How does a frustrated Episcopal bishop thwart divine intervention and win back the affections of his wife? This is just one question answered in Henry Koster’s triumphant romantic fantasy, The Bishop’s Wife (1947). Not particularly well received upon its’ initial release, today the film is widely regarded as a holiday classic and rightfully so. With each passing year, and from our current moral ambiguity perpetuated by a Hollywood that seems more proficient at exorcising our nightmares than indulging our dreams, it becomes glaringly obvious how profound and professional the old studio system was at hand-crafting such effervescent holiday fare. Of course they were working with extraordinary talent both in front of and behind the camera; the elegant Cary Grant herein cast as a celestial messenger; David Niven, his obtusely belligerent and perpetually frustrated fop, and Loretta Young the very picture of gentle grace in feminine fortitude.
The Bishop’s Wife continues to work its magic, delivering its blessed message of goodwill, because its stars outshine the obviousness and absurdity of its story. Adapted by Leonardo Bercovici and Robert E. Sherwood from a novel by Robert Nathan The Bishop’s Wife tells the tale of two men challenged in their faith. The first, Bishop Henry Brougham (Niven) has been driven to distraction by his own ambitions. But the otherworldly creature sent in reply to his prayers harbors an even more complex, and perhaps slightly sinister desire to experience human love one last time. This struggle of wills is ultimately distilled into a traditional confrontation between two men vying for the affections of the same woman. But the broader implications of how a God-sent miracle could inadvertently become untrustworthy and perhaps even destructive to the humanity it has been sent to serve, tests the boundaries of Christianity in all sorts of subliminally fascinating ways.
Like another truly inspired holiday classic, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, a darker undercurrent of faith emerges in The Bishop’s Wife; one that will challenge our protagonist’s resolve. For Dudley (Grant), presumably sent to assist the bishop in his work, is hardly as pure of heart, faith or motive as his outwardly cordial façade suggests. Before long Henry realizes that in wishing for one dream he may have inadvertently sacrificed another – the singular bliss he once shared with his wife, now fast slipping away in the arms of this ethereal interloper.
As our story begins Bishop Brougham has been toiling for months on plans for the new George B. Hamilton memorial cathedral. Funding for the project has reached an impasse with stoic widow, Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) who demands that its religious iconography take on the continence of a shrine to her late husband. Losing sight of his commitments to his own family, wife Julia (Loretta Young) and young daughter, Debbie (Karolyn Grimes), as well as his flock of parishioners, Henry seeks a moment of clarity from God. But he also needs to be taught a lesson.
Enter the charming, yet devious angel, Dudley (Cary Grant). The truth of Dudley’s being is revealed only to Henry. Yet Dudley wastes no time sparking a romantic longing within Julia, although not necessarily for her husband. Indeed, Dudley’s arrival is both a blessing and a curse; steering Julia toward a series of playful dalliances that gradually motivates her to question her loyalty to hearth and home. But is it Dudley’s intent to elevate these tension between Henry and Julia merely to prove a counterpoint that will reawaken Henry’s feelings toward his own wife, or has the angel disavowed his true calling to pursue a mortal woman for his own advantage? We’re never entirely certain. The actors, particularly Grant, exercise their motivations with an ambiguousness that suggests anything is possible. Our angel is trustworthy to a point, but hardly perfect. He can be tempted, at least enough to defy the powers of heaven and earth for a chance to satisfy dormant, though never entirely forgotten earthly urges.
After the bishop is detained with another round of committee meetings, Dudley surprises Julia with an impromptu visit to the park where she has taken Debbie to play. The child is engaged in a rousing snowball fight before being sent off with the bishop's scatterbrain housekeeper Matilda (Elsa Lanchester). This frees Julia to experience a luncheon date with Dudley at Chez Michel, the restaurant where Henry proposed and the place in which so many happy memories for Julia exist from those bygone days. Again, the moral ambiguity in Dudley’s purpose make these scenes crackle with an unexpected romantic longing; both satisfying yet double-edged. Dudley reads Julia’s palm explaining, "I see a woman who is adored...you were born young and that's how you'll always remain." But is this a moment of sincerity designed to rekindle the past for her or mere cheap flattery contrived to woo Julia away from it and into Dudley’s arms?
