When it’s on: Saturday, 23 December (6.45 am)
I posted a comment about The Bishop’s Wife as part of an extended ramble last Christmas on these pages. It was the first time I had seen the film, which felt like an enormous oversight because it came across as almost a perfect seasonal offering, and I was happily swept along with it. That said, in the UK at least there’s one classic slice of Hollywood melodrama that beats all others when it comes to Christmas films, so looking beyond It’s a Wonderful Life can be difficult. The Miracle on 34th Street gets a look in, though the number of people who think the Attenborough remake is the definitive version is a concern, but there’s little attention paid to the likes of The Shop Around the Corner, which is a beautiful piece of work that deserves more love, while the charm of Bing Crosby tends to sidelined into the ‘Musicals’ category rather than celebrated for its seasonal cheer. So then you get the various adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and a gem like The Bishop’s Wife is relegated to the early hours of a Yuletide schedule as opposed to the frequent theatrical exhibitions of It’s a Wonderful Life that show the extent to which it’s celebrated.
The Bishop’s Wife was an RKO picture made on the back of The Best Years of Our Lives, a box office bonanza and Oscar winner for Samuel Goldwyn, who ordered a Christmas movie for 1947. At the time, It’s a Wonderful Life was a commercial failure, so the project was something of a gamble, and things got worse as the A-List cast of David Niven, Loretta Young and Cary Grant clashed on set. Part of the trouble was resolved when its male stars swapped roles, and watching the film it’s tough to picture Niven in any other part than that of the troubled bishop, a soul-troubled character whose personal demons too well reflected the recent real-life bereavement he had suffered. Young and Grant took umbrage against each other all too often, falling out over the latter’s perfectionism that slowed down the filming and the fact both preferred to be shot from the same side, making a challenge of the many scenes when they were facing each other. It’s a credit to both performers that the chemistry between their characters was intact throughout, indeed the sparks possibly helped the jarring, ‘not quite right’ on-screen relationship that depicted his romantic overtures she was unwilling to reciprocate.
In the film, Grant plays Dudley, an angel who gets assigned to help a young bishop, Henry Brougham (Niven). The bishop is striving to have a cathedral built in his town, a task that depends on the patronage of the local matriarch (Gladys Cooper), but her interest depends on his agreement that it will be an edifice to her late husband. This troubles his pure motives for building the cathedral, but the bigger issue for him is the time he’s spending on the planning, which is distancing him from his wife Julia (Young) and their daughter. Dudley reveals himself to Henry, who has natural doubts about his angelic status but nevertheless agrees to take him on as an assistant. This introduces Dudley to Henry’s entire world, not just his project but all the people in it, including his family and house staff, as well as their friends within the community. Increasingly, while the bishop attends endless meetings Dudley’s role becomes that of companion to Julia, and the pair grow closer, much to Henry’s dislike who can see the effect on his wife all this attention is having.
The romantic triangle at he heart of the film isn’t its most interesting dimension. As enchanted as Julia is by Dudley’s attentions, her heart very clearly belongs to Henry, who is portrayed as having lost his way, and then not in a way that leads him to committing any evil. He certainly doesn’t deserve to lose his wife, who gives every impression of understanding his preoccupation with the cathedral, and as a result the hints of Dudley’s efforts being to do more than ease Henry’s soul don’t really amount to much. Of far greater value is the effect his presence has on everybody else. Monty Woolley’s broken History Professor, a kindly man who has for years been devoid of inspiration for writing his book about Ancient Rome, regains his impetus thanks to Dudley’s gentle prodding. Cooper’s status in the film as its potential ‘Mr Potter’ is unmasked when the angel intervenes and gives her a glimpse of the humanity in her life that its been lacking. His interaction with the staff at the bishop’s house, notably Elsa Lanchester’s blousey maid, is quite heartwarming, and in the film’s most touching scene, he persuades cabbie Sylvester (James Gleason) to join Julia and himself in an impromptu ice dancing adventure. The scene is intended to hint at the developing feelings between the stars, but it’s Sylvester, recapturing a joie de vivre through his moment of sheer childlike joy, which leaves the most lasting impression. It’s lovely, innocent stuff.
Of course, by the movie’s end everyone is in ‘happily ever after mode, just as they should be, and Dudley leaves having completed his mission, albeit after almost undermining it at the climax. For me, it’s a note that jars ever so slightly, the idea that an angel would gain feelings for a ‘mortal’ just because he’s played by classic romantic lead Cary Grant and he has to have that storyline, but it’s not enough to ruin the overall sentiment that’s been created. If The Bishop’s Wife has a core message, it is that everything will turn out all right in the end, and I think a Christmas picture can have no better one. It was directed by Henry Koster, who replaced the original choice and pretty much restarted the shoot from scratch, capturing the whimsical tone that had been missing from its initial filming. Whether this or 1950’s Harvey is the better of his light fantasies is entirely up to the individual viewer, but both have unmistakable charm and never fail to entertain.
The Bishop’s Wife: ****