too.”

In An Affair to Remember, not surprisingly, McCarey gives most of Irene Dunne’s qualities to Cary Grant, and gives Charles Boyer’s figurine charm and fragility to Deborah Kerr. Thus in An Affair it’s the man (Grant who reminds the women (Kerr) to take the elevator in the Empire State Building; but in Love Affair it was the women (Dunne) who reminded the man (Boyer). Love Affair is fundamentally Michel’s story, of his change; An Affair to Remember is Terry’s story, her change. In Love Affair, after the ship’s photographer snaps them together, Terry-Dunne really does flee from Michel out of practical fears of publicity. But in the same scene in An Affair, it is clear that this excuse comes as a convenience for Terry-Kerr, who has just confessed her prostitution with cathartic guilt. McCarey frames her in the picture’s most Romantic composition, against the sea and sky.  Her hair blows in the wind-a sudden irruption of reality amid artifice, all the more telling in that such reality is otherwise absent from this movie; Terry-Kerr feels naked, scared. She is ashamed of things it never occurred to Terry-Dunne to be ashamed of. Thus Terry-Dunne did not have a moment of change; she had honesty instead. But Terry-Kerr has a world-shattering change, a return to her Catholic ideals, just like Michel’s change at the end of Love Affair. McCarey celebrates the event by giving her a star-filled sky as her stage in her next scene. Unfortunately, this climax comes at the middle, rather than the end, of An Affair to Remember.

The purpose of McCarey’s commedia is to draw us into the character, so generally we are to share the character’s emotions, as in Hitchcock, Capra, Ford, or Ophuls. But at other times we are also to find them alienating, more like Jerry Lewis, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, or Albert Brooks. Through most of the first half of Make Way for Tomorrow, “Ma” Cooper (Beulah Bondi) is insufferable, and offensive in her obliviousness to others. Eventually even her daughter-in-law (Fay Bainter), the most empathetic soul in the movie, cannot help but look at her with hate indistinguisable from sympathy-as do we. This is what McCarey wants: that we share with the characters conflicting emotions that neither we nor they can reconcile. Still we are startled in the film’s second half, when the old couple have their last hours together in New York, at how perfectly Ma fits in when she is with Pa (Victor Moore). Yet now, since the movie has already shown us what life will be like after Lucy and Barkley Cooper part, there is no room for our (or their) uncertainty about what it means when they do part. Then the movie itself cuts us off from ma’s life just as the train taking pa away has cut everything off from her life, so that no matter where she will be, her space will only be absence. These are scenes that on repeated viewings become almost unwatchable. This catharsis does not anneal.

Which of course is why nearly everybody avoided seeing Make Way for Tomorrow in 1937. They sensed the danger. This is not the McCarey who wants us to laugh and cry and feel better, the McCarey whose cinema is “fondé…sur une alchimie de bons sentiments,” as Lourcelles called it, justly. [13]  Or maybe it is. Maybe Make Way for Tomorrow is the validation of the necessity for “bons sentiments,” whose absence in the Cooper family (and in later McCarey films) is so disastrous. “Wishing will make it so” may be simplistic, but, far from being a pollyanna sentiment, it goes to the heartbeat of western civilization. McCarey meant, as Borzage did, and Griffith, Chaplin, Capra and De Mille (and Sirk and Ray and Rossellini) that sometimes through suffering and obdurate persistence we can get what we want, we can make a dream come true, we can even change the world. But we have to try; we can’t just sit around, do nothing, and wish, like “Ma” and “Pa” Cooper. This is what “Going My Way” meant to Father O’Malley-and to John Ford on D-Day. In Lourcelles’ words: “chaque être vivant conduit seul sa destinée mais [et] par sa présence attentive à autrui, se transforme lui-même en transforment les autres.” [14]  Going My Way‘s title card-the empty road, the horizon, the clouds and light and birds, the solitary group of trees- nicely expresses this merger of the existential, the luminous, and the mission to the world.

In 1946 McCarey told The Saturday Evening Post, “Let other people take care of sordidness and ugliness. I string along with Disney. I think the biggest message of all is Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf. They way I look at it, it’s larceny to remind people how lousy things are and call it entertainment.” [15]

Indeed, Jean-Louis Noames, taking McCarey at his (blank-faced?) word, suggests that “sa manière est un peu l’art de tous ceux qui prennent la vie comme un obstacle et le cinéma comme un prétexte pour le franchir.” [16] But if this is true, then “wishing will make it so” is false and the success of Father O’Malley is fraudulent. But in fact people did go to the moon, invent penicillin, and make movies, and occasionally even virtue gets rewarded. Cinema does not need to overcome life. Goodness knows McCarey’s gloom is so much darker than his sun that he almost resembles the neo-realist De Sica (or is it De Sica who resembles McCarey?).

