The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

When it’s on: Saturday, 23 December (6.45 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

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: ****

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Suspicion (1941)

When it’s on: Saturday, 13 June (12.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Over the years I’ve done an about-turn when it comes to my feelings regarding Suspicion. On my first couple of viewings, I derided it as a fairly lightweight piece of suspense melodrama, moving inevitably in one direction until its rather nonsensical ending. Since then, however, I’ve come to enjoy it more, appreciating the performances of the two leads – along with the supporting cast, and especially dear old Nigel Bruce – and delighting in the distraction-free build-up of tension.

Perhaps my opinion of it is based in part on an apparently universal consideration – Suspicion came after Rebecca; both starred Joan Fontaine, and whilst she won her Academy Award for this one it was seen as an apology for the Oscar she should have been given for her turn as Mrs de Winter. In short, Rebecca’s the better film, Suspicion a simpler and lesser effort. I still think Rebecca is brilliant, incidentally; it’s definitely in my top ten Hitchcocks (sadly, I do have a list of top ten Hitchcocks) and played a large part in making me a slavish follower of the great man. But there’s an awful lot going for Suspicion, made with both Hitch and Fontaine ‘on loan’ to RKO and giving Cary Grant his first of four starring roles for the Master of Suspense.

The story is a linear one, told largely without convolution and focusing tightly on the main pair. Fontaine plays Lina McLaidlaw, the bookish daughter of a rich family who seems resigned to a life of spinsterhood. By chance, she meets Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant) on a train journey. He’s in her first class carriage, but he’s carrying a third class ticket, which should give an early indication of the sort of man he is. Steadily, he charms his way increasingly into her life, winning her hand in marriage when she overhears her parents discussing her lack of prospects and is duly compelled into his arms on a reckless whim. Once wed, the problems really begin. Johnnie seems to spend with abandon but he has no source of income and little inclination to find one. His gambling debts become an issue for Lina. Later, she learns that he embezzled money from the accountancy firm he worked for briefly, amassing £2,000 in arrears that he has no means of paying back. Into their home comes Johnnie’s friend Beaky (Bruce), a nice but slightly dim patrician who might as well come with a big ‘Kick Me’ sign on his back. Beaky sees Johnnie’s rogueish ways as essentially harmless japery, but Lina suspects differently when her husband comes up with investment projects for them both, involving Beaky’s money. When Beaky dies in Italy, having consumed too much brandy (something that the film establishes will be the end of him), she becomes certain Johnnie’s at least involved. Coming across a document that implies she would need to die in order for his insurance payout to happen, she starts fearing for her own life as every word and gesture Johnnie utters seem loaded with murderous intent.

Over the years, Suspicion has become as famous for what happened behind the camera as anything witnessed on the screen. Seen as a pawn in the endless battle for control waged between Hitchcock and producer David O Selznick, the film’s production was defined by hissy fits by Fontaine (quite a different character off-screen from the timid personality she projected on it), the two stars clashing, and that ending. Suspicion was adapted from Francis Iles’s 1931 novel, Before the Fact, a murder story without the mystery because it was told from the perspective of the victim, who was recounting the events leading up to her imminent poisoning by Johnnie. The film follows the book’s events reasonably closely, until the critical denouement when Lina refuses to drink the milk brought to her by her husband, a concoction that it’s strongly implied is laced with ‘a substance in daily use everywhere. Anyone can lay his hands on it, and within a minute after taking the victim’s beautifully out of the way. Mind you, it’s undetectable after death (quoted from Lina’s friend, the Christie-esque crime novelist Isobel (Auriol Lee)). In the minutes that follow, Johnnie is cleared from suspicion in Lina’s mind, a cop-out ending that slaps the face of almost everything that’s happened beforehand, though there’s a nice possibility that she’s just believing what she wants to believe and Johnnie will deal with her later, perhaps not long after the RKO logo has signaled the end of the movie.

The reason they went for the finale they did was all bound in the presence of Cary Grant, a likeable star over whom audiences would disapprove when they learned he was playing a murderer. Instead, he’s every inch the charming rogue as essayed by Beaky, haplessly falling in too deep when his happy go lucky relationship with money threatens to land him in trouble. Hitchcock complained about Suspicion for the rest of his life, arguing they should have gone for the novel’s climax but were overruled by conservative studio bosses. And what a neat piece of work it would have been, the clean-cut hero turning out to be a callous villain, but alas not to be.

