The Bishop's Wife (1947)

I always find it humorous that my all time favorite Christmas film was produced by Sam Goldwyn.  It's no surprise that the film is well made, a nicely budgeted, neatly cast and crafted film.  As an independent, Goldwyn knew where and how to put money into a film, quality always!  Directed by Henry Koster a film that could easily be maudlin, one that could be ever so dated or ever so preachy with religiosity, is miraculously not.  It is magical and awakens in me a childlike wonder that is the spirit of the Christmas season.  A very different film than Frank Capra's 1946, and much much darker, It's a Wonderful Life.  Robert Nathan's novel was adapted by Robert E. Sherwood and was helped along with some uncredited fixes by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.

Cary Grant as Dudley in the film opening

The film is beautiful to look at deep, focused, sharp black and whites as only Gregg Toland could do.  You can see the cut of Loretta Young's impossible cheekbones, the depth of Cary Grant's dimpled chin.  The sets, opulent, detailed and Toland's cinematography let's you drink in all the carved woodwork of the Bishop's home and office, all the architectural detail of Agnes Hamilton's mansion; and the warmth of the lighting makes me want to settle in the "only reliable chair" in Professor Wuthridge's little apartment (so reminiscent of the older Victorian apartments in San Francisco).  The film is one I find always welcoming and warming, inspiring, like the ever-filled bottle of sherry (spoiler) "that warms, inspires and never inebriates."

Monty Wooley as Professor Wuthridge

It has been often related that Cary Grant was originally cast as Bishop Henry Brogham and opted to switch roles with David Niven who had been cast as the angel Dudley.  Once can immediately see why Grant would opt for the role of the angel, he is so much more fun than the frustrated and cranky Henry.  Niven spends most of the film being ungrateful and unsympathetic.  Henry many be a man of God, but, it's a thankless role.  His vision has been skewed in his quest to build this white elephant of a cathedral.  Niven resists the help of his guiding angel and fosters a huge festering sore of jealousy, to boot.

Grant spends the film seemingly pursuing the Bishop's Wife, Julia played by Loretta Young.  But is he pursuing her or is he trying to knock some sense into the distracted, inattentive and increasingly jealous Henry?  The posters advertising the film seem to point in this direction as well, with Grant taking up the ice skate-clad Young with Niven looking on.  Young and Niven were very old friends in real life dating from the time Niven first arrived in Hollywood in the mid 1930's.  Their scenes together as a couple who seem to not to be marching together, but away from one another are understated in their awkward and wordless sadness.

Young plays Julia as long suffering and sad at the breach with Henry.  She is also confused and not a little fearful by her attraction to Dudley.  That said, she welcomes the innocent fun of spending time with this solicitous man.  It's refreshing!  In her heart though, she recognizes the wrongness and danger of it.

Grant, as always, seems to be playing a variation on his own screen persona, affable, charming, everyone wants to have this easy way with life as did Cary Grant.  His Dudley never speaks or proselytizes and he never seems to give actual guidance.  He waves his hand elegantly and makes some magic happen to get the disagreeable jobs done, so he is free to do what angels do best.  He makes others think they come up with the great idea to do some good.  His charm is evident immediately as he affects every single female he crosses paths with, not only Julia, but Elsa Lanchester (Mathilda), Sara Hayden (Miss Cassaway), a women in a hat shop, 3 old gossipy biddies in Michele's restaurant (I always ask, since he carries no money, who pays for the lunch and drinks?), Agnes Hamilton (played by the luminous Gladys Cooper), and finally, Henry and Julia's daughter Debbie. 
Dudley tells Debbie a story

Other than the impressed and surprised Regis Toomey as Mr. Miller, and the cabbie Sylvester (James Gleason), the menfolk in the film are far less impressed with Dudley's charms.  Henry who knows Dudley is an angel, he cannot express it.  The skeptic Professor Wuthridge (Monty Wooley) is the other voice of reason who knows something is not quite right from the begining.  Dudley is not of this place and time but he cannot put his finger on it.  Wuthridge is also touched by inspiration when Dudley explains the meaning of his useless old Roman coin.  A miracle, to be sure, he's gotten the Professor to actually start working on his long promised history of ancient Rome.

James Gleason is a free soul, a philosophical cab driver (a cliché in itself) who shows he is more joie de vivre than cynical man.  Gladys Cooper is typecast as a straight-laced and determined rich widow who melts into quivering jelly within 5 minutes of meeting Dudley (who would not I ask you?)

The film is a series of vignettes, all woven together with threads of gold.  Is it sentimental?  Yes.  Is it sappy? Perhaps.  Is it a delightful confection with jus a tiny bit of a message?  Yes.

The religiosity is minimal and is saved the visit to St. Timothy's (Henry's old parish church) with the welcome musical interlude by the Mitchell Boychoir and for the very end when Henry who whether he liked it or not had been guided as he wished.  His heart has been opened, his faith and marriage restored and the film concludes with every story neatly wrapped in a Christmas bundle with the sermon that Dudley has re-written for him.
David Niven reading out the Christmas Eve sermon
Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking.

Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child's cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven't forgotten that night down the centuries.
We celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, with the sound of bells, and with gifts.

But especially with gifts. You give me a book, I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry can do with a new pipe. For we forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. Its his birthday we're celebrating. Don't let us ever forget that.

Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shinning gifts that make peace on earth.

The takeaway for me every time, is the last line, "Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shinning gifts that make peace on earth."

We need this message more than ever in 2018 and beyond.  Underneath, we are all the same, we all live on the same planet.  Since 2017 was so difficult for so many and for so many reasons, I will endeavor to remember this for 2018. 

I love this film (and I hope you love it too).  I will watch it again before Christmas day and broadcast out good wishes to all. 


Hans said…
Beautiful film and a well written article. Thank you. I seem to remember that one of the boys skating on the pond was played by the same child actor who played young George Bailey in "Wonderful Life".

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