Father Charles “Chuck” O’Malley (Bing Crosby), an incoming priest from East St. Louis, arrives in New York City with an unconventional style that will transform the parish life of St. Dominic’s Church.
On his first day, O'Malley gets into a series of mishaps; his informal appearance and attitude make a poor impression with the elder pastor, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). The very traditional Fitzgibbon is further put off by O’Malley’s recreational habits – particularly his golf-playing – and his friendship with the even more casual Father Timmy O’Dowd (Frank McHugh). In a discussion between O'Malley and O'Dowd without Fitzgibbon present, it is revealed that O’Malley was sent by the bishop to take charge of the affairs of the parish, but that Fitzgibbon is to remain as pastor. To spare Fitzgibbon’s feelings, the older pastor is kept unaware of this arrangement and believes that O’Malley is simply his assistant.
A series of events highlights the difference between O’Malley and Fitzgibbon’s styles, as they deal with events like a parishioner being evicted and a young woman named Carol James (Jean Heather) having run away from home. The most consequential difference of opinion between O’Malley and Fitzgibbon arises in their handling of the youth of the church, many of whom are consistently getting into trouble with the law in a gang led by Tony Scaponi (Stanley Clements). Fitzgibbon is inclined to look the other way, siding with the boys because of their frequent church attendance. O’Malley seeks to make inroads into the boys’ lives, befriending Scaponi and eventually convincing the boys to become a church choir.
The noise of the practicing choir annoys Fitzgibbon, who finally decides to go to the bishop and ask for O’Malley to be transferred away. In the course of the conversation, Fitzgibbon infers the bishop’s intention to put O’Malley in charge of the parish. To avoid an uncomfortable situation, instead of making his initial request, Fitzgibbon asks the bishop to put O’Malley in charge, and then, resigned to his fate of losing control over the church, he informs O’Malley of his new role.
A distressed Fitzgibbon then runs away, leading to a search. He returns late at night, and as O’Malley puts the older priest to bed, the two begin to bond. They discuss Fitzgibbon’s long-put-off desire to go to Ireland and see his mother, whom he's not seen since he left Ireland as a young priest to come to America, and who is now over 90. O’Malley puts Fitzgibbon to sleep with an Irish lullaby, “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral”.
Jenny Tuffel (now Genevieve Linden) (Risë Stevens), an old girlfriend of O'Malley's whom he left to join the priesthood, now has a successful acting and singing career. O'Malley and Jenny discuss their past, and she performs a number from her starring role as Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera.
O'Malley next pays a visit to Carol, who is now suspected of living in sin with Ted Haines Jr. (James Brown), the son of the church's mortgage-holder, Ted Haines Sr. (Gene Lockhart). On this visit, O’Malley describes to the young couple his calling in life to “go his way,” which to him means to follow after the joyous side of religion and lead others to do the same. He performs for them the song “Going My Way,” which he wrote on this theme.
Jenny visits O’Malley at the church, sees the boys’ choir, and reads the sheet music of “Going My Way.” She, O'Malley, and Father O’Dowd devise a plan to rent out the Metropolitan, perform “Going My Way” with the choir and a full orchestra, then sell the rights to the song, thereby saving the church from its financial woes. The plan fails, as the music executive (William Frawley) brought on to hear the song does not believe it will sell. The choir decides to make the most of its opportunity on the grand stage, and sings another song, "Swinging on a Star". The executive overhears the song and decides to buy it, providing enough money to pay off the church mortgage.
With the church affairs in order, O’Malley and Fitzgibbon go on a golf course together. Just as everything seems to have fallen into place, though, the parish church is damaged in a massive fire. O'Malley prepares to move on to a new assignment from the bishop. He leaves O’Dowd to be Fitzgibbon’s new assistant, putting Tony Scaponi in charge of the choir. On Christmas Eve, parishioners gather in a temporary church for a service that also serves as O'Malley's farewell. As a going-away present, O’Malley has sent for Fitzgibbon’s mother from Ireland. As mother and son embrace for the first time in 45 years, the choir sings “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral”, as Father O’Malley quietly slips away into the night.
Filming locations included the following:Lakeside Country Club, 4500 W. Lakeside Drive, Toluca Lake, Los Angeles, California (golf sequences)
Paramount Studios, 5555 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California (studio)
St. Monica Catholic Church, Santa Monica, California (St. Dominic's)
Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, California (parking lot)
According to The New York Times, Going My Way was "the best" of Crosby's career, which is "saying a lot for a performer who has been one of the steadiest joys of the screen. But, in this Leo McCarey film,...he has definitely found his sturdiest role to date." The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther criticized the film's length while lauding Crosby, and noting that "he has been stunningly supported by Barry Fitzgerald, who plays one of the warmest characters the screen has ever known. As a matter of fact, it is a cruel slight to suggest that this is Mr. Crosby's show. It is his and Mr. Fitzgerald's together. And they make it one of the rare delights of the year."
Variety liked the film, saying: "Bing Crosby gets a tailor-made role in Going My Way, and with major assistance from Barry Fitzgerald and Rise Stevens, clicks solidly to provide top-notch entertainment for wide audience appeal. Picture will hit hefty biz on all booking...Intimate scenes between Crosby and Fitzgerald dominate throughout, with both providing slick characterizations...Crosby’s song numbers include three new tunes by Johnny Burke and James Van Heusen — ‘Going My Way,’ ‘Would You Like to Swing on a Star’ and ‘Day After Forever.’ Trio are topgrade and due for wide pop appeal due to cinch recording and airings by Bing. He also delivers ‘Ave Maria,’ ‘Adeste Fidelis’ and ‘Silent Night’ in addition to a lively Irish-themed song, "Toora-loora-looral" with boys’ choir accompaniment."
At the 17th Academy Awards, Going My Way was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including two for Barry Fitzgerald, whose work on the film was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. (Subsequently, the rules were changed to prevent a recurrence.) It won seven, including Best Picture.
In 2004, Going My Way was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant"."The Day After Forever" (Jimmy Van Heusen / Johnny Burke) sung by Bing Crosby and Jane Heather, and again by Jean Heather.
"Three Blind Mice" sung by Bing Crosby and the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir
"Silent Night" sung by Bing Crosby and the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir
"Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That's an Irish Lullaby)" sung by Bing Crosby
"Recitative and Habanera from Act 1 of "Carmen" sung by Risë Stevens
"Going My Way" (Jimmy Van Heusen / Johnny Burke) sung by Bing Crosby, and again by Risë Stevens and the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir
"Ave Maria" (Schubert) sung by Bing Crosby, Risë Stevens and the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir
"Swinging on a Star" sung by Bing Crosby and the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir
Bing Crosby recorded six of the songs for Decca Records and some of them were issued on a 3-disc 78rpm set titled Selections from Going My Way. “Swinging on a Star” topped the Billboard charts for nine weeks in a 28-week stay. "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That's an Irish Lullaby)" was in the charts for twelve weeks with a peak position of #4. "The Day After Forever" and "Going My Way" also charted briefly. Crosby's songs were also included in the Bing's Hollywood series.
Going My Way was adapted as a radio play for the January 8, 1945, broadcast of The Screen Guild Theater starring Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald and Paul Lukas. It was also adapted for the May 3, 1954, broadcast of Lux Radio Theater with Barry Fitzgerald.
The film also inspired an hour-long comedy-drama of the same name during the 1962–63 television season starring Gene Kelly in the role of Father O'Malley. The series ran on ABC for one season.