That isn’t to say Suspicion isn’t a very good ninety five minutes of entertainment. The crux is on the screen very early when it’s made clear Lina fancies the pants off Johnnie. There’s a moment when he’s fiddling with her hair, teasing it into silly shapes, and every time he touches her it forces a visible sexual shrill from Fontaine, clearly unused to being touched so intimately and liking it very much. As soon as they’re married the tension kicks in, from little instances of deceit like Johnnie hawking their antique chairs to the death of Beaky, which points all the way to a contrived murder by his best friend. Beneath the handsome, winning exterior, he’s a sociopath, something Lina slowly comes to realise despite her wishes that everything will be all right in the end. The film contains some delicious scenes, like the Scrabble game in which Lina’s making words with the tiles like ‘doubt’ and ‘murder’ whilst imagining Johnnie hurling Beaky from a clifftop. and then there’s the best moment, the serving of the ‘murderous’ glass of milk. Johnnie carries it up the stairs to their bedroom on a silver tray; everything’s in shadow apart from the milk, which glows luminously in the dark to force the viewer’s perspective onto it. Marvelous filming, the stuff of dark intent.

By all accounts, the Johnnie Aysgarth who appears in Before the Fact is an implacable cad, having an affair behind Lina’s back and being every inch the heartless opportunist who’s prepared to kill his way out of debt. Grant’s Johnnie is a softer character, likeable despite himself and salvageable because of his one saving grace, that he does in fact love Lina. Fontaine’s character isn’t quite the tossed about wallflower she played in Rebecca, but her dogged devotion to – and eternal willingness to forgive – Johnnie turns her into a bit of a chump, albeit one caught in the trap of loving him too much to feel any other way.

The film is a startlingly good exercise in pure suspense, eschewing potential sub-plots in order to emphasise the central couple and build the tension between them. I really like it, and can’t think of many better ways to while away an afternoon than by taking this in, and then Rebecca, which follows at 2.40.

Suspicion: ****

PS. For a Facebook group I’m part of, I counted down a personal top ten of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Difficult to confine it to that many, to be honest, with apologies to other films I really like, such as (but in no particular order) Frenzy, Sabotage, The Trouble with Harry, Lifeboat, The Birds, Rope, I Confess and Dial M for Murder. Let’s face it, the man was a stone cold genius. The running order, over which you are welcome to disagree, is:

10. Notorious
9. The 39 Steps
8. Psycho
7. Rebecca
6. Rear Window
5. Strangers on a Train
4. The Lady Vanishes
3. Shadow of a Doubt
2. North by Northwest
1. Vertigo

Operation Petticoat (1959)

When it’s on: Friday, 12 June (4.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Here’s the first of a Cary Grant double bill, celebrating one of the most famous and best loved Hollywood movie stars of all time by looking at two quite difference pictures. Today’s is Operation Petticoat, a 1959 comedy made when Archibald Alexander Leach’s attachment to a project pretty much guaranteed box office and audiences knew just what they were getting from him.

Operation Petticoat is classic Saturday afternoon matinee fare; it’s likely that viewers of my generation caught it on a BBC2 weekend slot. The film’s good natured, amiable and never outstays its welcome. Despite being longer than two hours, it doesn’t feel like it; I could have handled more. Perhaps the comic potential of a premise that pairs Grant with Tony Curtis was just too good; add into the mix an early directorial outing for Blake Edwards, to whom I’ll always be grateful for the Pink Panther films, but whose work took on a definite ‘coasting’ quality in later years. There’s little of that here. It isn’t that Operation Petticoat is in any way brilliant, profound or has much to say about the human condition, more that there’s nothing wrong with whiling away a pleasant two hours in good company and that’s what this film amounts to. It was a big hit with the public, third only to Ben-Hur and Psycho at that year’s box office, which isn’t bad company to keep.

Grant plays Lieutenant Commander Sherman, captain of the US submarine, the Sea Tiger. It’s December 1941; a Japanese air raid damages the Sea Tiger, leaving it ready for scrapping and the Commodore transferring Sherman’s crew elsewhere. Feeling sorry for the already discarded submarine, Sherman asks to make an effort to repair it with the help of any available crew he can find, and is also assigned Lieutenant Nick Holden (Curtis). Whereas Grant’s character is more or less a straightforward navy man, Holden is a grifter. Given the wide-encompassing title of Supply Officer, Holden scrounges, borrows and steals items in order to patch the submarine together (and keep himself in a certain style), and then they’re off, making for the nearest dockyard with an interesting array of smoke belches and noises accompanying every knot achieved. At a nearby island, Holden picks up a bevvy of female military nurses to catch a lift with the crew, causing mayhem among the all-male complement and consternation to Sherman, who finds his ordered world beginning to crash around his ears. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Attempting to give the Sea Tiger a fresh coat of paint, the crew are forced to improvise with the undercoat and turn it pink, and then a fresh Japanese attack forces it to flee before the regulation grey can be applied. At one point, Sherman spies an enemy tanker he can torpedo, a first sinking for his sub, only one of the ladies accidentally knocks the trigger as it’s being positioned and all they hit is a truck on the shore.

There’s a certain ‘old world’ mentality to the film, especially when it comes to the objectification of women. Their presence on the Sea Tiger is seen by most of the crew as giving them something to ogle, whilst Sherman is compelled to make a new rule about how they carry themselves when walking down the submarine’s narrow corridors in case they find themselves in close proximity to Dolores Crandall’s (Joan O’Brien) generous assets.