Good Sam (1948) and My Son John (1952) will resemble Make Way for Tomorrow: black comedies with skit after skit of situations so painful, embarassing, lugubrious and intensely true, as to be unwatchable at times, and to make us giddy. But already in Love Affair, toward the climax of Michel’s despair, Michel is made by McCarey to walk into an absurd, Sisyphus-like skit of a man who has to carry a Christmas tree-constantly stumbling, and in the snow-another 150 blocks. The skit is pretentious and preachy, the way Godard can be, and jars with the rest of Love Affair.

But the dark side is never absent in McCarey. By age 42 McCarey had spent more than six years of his productive life either in the hospital or convalescing from one ailment or another, and in addition he suffered from alcoholism. He was arrested twice during The Bells of St. Mary, once for creating a public disturbance while drunk, then on suspicion of drunk driving after he lost control while going the wrong way down a hill toward a highway. [17]  McCarey caused a whiff of a scandal in Going My Way by showing priests enjoying their drink in tiny doses. Good Sam and My Son John and Rally `round the Flag,Boys! (1958) all contain longish scenes of drunkenness treated as comedy, with, in two cases, tender wives looking with amused endearment upon their insufferably drunk and self-pitying husbands. McCarey was listed as the highest paid man in all of America in 1944. He made so few films, Edgar G. Ulmer tells us, because il avait “peur de ne pas réussir son prochain film.” [18]

All these disasters take their toll. Courage leads to obduracy which leads to confusion and disorientation. Already in Going My Way(where disasters seem to be befalling everybody), when Father Fitzgibbon tells us from his pulpit in 1944 to “Give what you can!” we understand that much more is being asked of us than money; similarly in Love Affair in 1939 we are solemnly reminded that “France needs men.” By the time The Bells of St. Mary was released (November 25, 1945), the elation of D-Day had long since given way to the winter of the Ardennes, to extermination camps and extermination bombs, to the sense than no victory had been won, that struggle was only beginning. The strain of war permeates this movie, reminding us every moment “how lousy things are”-and often giving us pain rather than entertainment. A schoolyard Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag is given a ritualized quality that to eyes today makes it resemble Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will; at any rate it has a grimness that evokes this time not Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address but his Second Innaugural: “With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” In The Bells of St. Mary’s, dedication has a martial tone: learn to fight. Father O’Malley cheers the victor in a schoolyard fight, and lectures Sister Benedict: “On the outside it’s a man’s world…Sometimes a man has to fight his way through….Don’t you think sometimes in raising boys that a woman’s influence can be carried too far…that they may become sissies?” Deep faith was the way, and a nurturing smile, we were told in Love Affair and Going My Way. Things are different now. In contrast to O’Malley’s earlier openness to the world and St. Dominic’s giant door, Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) lives in semi-monastic retreat and there is a desperation to her sense of luminous mission that makes her into a kind of Joan of Arc. She must have a miracle, and will accept martyrdom. And the miracle she demands is no longer the sort that Terry McKay and Father O’Malley and Ruggles wished for, the “miracles” that saved people; Sister Benedict wants to save an institution. In order to persuade a businessman to donate his new building as the new St. Mary’s School, Sister tells him it will survive when his body is dust. But it is Sister who leaves first. She pauses on the staircase, one last time, and McCarey’s camera lingers on the staircase after she is gone, because, thanks to Sister’s miracle, this staircase will endure after her body is dust.

Sacrifice is unrelentingly demanded of a McCarey hero. Where else in cinema does one find so onerous a sense of life? Dreyer? Bresson? “Going My Way” is now redefined as “the sixth sense [after “to see,” “to hear” etc.]: to be.” “To be, that’s what really matters. It’s like a world inside us and it’s up to us what we make of it….To thy own self be true!…To be or not to be, that is the question!” Is this Sartre or Shakespeare? Or is it steadfast loyalty to an institution?

My Son John is a logical development of these trends. We may think that My Son John is about John, but really it’s about the person saying “my”-the mother, Lucille Jefferson (Helen Hayes). Lucelle has a lot of Sister Benedict in her, including her luminous capacity for suffering. Her mind is extraordinary, clever and alive, at times sardonic, but with a compassion that puts her on McCarey’s highest moral plane.

In contrast, her son John (Robert Walker) has the mind of a cypher, with only a single manner (sardonicness), so that his love of “humanity and the downtrodden” prevents his loving actual persons. But John always assumes a position of authority. He makes the priest come to him outside the church, he stands waiting without budging an inch. He doesn’t give his parents an inch, either; his sardonic manner keeps them off balance.

