The golden age of popular, pious, genial Hollywood Catholicism is more or less bookended by two hugely successful Best Picture winners: one about a singing priest, the other about a singing postulant nun turned wife and stepmother.
Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby as a crooning cleric who embodied a new image of cool Catholicism, was the #1 film of 1944, confirming Catholicism’s mainstream acceptance in American popular culture. And in 1965 Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, for a time surpassing Gone With the Wind to become the #1 film in Hollywood history, came at end of an era, not just for Hollywood Catholicism but for classical Hollywood cinema. The next Hollywood blockbuster with a comparable Catholic presence would be The Exorcist in 1973.
Ironically, the coolness of Crosby’s Father O’Malley, so groundbreaking at the time, hasn’t aged as well as the nostalgic charm of The Sound of Music, which was already square and old-fashioned when it debuted. In fact, it may be partly precisely because Father O’Malley was hip and Julie Andrews’ Fraulein Maria wasn’t that Going My Way feels much more dated than The Sound of Music. Perhaps nostalgia ages better than coolness.
Half a century later, The Sound of Music is probably still the world’s favorite big-screen stage musical adaptation. Joyous, gorgeous, comforting, full of (almost) uniformly spectacular songs, the film’s emotional power is irresistible, even for the many critics, such as Pauline Kael, who hated its shallowness and emotional manipulation.
What makes it work, above all, is Andrews’ sweet sincerity and commitment. Any flicker of condescension or pretense on her part and the whole thing would collapse into treacle and camp. But cynics will search her face in vain: Her sincerity is absolute, and she sells the role and the film.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.