But mostly, it’s just good fun, the slight sense of peril that comes with being a lonely (pink) submarine traversing mainly enemy waters watered down in place of comic moments, which Edwards mines to frequently delightful effect. Grant plays down his usual leading role to portray the largely straight man to Curtis’s loveable rogue, all crumpled dignity and world weariness, whilst the younger actor plunders the impish repertoire of Grant’s own early performances in producing his own. Operation Petticoat was a big earner for the leading man. Its budget was escalated and colour film preferred once he came on board, and his decision to take a share of the profits landed him something around the $3 million mark once it became a success.

Though some of the action scenes made good use of models, real US Navy submarines were used in the filming, including the USS Balao, which bore the Sea Tiger’s pink paint job. The plot took in a number of real life incidents; the torpedoing of the truck was based on an actual attack on Minami Daito in which a bus was swept into a harbour when the dock it stood on was hit.

Operation Petticoat gets by on a good deal of charm, a couple of great performances and some genuinely funny moments. It also bypasses any sense of reality by finishing with the now Admiral Sherman offering Holden the command of a brand new atomic submarine, presumably a reward for his quick thinking and ingenuity. Honestly though, would you trust your nuclear missiles with this man?

Operation Petticoat: ***

Father Goose (1964)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 4 March (1.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

I haven’t watched every title in the cavernous Cary Grant boxset yet, but of those I have the actor is always immaculately turned out – tailored to perfection, suave to the point where effortless loses any meaning. All except one. For his penultimate starring role, Grant opted to play Walter Eckland in Father Goose, swapped the Savile Rows for loose, casual clothes, stopped shaving and never knowingly appeared sober. The result was a success, a fine story that hit the right notes both dramatically and in terms of broad comedy, whilst the star quickly sank into his role to turn Eckland, the sort of man you would expect to be inhabited by Humphrey Bogart circa The African Queen, into more than a novelty character.

Father Goose takes place during World War II. Far from the main theatres of conflict in the South Seas, the British are forced into retreat by Japanese forces and are pulling back from bases that risk being overrun. The local naval commander, Frank Houghton (Trevor Howard), needs people posted on remote islands to keep an eye out on enemy aircraft, and coerces Eckland – who’s little more than a drifter, albeit one with his own boat and steady supply of liquor – into filling in temporarily. The unhappy Walter accesses his new home, a spit of tropical paradise, with little sense of civilisation other than a hut containing a radio, and starts reluctantly sending messages to Houghton in exchange for the locations of booze bottles that have been hidden away. He’s forced to go by the codename Mother Goose, though frequently forgets this.

Given the opportunity to visit a neighbouring island and fetch his replacement radio operator, Eckland finds the Japanese have got there before him and killed the man. They missed Leslie Caron’s embassy teacher, Catherine Freneau, however, and the seven schoolchildren who accompany her, and he ends up taking all of them back to his base. It’s a working relationship made for disaster. Miss Freneau is appalled by Frank’s scruffiness and drinking. He has no place in his life for a snooty teacher and even less for kids. And yet, over time the pair reach an understanding and inevitably fall for each other, whilst they await rescue and attempt to avoid the encroaching enemy.

Grant had wanted a role like Eckland for some time and clearly relishes playing the cantankerous loner on a mission to escape the bits of the world that contain other people. According to Caron and Stephanie Berrington, who played the oldest child and develops a girlish crush on his character, he was great fun to work with, and had an entire team of writers on hand to polish jokes in the script. Howard has a good time also as the seaman who shows endless patience in his willingness to indulge Eckland’s wiles and grumpiness.

But it all pivots on the blossoming relationship between Eckland and Catherine. The pair have a number of great scenes together, their mutual spikiness undermining everything each other stands for. Neither can gain the upper hand. Catherine hides the booze in an attempt to reform his character, which just riles him and has the pair slapping each other in the face , completely deadpan. In one of the best scenes, Catherine thinks she has been bitten by a water snake (it turns out to be a tree branch) and Walter learns that the poison carried by the local serpents is invariably deadly. Having attempted to suck out the venom, he resorts to desperate measures and gets her drunk, leading to them telling their life stories and Catherine surprising him with her gymnastic abilities. There’s some great interplay between Grant and the kids also, as the latter develop a liking for the grizzled guy and warn him when Catherine’s approaching so that he can hide his grog bottle.

Despite the peril of discovery and attack, the main focus is on comedy, meaning the potential suspense of being assailed by Japanese hordes is never very palpable and any remaining tension is purely sexual in nature. Perhaps director Ralph Nelson, who cut his teeth in television and wisely concentrated his camera on the performers, thought the sight of a megastar like Grant roughing it held enough shock value. It’s slightly overlong at nearly two hours and, once Catherine enters the story, really has only one direction. Yet it’s all played so winningly, the limited characters so likeable, that it can’t really fail and it doesn’t. The sharp screenplay, by Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff, who based Father Goose on a short story by SH Barnett, won an Academy Award.

Father Goose: ***