And we tend to see things at first from John’s point of view, particularly the blustering slogan hurling of his father. How can a woman such as John’s mother, with so supple and nuanced a sensibility, endure someone as obdurate as John’s father? Dan Jefferson (Dean Jagger) is easy to dislike-for the same reason that Ma Cooper was easy to dislike in her son’s apartment in Make Way for Tomorrow, and Sam was easy to dislike at times in Good Sam – because Dan is out of place. One of My Son John‘s scenarists remarked after seeing the film that “what was coming off the sceen…was our dumbness-registered by McCarey with embarrassing fidelity….It’s [the] sound-of familiar conversational fatuity-that is the film’s real craziness. [19] But Lucille probably sees Dan the way he was ten years ago, in the first year of the world war, when he was indistinguishable from Jimmy Stewart or Van Heflin. Nowadays Dan gets disgusting drunk, and Lucille watches him with love and amusement. She represents McCarey’s third way; she’s Father O’Malley.

Nonetheless, it is not clear what McCarey’s intentions were for My Son John, because Robert Walker’s death intruded before filming could be completed. Thus the picture’s last fifteen minutes, after the climactic scene with John, Lucille, and Stedman, seem like a different movie, and not just because of a vastly different visual style necessitated by Walker’s death (short takes rather than long ones, because of the shortness of the clips of Walker that McCarey had to use from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train; voice-offs, because Walker couldn’t be lip-synched; absence of two-shots, of expressively expanded scenes). More importantly, there is no development or climax of McCarey’s melodrama, with its inextricably muddled conflicts.

What is missing is John Jefferson’s change, a change that would transcend the muddle, an inner revolution similar to Michel’s in Going My Way or to Terry’s in An Affair to Remember. Perhaps in McCarey’s original treatment (if one existed) there was something like that shawl or Father O’Malley’s hopeful smile, which would have rekindled a fire inside John Jefferson, leading him (and us) to rediscover fidelities we had thought to have left behind us, long ago. Perhaps, as in past pictures, McCarey would have synchronized John’s rebirth with our awakening awareness of Lucille as the movie’s focal point. On the other hand, all such hopes seem dashed at the point McCarey had reached in the movie when Walker died; even Lucille seems compromised.

Curiously, what McCarey finds terrible about Communism isn’t its despotism or economics but the elusiveness of John’s person (which McCarey identifies, in his fabricated finale, as secular humanism. “With no spiritual compass, I lost all sense of direction,” John confesses. What would McCarey think of us today?). Otherwise McCarey in My Son John pays absolutely no attention to Communism. He ignores it the way Dreyer ignores witchcraft in Day of Wrath. And instead like Dreyer he fashions a black comedy on how the effect of hunting the witches is to demonize religion, patriotism, and all human relationships, even motherhood. Skies are gray, shadows menace; the war is being fought on the home front; people start shaking and can’t stop.

Communism was a real fear in 1952, a fear “they” would do to use what they’d just done to Czechoslavakia, Hungary, and Poland. Worse, there was Korea, with its endless winters and endless deaths in a war that was even less popular than the war in Vietnam would be. “Communism” has Lucille surrounded on all sides-her jingoistic husband, her traitor son, her other two sons on their way to fight in Korea. “[Christ] died to make men holy, they may die to make men free,” she gasps to John, then adds, “They’re fighting on God’s side,” but her desperation makes it clear she does not quite accept this rationalization, does not truly believe that dying and “God’s side” are compatible.

At a time when the vilest crime attributed to Nazis and Communists was that they encouraged children to inform on their parents, McCarey shows us an America where parents are encouraged to inform on their chlldren. The FBI man idolizes this mother whom he calls “our witness” and regards her son with the same revulsion that Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln showed for a government prosecutor trying to force a mother to testify against her son. In Ford’s 1939 Lincoln is aghast that the state could suggest such a profanation; in McCarey’s 1952 America the state expects it. “We have to fight on the home front,” the FBI man explains, pointing to the Jefferson Memorial, but he mean’s Lucille’s home. No wonder, McCarey depicts the FBI’s entrance into her home in demonic terms-the shadow falling on a mirror, a variation on Love Affair‘s Terry McKay and the Empire State Building, where a reflection also evoked a dream.

In Ford’s movie Lincoln uses the heavens and the law to reunite a family; in America 1952 it is The Bible and John’s father who get John killed. Dan throws a Bible at John, who falls over a table and rips his pants, which are then thrown away, but which are found to contain an incriminating key. Worse, this mother not want merely to save her son, the way Grandmother wants to reform Michel. Lucille’s vision of earthly redemption is that even a reborn John should go to jail for the rest of his life.

Devastated, she sits alone on a bench in a park. We know this-in one of the most immoral scenes in cinema-because the FBI were photographing her hour by hour as she sits on that bench, and we watch as the agents stand around watching the film and talking about Lucille, like in a porno parlor, or in 1984. Big Brother is watching. But so is McCarey, who is photographing “Lucille,” and so are we. What, then, are we fighting for?

