Saturday, April 27, 2013

Flashback, April 1963: Gene Kelly’s TV Misstep With ‘Going My Way’

On screen and behind the camera, Gene Kelly had earned a reputation for starring in and co-directing artistically daring yet commercially sure-footed musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, and On the Town. Yet his attempt to make the transition from film to television ended, after one disappointing season, with the airing of the last first-run episode of Going My Way, which aired April 24, 1963. It would be the only time he would ever star in a series on the small screen.

Many of my readers are likely to do a double take at the conjunction of “Gene Kelly” and Going My Way in the same paragraph. Didn’t I have in mind another amiable, toupeed, Irish-American song-and-dance man?

But no, this was not a mistake. Crowding 60 years old by this time, Bing Crosby was well past the point when he could reprise his Oscar-winning turn as the youthful Fr. Chuck O’Malley—and, at 50 years old, Kelly’s window of opportunity to play the role was closing fast, too.

This big-screen property, like its star, it turned out, didn’t have much spring left in its steps on television, either. Going My Way lasted only 30 episodes on ABC—nowhere near the 80-100 often desired for daily syndication of reruns—so most readers without a DVD player will be very unlikely to have seen it since it went off the air in the summer of 1963.

Initially, the show had seemed a congenial career prospect for Kelly. After the failure of the 1956 musical It’s Always Fair Weather, he had tried one movie project after another. But though Invitation to the Dance, Marjorie Morningstar and Inherit the Wind had all proved interesting, his box-office clout had waned.  At the same time, several TV specials (e.g., Dancing: A Man’s Game) had showcased his still-considerable dancing skills; a series shot at a Los Angeles studio meant that he could be around for his second wife, then pregnant with their first child; and the money offered was reportedly very good.

And so, despite a temperament in childhood that left others convinced that, in his words, "No-one in the world ever thought of my becoming a priest – except my mother”; despite common knowledge that he was divorced, at a time when the practice was far less common for Catholics than today; and despite his less well-known ambivalence about the Church (though he had his children baptized, his anger at what he perceived as the Mexican church hierarchy's indifference to the poor turned him into an agnostic)—Kelly signed on for the role.

But the title of the last episode, “A Tough Act to Follow,” reflected the predicament of this comedy-drama. In fact, in a sense, it had two tough acts to follow.

First, of course, was the 1944 Oscar-winning Best Picture on which it was based. The series was missing the services of director Leo McCarey, who knew how to leaven shamelessly corny material (not just Going My Way but also An Affair to Remember) with enough droll bits to make it all bearable. (In Going My Way, see the scene where Barry Fitzgerald, as Fr. Fitzgibbon, struggles unsuccessfully with a turkey.) This, after all, was the man who had helmed the best projects of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Charlie Chase.

By 1962, however, even if he had been inclined to try his hand at TV, McCarey had elected to take a permanent vacation from the entertainment business altogether following an unhappy experience with another priest-centered film, Satan Never Sleeps, starring William Holden.

In the era of studio dominance, Hollywood was often likened to a factory, underscoring its reputation for lack of individuality. But, though A-movie directors such as McCarey continued to be second-guessed by suits in that era, at least, more often than not, they had the opportunity to work on a scene until they had gotten it close to exactly right.

Those conditions did not obtain in television. Kelly already knew, from his TV dance specials, how limited this rising medium could be technically compared with film (the small screen, by necessity, in those days could not take in all of a dancer’s body). But in episodic TV, the pace was grueling: stories had to be completed in four days, with a fifth given over to reading a script and the weekend to learning it. For Kelly, a cinematic perfectionist famous for putting himself and co-workers alike through the mill to wring out the results he wanted, there was little time to make his impact felt.

The second tough act to follow was Kelly himself—or, rather, the weight of expectations created by his dazzlingly innovative work. The studio system had a simple rule: If you had an actor with a particular gift, then make sure, by hook or by crook, that the script used it. Thus, for what was essentially a nonmusical part, Bing Crosby still got to warble a couple of tunes (including an Oscar-winning Best Song, “Swinging on a Star”).

In contrast, the TV version offered little such opportunity for Kelly fans. The first episode had Fr. O’Malley do a quick Irish jig at a party for Fr. Fitzgibbon. Thereafter, instances when the famous hoofer got to do the old soft-shoe were few and far between.

Some of this may have had to do with the star’s own preference. Kelly, a liberal Democrat, wanted to depict the Church as a socially relevant institution. At least partly for that reason, a significant change from the film was the introduction of Tom Cowell, a childhood friend of O’Malley’s who, as director of a center for at-risk youths, frequently interacted with O’Malley and Fitzgibbon. (The fact that he was a Protestant also imparted a more ecumenical aspect to O’Malley’s character.) In fact, the actor who played Cowell, Dick York (befriended by Kelly during filming of Inherit the Wind), also got second billing over the man who had the unenviable task of replacing the scene-stealing Fitzgerald as Fitzgibbon, Leo G. Carroll. 

The format of the show--what Richard Wolff, in The Church on TV, referred to as the "clerical melodrama"--allowed its priest protagonists to wrap up difficult problems in a mere hour. So, for instance, not only was the plight of immigrants depicted, but also a situation confronting America even more forcefully at that moment: acceptance of African-Americans. The series, in fact, seemed to focus less on the priests' work with Mass and the rituals of their life and more on their social impact.

