August 13, 2013


Going Hollywood (1933) was a gambit by William Randolph Heart to rejuvenate his lover Marion Davies’ career, but instead it accelerated the rise of Bing Crosby. By the end of 1933 Crosby was a top-ten box office attraction, while Marion Davies would be out of movies altogether a few years later. Like their careers, the whole movie is pulled in different directions, as its patchwork backstage musical romantic comedy plot lunges from lavish Busby Berkeley style spectacles to a filmed radio show.   Even the box office receipts are schizophrenic, with a cost of $914,000 and total revenues of $962,000 it was a money-maker that barely broke even. Though immensely talented, the actors perform at cross-purposes, with Crosby at his most louche and Davies in a perpetual panic. That Going Hollywood holds together at all can be credited to ace songwriting duo Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, as well as director Raoul Walsh, who had just managed the controlled chaos of his turn of the century NYC comedy The Bowery (1933). Going Hollywoodis out now in a handsome DVD from the Warner Archive.

Through his Cosmopolitan Production company, Hearst optioned “Paid to Laugh” by Frances Marion, who had provided many stories for other Davies films in the recent silent days. He handed the adaptation to Donald Ogden Stewart, a playwright and budding screenwriter who would go on to pen such knee-buckling classics as Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). In his magisterial Bing Crosby biography, Gary Giddins relates that it was MGM lyricist Arthur Freed who requested that Bing Crosby be hired as the lead. Crosby was the only singer, Freed felt, who could “put over” his doomed lust song “Temptation”, written with his partner Nacio Herb Brown. Before he became ingrained in American consciousness as the singing priest from Going My Way (1944), Crosby had a reputation as a hard partier. Hearst was wary of casting him because of his womanizing, but relented when Davies also pushed to hire the crooner.

It was only after the film was ready to shoot that Walsh was hired. Walsh recalled how the Cosmopolitan rep made the offer: “The Chief wants you to direct a picture”, spoken like a royal decree. He had seen Crosby perform at the Coconut Grove, and was pleased to work with him. He also didn’t buy the prevailing narrative regarding Marion Davies, saying, “The catty whispers that Hearst alone was responsible for keeping her in the public eye were forgotten as soon as one watched her in action.” He had clearly seen Davies in King Vidor’s Show People, which is the superior model for their scattershot production.

Hearst gathered the whole cast and crew at his San Simeon estate for a week, where they rehearsed and rubbed shoulders, reportedly with a nonplussed Winston Churchill. During this period Marion Davies asked Walsh if he had ever been to Rockaway Beach as a child, and when he said yes, she dubbed him “Rockaway Raoul”, a nickname which stuck for the duration of the production. Bing Crosby even wrote a song called “Rollicking Rockaway Raoul”, a biting little ditty about the Going Hollywood production. The last lines: “And now that we’re through/MGM can go screw/Says Rollicking Rockaway Raoul”, enraged MGM to the point where Walsh says he and Bing were banned from the studio lot. A party recording of the song was released on the bootleg “Both Sides of Bing Crosby” (if anyone knows where I can find a copy please let me know).

The movie itself seems tame in comparison, but it has its compensatory pleasures. Marion Davies plays Sylvia, a free-spirited boarding house French teacher who “seems to go about in a dream.” When she hears Bill Williams (Crosby) croon sweet nothings on the radio, she packs up and moves to Hollywood. She works her way up from extra to featured player, and even catches the eye of Bill, who is otherwise in the clutches of French bon-bon Lili (Fifi D’orsay). He has to choose between booze and Lili or clean living and Sylvia.

The Freed/Brown score is superb, and there is an inventive staging of “Beautiful Girl”, a tune which would later re-appear in Singin’ in the Rain. In this equally mocking version Crosby is cutting a single as he circles through his morning routine, putting on his pants and pouring his alka seltzer, the poor sound man struggling to keep up with his circlings. The slapstick on-screen is in direct inverse with the saccharine beauty pouring out of the speaker – though the two meet up when he sings the last lines, “I forgot the words…so that will have to do.” Crosby plays Bill as a consummate actor, this scene suggesting there might not be an authentic personality underneath his pipes.

Sylvia is desperate to find out, and follows him on his train ride west, impersonating a French maid along the way. Davies was famous for her impressions, and Walsh lets her loose with one of her friend Fifi D’orsay, an exuberant foot-stomping routine mocking D’orsay’s thick accent and narcissistic persona. Davies’ love of mimics may explain the presence of an inexplicably long sequence of the three “Radio Rogues” plying their wares on the air, with imitations of Kate Smith and Rudy Vallee among others. There is also a hair-raising scene of Davies masquerading in blackface, speaking in Hollywood’s made-up “mammy” dialect. These disconnected vignettes give the film a sketch comedy feel – although some of these never should have made it past dress rehearsal.