“If we let the state give us freedom,” exclaims Dan, “it also has the power to take it away.” Dan thinks he is reviling Communism. But what is happening in America? “Our methods are very often criticized,” the FBI man readily agrees, and then explains everything in language Noam Chomsky would understand, defining America as “a firm that protects its business.”

Yet these problems are universal. Of “Communism” or “Democracy,” of any of their specific issues, there is no serious presentation in My Son John. But perhaps instead there is the serious presentation of what ought to be an issue: the confusion. Our “real” world is made up of fantasy and emotion, as in Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, and McCarey does not stare less steadily at the terrible things in life: the war, there and here, the grayness that, outside, looks like frames from Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne – with the same Jansenist paradox of the absence of God (the gray winter, the cold, the death) and the omnipresence of grace (the glowing light; the sense of winter as hibernation).  How far this is from the Manhattan street in front of St. Dominic’s in Going My Way, from the faith that wishing will make it so and virtue can change the diabolic world. Even O’Malley’s irrepressible sidekick, Father O’Dowd, who is now the Jeffersons’ parish priest, has turned a bit solemn.

True spirituality was once McCarey’s third force: character as myth. In face of the demonic, there was a smile, genuine warmth, and inclusiveness. In face of secular reason and all good sense, there are Good Sam’s Franciscan interventions in aid of the unworthy. Sprituality was once the enchantment that overtakes protagonists when they sing and seem to inhabit a different reality, as they did in almost every McCarey movie-in long sequences invariably inserted into the plot just at the moment when we expect events to be rushing to their climax, because song is the climax. McCarey’s usedo the camera to record what it cannot see.

But My Son John has no songs.


[1] Peter Martin, “We shot D-Day on Omaha Beach,” The American Legion Magazine (June 1964): 16.
[2] In Time; quoted in James Harvey, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges (New York: Knopf, 1987), 272; no citation.
[3] Harvey, 272.
[4] Quoted in Dictionnaire du cinéma: les films (Paris: Lafont, 1992), 306; no citation. Trans: AM.
[5] Dictionnaire du cinéma: les films (Paris: Lafont, 1992), 305. Trans: AM.
[6] Bing Crosby and David Butler, “Remembering Leo McCarey,” Action (September 1967): 12.
[7] Quoted in Harvey, 269, presumably from Film Fan Monthly(September 1970).
[8]  Quoted in John A. Gallagher, “Leo McCarey,” in John Wakeman, World Film Directors: vol. 1: 1890-1945 (New York: Wilson 1987), 743; no citation.
[9]  Quoted in Harvey, 268; no citation.
[10] Harvey, 263 and 265.
[11] Larry Swindel, Charles Boyer: The Reluctant Lover (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983), 269.
[12] Serge Daney & Jean-Louis Noames, “Leo et les aléas,” Cahiers du Cinéma 163, February 1965; p. 18.
[13] Dictionnaire du Cinéma: Les Films (Paris: Lafont, 1992), p. 1199.
[14] Dictionnaire du Cinéma: Les Films (Paris–font, 1992), p. 1199.
[15] Peter Martin, “Going His Way,” Saturday Evening Post, Nov. 30, 1946; p.48.
[16] Jean-Louis Noames, “L’art et la manière de Leo McCarey,”Cahiers du Cinéma 163, February 1965, p. 25.
[17] Laurence Leamer, As Time Goes By: The Life of Ingrid Bergman(New York: Harper & Row,1986), p. 116.
[18] Quoted in Bertrand Tavernier, Amis américains (Lyon: Institut Lumière/Actes Sud, 1993), p. 173.
[19] Quoted in Harvey, p. 275; no citation.

About the Author

Tag Gallagher

About the Author

Tag Gallagher

Tag Gallagher has published definitive studies of John Ford (University of California Press, 1986) and Rossellini (ReviewedIssue 9 of Screening the Past). His "Hollywood Directors, 1932-55," which includes articles on Vidor, Hawks, Walsh, Tourneur and forty other moviemakers, appeared in Trafic 14-17 (1996). Major monographs include Renoir (Film Comment, January 1996; Cinémathèque, Fall 1996); Sirk (Film Comment, November 1998; Cinémathèque, Spring 1998); Ulmer (Cinémathèque, Spring 1999); McCarey (Jean-François Rauger, ed, Leo McCarey: Le burlesque des sentiments. Cinématheque française, 1998); Vidor (Nosferatu, November 1999); Francis Ford (Film Comment, November 1976); Abel Ferrara (Rotterdam Festival catalog, 1991). A piece critiquing genre studies appears in Film Genre Reader (ed. Barry Grant. University of Texas Press, 1986); one on Ford's treatment of Indians in Film Comment (September 1993) and in Jim Kitses & Gregg Rickman, eds., The Western Reader (New York: Limelight, 1998); and one on the family in American film in Mosaic (1983).View all posts by Tag Gallagher →