“Welcome Stranger” (1947) would likely play well for those who like Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald but find “Going My Way” (1944) too treacly for words. Both Crosby and Fitzgerald won acting Oscars for their roles in that film, and the film itself took the Best Picture Oscar that year, a feat that strikes many today as representing everything that’s wrong about the Academy Awards. More on that later.
Replace priests with doctors and you have the template for “Welcome Stranger.” Barry Fitzgerald plays Dr. Joseph McRory, a general practitioner in a small town in Maine who is scheduled to take his first vacation in years. While he’s away, he consults with the area medical board to arrange a substitute while he is away. Said substitute is Dr. Jim Pearson (Bing Crosby) who McRory had had some earlier humorous encounters (not to McRory) on the train. McRory doesn’t like Pearson and plans to stick around a bit (and localizes his fishing vacation much more than he planned) to make sure Pearson doesn’t muck up the works.
The townspeople are initially aloof to the substitute doctor – no Southern hospitality here – and Pearson is ready to leave on the first train. But like the situation in “Going My Way” the two doctors learn to eventually like and respect each other, finding that new ideas and old fashioned common sense – and experience – can do wonders when handling various medical crises that pop up.
Helping Pearson stay is local schoolteacher Trudy Mason (Joan Caulfield), fiancée of town pharmacist Roy Chesley (Robert Shayne, years before playing Inspector Henderson on the “Superman” TV series). Chesley’s father C.J. (Charles Dingle) practically runs the town and is anxious for both doctors to leave so he can put his own man in as head of the new hospital planned for the area.
Crosby and Fitzgerald are wonderful together and beautifully complement each other – the easy, laid back Crosby against the quirky and often befuddled (but always alert) Fitzgerald.
There’s an easy charm that permeates the whole film, but all is not saccharine and light. Originally the townspeople aren’t very friendly and there’s a story line concerning newspaper Bill Walters (Frank Faylen) who drinks too much and is on the verge of becoming a full blown alcoholic, much to the dismay of daughter Emily (Wanda Hendrix).
The songs by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke are very pleasant, with standouts being “Country Style” (a terrific square dance number, with Bing doing the calling. Is there any type of music Bing could not handle with seeming ease?) and the beautifully haunting “As Long As I’m Dreaming.” The latter is sung at the end of a long sleigh ride with Pearson and Trudy snuggled up amongst other townspeople. Other couples are necking, except Bing and Joan. Joan doesn’t seem too concerned, as she has Bing singing to her. Anybody can neck, few can croon.
The scene is beautifully lit and its one of my favorite Crosby moments ever. A few years ago I had a co-worker who told me she was going to spend Christmas in Vermont, where she was born. I asked her, “Where you raised in a Bing Crosby movie?” I was thinking, of course, of “White Christmas” (1954) but subconsciously was also thinking of that sleigh gracefully making its way through the darkened New England snowscape, and Bing singing a love song as only Bing could. It’s a lovely, lovely moment.
As I said earlier, I suspect that viewers may take more to “Welcome Stranger” than “Going My Way” the latter being an incredulous Os car winner to many. But I’ve always thought the Oscars were as much a barometer for what was going on in the world at the time as it is for honoring the best in cinema.
Two years ago “The Artist” won and I suspect that Oscar voters saw themselves in the same predicament as the film’s protagonist George Valentin, who was worried about the effect of talking movies on his career. Surely among that year’s Oscar voters were many technicians, set designers, costumers, and yes, performers worried about their futures. Why design sets and costumes when some computer whizzes can design a set and dress an actor using computers?
Last year’s winner “Argo”, while terrific entertainment, was hardly the year’s best film. But it spoke to a world yearning for solutions to the Middle East crisis where the good guys achieve victory without any killing.
“Going My Way” came out in 1944, while World War II was still raging. The studios were primed in the war years to product morale-boosting movies, both for the home front and the troops overseas. America and the rest of the civilized world were sacrificing their children and families to ensure that civilization would not crumble under Fascism and tyranny. A country that could produce “Going My Way”, showing the best of humanity and what the troops can look forward to coming home to, resonated with critics, audiences and Academy members in ways that seem foreign to us today. It likely would not have won if it had been produced after the war, but during World War II it was the right picture at the right time.
“Welcome Stranger” may not be as well-remembered as “Going My Way” but it is its equal in charm and tunefulness. It’s a most engaging movie, one I look forward to re-visiting in the future.