It is clear that Freed and Brown tailored their songs for Crosby, with “Temptation” the infernal highlight, bringing out a dissolute side to his perfect pitch. Set in a dingy night club, Crosby sits with a bright cocktail, his hair ever slightly mussed. Fifi D’orsay is seated to his left. Walsh frames him in profile from the knees up, staring at her. He sings, “You came/I was alone”. Then he cuts in closer, from his head to his cocktail. “I should have known/you were temptation.” Then there is a jarring cut, to D’orsay in an extreme close-up, staring straight into the camera, bringing a glass to her lips. The spatial relations are all off from the classical style. She should be gazing screen right, to match Crosby. But then Walsh inserts chiaroscuro shots of the dance floor, the revelers shuffling like zombies. With the camera too close for faces to be distinguishable, it’s clear the film has entered some kind of nightmare. Crosby begins gazing upwards, his eyes brimming with tears. He stops acknowledging Fifi’s presence, as she’s as much inside his head and his body as she is sitting on the seat next to him. The sequence ends with him finally taking a sip of his drink, furthering his intoxication, and cementing his status as a star.




As WWII was winding down, the most popular character in America was the singing priest Chuck O’Malley. As portrayed by Bing Crosby, O’Malley was an amiable reformist, trying to bring Catholicism out of the cathedral and onto the streets. Created in collaboration with director Leo McCarey, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) were the highest grossing films of their year, and amassed ten Academy Awards between them. Adjusted for inflation, The Bells of St. Mary’s made more money domestically than The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Father O’Malley is a kind of Catholic superhero, trying to modernize the religion before it lapses into irrelevancy.

Following Going My Way, McCarey was one of the highest paid men in America, and he could call his own shots. He formed a production company, Rainbow, and started planning the sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s, which he sold to RKO (Going My Way was distributed through Paramount). He developed the story with screenwriter Dudley Nichols, which focuses on the efforts of Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) to acquire a new building for her crumbling school, which will soon be shut down because of code violations. Father O’Malley is the new parish priest who must try and corral her ambition.

Bergman was under contract with David O. Selznick, so RKO had to pay him $175,000 to borrow her services, as well as sell him the rights to Little Women and A Bill of Divorcement. Bergman recalled how Selznick attempted to dissuade her from accepting the role, arguing that she “would just be a stooge for Bing Crosby’s singing.” She was enraptured by McCarey’s energy, though, and felt that, “If you didn’t like him, there was something wrong with you.” It was a hefty sum for RKO to pay, but Bergman had just won the Best Actress Oscar for Gaslight, and teaming her up with Crosby was the safest box office bet in town. Crosby was an altar boy as a teenager, and attended a Jesuit secondary school, but dropped out of Gonzaga to pursue a career in music. Conversant with both laissez-faire parishioners and strict observers, he was the ideal personality to bridge the gap between the traditionalist and progressive wings of the Catholic church.

While the episodic Going My Way has a tendency to meander, The Bells of St. Mary’s is anchored by the bubbling rapport between Crosby and Bergman. In a reversal of traditional gender roles, O’Malley is presented as a tender nurturer, while Sister Mary is strict and assertive, even teaching a young boy how to box. Crosby is introduced to St. Mary’s school through a series of humiliations. He is chastised by the maid (Una O’Connor), who clucks “I see you don’t know what it means to be up to your neck in nuns”. In Going My Way he owns every room he’s in with his laid back charm, whereas when he lays back here, he accidentally hits a buzzer and rouses the whole convent. Upon entering the conclave, he proceeds to sit down on a shrieking kitten. And when he gives his welcome address to the nuns, another cat toys with a straw hat behind him, causing the sisters to erupt in laughter.

Despite these indignities, Father O’Malley is still eager to assert his masculinity, so after two kids end up in a brawl, he expresses pride that they stood up for themselves. He tells Sister Mary, “On the outside, it’s a man’s world.” Mary replies, “How are they doing, father?” Their shifting power relations are expressed through the direction of their gaze. Mary begins her retort with modesty, eyes looking down, but by the end of her pointed phrase they drift up and stare straight off-screen at O’Malley, with the edges of her mouth curling into a grin. In his reaction shot O’Malley exhales and looks down, mumbling, “not doing too good” under his breath. This oblique reference to the horrors of WWII is also a decisive moment in their relationship. From here on out they exchange roles – Mary will exert aggression, and O’Malley compassion, accepting his subordinate role in the school’s pecking order.   He becomes a matchmaker for an estranged husband and wife whose daughter attends the school, while Sister Mary teaches her kids how to swing a baseball bat and throw a punch.

