TCS Daily

When Liberalism Was, Well, Liberal

By S.T. Karnick - December 30, 2004 12:00 AM

TV stations tend to show the great 1944 film Going My Way, directed by Leo McCarey and starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, more often around Christmas, even though only a couple of scenes are set during Advent.

The film, however, always repays watching. In particular, it illustrates the superiority of moral suasion over coercion in the creation of civil order -- a lesson always worth remembering. Although Going My Way won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the film's reputation rapidly declined beginning in the 1960s, and critical consensus has long dismissed as trite, sentimental, and unsophisticated. This is an entirely erroneous and indeed dimwitted interpretation of the film, and one that cries out for redress.

The story is familiar: easygoing, likeable Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) is assigned by the local Catholic bishop to help bring St. Dominic's Church, a faltering urban congregation led by Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), back to its feet and in particular to overcome its financial problems. Crosby's O'Malley represents the liberal side of the church -- as it was then manifested, it is important to remember -- and Fitzgibbon the conservative aspect.

The key element here is that Crosby's liberalism is entirely limited to means, not ends; he is merely trying to find ways to enable the church to treat the ills of a rapidly changing society, not to change its doctrines of belief. In the end, of course, O'Malley's approach proves surprisingly successful, and he is sent on to the next challenge. What is in the middle is a very intelligent, sophisticated, decent, and engaging film -- exactly what we should expect from McCarey, who is now greatly underrated.

The most interesting aspect of the film is the centrality of the motif of generational conflict, and specifically of reconciliation between parents and children. As such, authority is a central concern. Fathers O'Malley and Fitzgibbons initially suffer a good deal of conflict, until O'Malley is placed explicitly in a position of authority when Fitzgibbons consults the bishop and is told that O'Malley is now in fact his superior.

O'Malley had not told him this, preferring to spare him any emotional hurt, though it of course made O'Malley's work much more difficult. Their personal conflicts play out as a clear father-son type of relationship, and they end only when the father figure realizes that the time has come for him to hand over the reins of the "family" -- St. Dominic's church, of course -- to his "son". McCarey and the actors beautifully display the mixture of pride and melancholy in the handover of authority: Fitzgibbons is initially humiliated by it, but ultimately is proud of the fine man the Church has raised up to replace him.

Similarly, the local landlord, who owns a long-overdue mortgage on the church, is in conflict with his son, who values family and service to others far more highly than the obsessive accumulation of material assets which motivates his father. Eventually, the father comes to see things the son's way, realizing that, yes, love is indeed the most important and satisfying thing of all.

The young, however, are not always in the right in the film. Also central to the story is the presence of a young woman who has left her family in search of a career in music, for which she is clearly not suited. She is willing to live on the streets rather than stay at home with a family that does not show her affection and that treats her thoughts as not even worth discussing (at least, according to her statements, and we must suppose there is at least some truth to her characterization, else why would she be so desperate to leave?).

Rather than condemn her, as others in the church family are doing, O'Malley acts as a surrogate father to her and tries to guide her without her knowing it, in the same manner in which he has been dealing with his own surrogate parent, Father O'Malley. The young woman comes perilously close to disaster, but O'Malley's subtle and gentle guidance averts the impending catastrophe. The key element here is Father O'Malley's realization--never stated but implicit in his actions--that what she is really searching for is unconditional love and respect. He goes about ensuring that she finds it, and successfully puts her in the right situation.

Father O'Malley also serves as surrogate parent to a group of young neighborhood tough guys, and here again, his strategy is to understand the motives of his young charges and adapt his methods so as to speak in terms they can understand.

In addition, Father O'Malley arranges a reunion between Father Fitzgibbons and the latter's nonagenarian mother, whom Fitzgibbons has not seen since leaving Ireland many years before.

In each of these cases except the last-mentioned, O'Malley suffers much opposition and risks a good deal of personal harm in the form of loss of friends and career. Yet he is insistent on doing the right thing, despite his placid demeanor. What is politically interesting is that O'Malley's goals are quite conventional, traditional, bourgeois ones, but the means he is willing to use are all what we would characterize as liberal. They are based on an effort to understand exactly what a person is trying to accomplish, and then seeking to figure out an alternative way for them to achieve it.

Father O'Malley's efforts to get people to change always involve persuasion, not coercion. It is this that religious institutions do best, and in this respect their treatment of moral issues is far superior to the coercive methods of governments.

O'Malley's activities illustrate an important aspect of the word liberal -- a generosity of spirit that takes the form of wanting what is best for others, regardless of the consequences for oneself. They also reflect the important liberal concept that only acts done with an individual's consent can ultimately be fulfilling and to that person's credit -- O'Malley shows an intuitive and automatic dislike for coercion. His liberalism is an entirely laudable one, and he is quite an impressive and inspiring character.

There are many other interesting themes and motifs in the film, but the father-child one is what really holds it all together. This thematic unity is quite impressive, and it is directed toward entirely laudable ends. Filmmakers today could learn much about their craft by studying this remarkably intelligent, sophisticated, mature, and original film.

Going My Way is one of those rare movies that is actually more substantial than it seems.

S. T. Karnick is senior editor for The Heartland Institute, associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, and coeditor of The Reform Club.


TCS Daily Archives