The series was essentially marketed as a remake/spinoff of the film, but a critical element had changed from the transfer to the small screen. Carroll played Fitzgibbon as sweetly befuddled at times, whereas Fitzgerald introduced edge into the character. (The elderly pastor of St. Dominic's had, after all, interceded with the bishop to have his new young "assistant" transferred before being gently put in his place.) That meant the series would not have the dramatic arc of characters, despite their differences, learning to like and respect each other, that the film had. 

More than that, the softening of the Fitzgibbon character meant that the series would not be able to reenact an underlying theme of the film: the generation gap. Oddly enough, the story that McCarey had fashioned, in collaboration with screenwriters Frank Butler and Frank Cavett, would become relevant by the mid-Sixties in a way that nobody in 1944--and probably even by the time the TV series was canceled--could have thought. The seriocomic clash of viewpoints and wills onscreen between young and old  anticipated a similar generational chasm two decades later. Crosby and Fitzgerald might have played two clerical "fathers," but the outlines could be seen there of the mutual failure of understanding between biological fathers and their children in the Sixties.

One unlikely source that understood this motif was Mad Magazine, which in the early 1970s satirized the beloved film by reimagining it with a contemporary twist: The young priest was a bearded, radical hippie. “Going ALL the Way,” the spoof was called. Yet, even though the series had been off the air only a decade or so (less of the interval between now and when Seinfeld wrapped up shop), no allusion was made to the TV series. It was as if all traces of it had been wiped from the consciousness of the younger generation.

Going My Way’s gentle, inoffensive comedy made it a favorite with viewers who wanted wholesole family entertainment. Unfortunately, it made its biggest impact in Catholic countries abroad rather than in the United States, where it was regularly roughed up by the number-one comedy on TV, The Beverly Hillbillies. The handwriting was on the wall, and even a lift in the ratings in the summer wasn’t enough to save Going My Way from cancellation.

Kelly’s co-stars would land in longer-lasting series within a few years: Carroll, on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and York on Bewitched. But this would be Kelly’s last shot at a series in which he played a significant role.

In the early 1970s, he acted as host for a TV variety show series called The Funny Side, but he did not appear in any skits and the show was canceled more quickly than Going My Way. His return to film in the next decade became a series of directing hits and misses: success with A Guide for the Married Man, mega-disaster with Barbra Streisand’s Hello, Dolly, and one that got away in Cabaret (he turned down the chance to direct because he wanted to be near his wife while she was dying). 

I was intrigued and astonished to learn about this sole foray of Kelly into a starring role in a TV series when I saw a Biography special on the star. This past Christmas, I became aware that the show was available as an 8-DVD set. Intrigued, I ordered a copy. 

Kelly was right about one thing: The show’s scripts are predictable and pedestrian. At the same time, many viewers such as myself will be willing to overlook—or, in a word that Fr. O’Malley would use much, “forgive”—this notable entertainment sin, for several reasons:

1)      Its utter innocence stands in sharp contrast to contemporary TV. It is the same quality you will find in Leave It to Beaver or The Donna Reed Show—but, unlike those sunny sitcoms, Going My Way at least didn’t pretend social problems didn’t exist. Network censors might have put matters of sex and violence beyond its ken, but the show at least had the virtue of believing that there was more to life than these instincts. Contrast it to Mad Men, which, with all its intrigue, seems to have difficulty imagining a human being who doesn’t harbor a dark secret. As for reality shows—well, don’t get me started.

2)      It had a fascinating group of guest stars. Among the many stars who appeared in the show’s short run were Ralph Meeker Anne Francis, George Kennedy, Eddie Bracken, Harry Morgan, Jack Warden, Kevin McCarthy, Beverly Garland, and James Whitmore. It also spotlighted other actors who, in explicably, never became bigger stars, such as Patricia Barry, the daughter-in-law of Philadelphia Story playwright Philip Barry.

3)      It had Kelly himself. It’s simple: Talent will out, no matter what the circumstances. The scripts might not have been everything Kelly hoped for, but he gave it everything he had, and that was considerable: all the intelligence and charisma that he could bring to a role that paid tribute to “the young parish priests who had such an influence on us when we were kids in Pittsburgh.”  The hoofer’s description of one, Father Tynan—“a handsome, tough, well-educated fellow, virile and energetic, who played third base like crazy and had a way with kids, tough or otherwise”—sounds like a blueprint for the charming, baseball-loving Fr. Chuck O’Malley. These days, you’re more likely to see a priest doing the perp walk on Law and Order: SVU than you will a portrayal such as Kelly’s. 

Kelly’s Going My Way, then, works best for those who want a holiday from irony. I readily confess that there are times when I want that badly myself.

(The image accompanying this post shows Kelly with veteran character actor Fred Clark on the set of Going My Way. Contrary to any impression I may have left with you, the star is not expressing dismay here over his latest script; rather, he is staying in character in the episode “A Matter of Principle,” as Fr. Chuck has, uncharacteristically, felt compelled to kick a boy off the St. Dominic’s basketball team.)

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