McCarey modeled Bergman’s character after his aunt, also named Sister Mary Benedict, a member of the Immaculate Heart Convent in Hollywood. Bergman portrays her with impish exuberance, an admitted tomboy who still finds pleasure in upsetting the expectations of how a nun is supposed to act. Bergman is very loose and inventive, and contributed eagerly to the improvisations that McCarey encouraged. Off-hand gestures, like how she flips a baseball off her wrist in a sporting goods store, or exaggerates her footwork during a boxing lesson, were made possible by McCarey’s improvisatory process. During down time, the director would sit at a piano and spitball ideas with the cast, encouraging acts of wild spontaneity. Bergman was already feeling free, not having to worry about her figure since she was clothed in a nun’s habit for the entire feature. “I was like a child with money”, she recalled, “and in the country of the greatest ice cream.”

McCarey put this improvisatory process on the screen with the Christmas Play, which Sister Mary is overseeing. She lets the children write it themselves, and informs O’Malley that, “Every time they do it, the dialogue is different.” The children are clearly making it up as they go along, as Bobby (the son of musical director Robert Emmett Dolan) hems and haws his way through the story of the birth of Jesus, ending in a tableaux of golf-club wielding shepherds. Instead of closing with “O Holy Night”, the kids sing “Happy Birthday”. Despite being set at a Catholic school, The Bells of St. Mary’s is quite secular, presenting the church as more of a social services organization than a religious one.

This is made explicit with the subplot of Patsy Gallagher (Joan Carroll), whose single mother pays the bills through prostitution. O’Malley takes her in as a student without asking questions, and tracks down her errant pianist father. This whole section plays like canned melodrama, a staid commercial for the value of church in the community. It almost seems as if McCarey included these scenes so he could get away with the more subversive antics of the rest of the movie.

One of the next turning points in the film occurs during a secular song. Sister Mary is singing a traditional Swedish folk tune by the piano with the nuns gathered all around her. O’Malley is attracted to the scene by her lilting soprano. He steps towards the circle, and McCarey cuts into a shot from his POV. It is the most artful composition in this otherwise classically framed film, in which two black habits join in the foreground to make a “V” shape, with Sister Mary’s face centered in the middle, as if in a cameo necklace. It is a devotional image, but this is not a religious psalm, but a love song.

Her eyes are shaded downward as she trills the lyrics, which roughly translate to: “Spring breezes whisper and caress loving couples/Streams rush by/But they are not as swift as my heart”. As she winds the song to a close, her voice lowers. But she inches up her head and finally sees O’Malley, which makes her voice fly up the scale to hit her highest note, which breaks up into a chuckle and a grin: “Oh, Father O’Malley!” In recognizing his gaze, she breaks the spell, but the tenor of their relationship has changed.

Their reciprocal glances continue to build in intensity, as word comes down that Mary will be transferred to another convent out West. It is ordered by her doctor, but O’Malley has to pretend it was his decision. This betrayal of trust triggers her shift from secular to spirtual, folk song to prayer. Before her departure, she kneels in in the chapel. Her eyes are directed upwards as she pleads,“Dear Lord, remove all bitterness from my heart”. It is a rare acknowledgment of God’s presence in a film otherwise occupied with the physical. As she passes by O’Malley outside the doors of the convent, her stare is unwavering, as she searches for some flicker of regret in his face. But there is none.

As she is about to depart, her prayer is answered. O’Malley calls her back, and gives her the truth. He did not order her re-assignment. Sister Mary closes her eyes in ecstasy, a beaming smile lighting up her face. She simply says, “Thank you, father. You’ve made me very happy.” They hold each other with their gazes, neither breaking away. For the first time their looks are equal. This is as close as they can come to a declaration of love.

Aware of the erotic tension of this goodbye, Ingrid Bergman planned a practical joke on the final day of shooting. In one of the last takes she threw her arms around a stunned Crosby and kissed him passionately on the lips. Reportedly one of the priests on the set jumped up and yelled, “You can’t use that!” McCarey didn’t, but this missing negative should be as sought after as the original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. Something else to pray for.