The film’s central narrative is mildly complicated by the introduction of a tertiary character, the curmudgeonly Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley) who has been struggling for many years to write his history text book about the Roman world - a project effectively ruined when Mrs. Hamilton had Wutheridge fired from the university because of his 'progressive' teaching. Wutheridge is an ardent admirer of the female sex and regards Julia as one of the finest women he has ever known, telling Dudley, “If you want to know about a woman ask the old men…they know!” Dudley lies to Wutheridge about having been a pupil of his long ago in Vienna, then sets about rekindling the disgraced academic’s verve for scholarship by revealing to him a rare ancient coin that might have been used during Caesar’s time. Wutheridge, Dudley and Julia share an intimate afternoon of discussion inside the professor’s apartment where Julia confides her sadness over the way their lives have shifted away from the friends they once cherished.
Orchestrating yet another diversion for Henry that will detain him at the widow Hamilton’s estate, Dudley accompanies Julia to Henry’s old parish, St. Timothy’s where he was supposed to attend a boys’ choir rehearsal that Dudley knows well enough he cannot. In one of the film’s most deliberate exaltations, Dudley wills the boys who have yet failed to arrive on time into a choral mass of heavenly voices. Afterward, Dudley escorts Julia past the window of a hat shop. Earlier Julia had admired a bonnet in its display case that she restrained from buying because of its extravagance. Now Dudley encourages her to indulge in what Julia refers to as ‘her wickedness’. He further promotes her delinquency from returning home after the rehearsal by suggesting that they hail a taxi to Central Park where they do indeed enjoy a moonlit skate with their cabdriver, Sylvester (James Gleason); whose own faith in humanity is restored shortly thereafter.
Returning home much later, Julia incurs Henry’s impatience and the mood between husband and wife sours. Henry re-channels his jealous toward Dudley, ordering him from the rectory. Dudley obliges, but playfully warns Henry that he will be back. The following afternoon Dudley makes good on this promise, engaging Debbie in the story of Daniel and the lion – beautifully retold with wide-eyed simplicity to appeal to the child in all of us. Rewriting Henry’s Christmas blessing after having dismissed his secretary, Mildred Cassaway (Sarah Haden), Dudley arrives at the widow Hamilton's stately manor under the pretext of having come on a matter for the church.
Instead he plays a composition by the late Allen Cartwright - the only man Mrs. Hamilton ever loved but ultimately the lover she cast aside for the security that her late husband's money could afford. It is implied that this wounding of their mutual affections resulted in Cartwright’s premature death – a burden Mrs. Hamilton has carried close to her heart ever since. Hearing the composition played on the harp in her living room, the widow Hamilton is stirred to kindness; the experience ultimately softening her resolve towards the bishop. Thus, when Henry and Julia arrive much later that same evening to finalize plans for the cathedral, they learn that Mrs. Hamilton has decided instead to disseminate her worldly funds to the poor and the needy as they require it.
Bitter that his cathedral shall never rise, Henry returns home more distraught than ever. Dudley makes his most obvious play for Julia, a move that utterly convinces her she loves her husband more than ever. In response to making her cry, Henry challenges Dudley to an earthly conflict, one narrowly averted when Dudley reasons that he has made Henry aware of the wellspring of his own affections toward Julia at long last. Removing himself from the family’s home once and for all, Dudley also erases his memory from the Brougham’s minds and hearts. They have forgotten this strange ethereal man who has resurrected their passion for one another, but moreover blessed them with the true spirit of Christmas. As Henry delivers Dudley’s sermon from St. Timothy’s pulpit – oddly enough believing it to be his own – we see Dudley quietly observing his own words repeated to him from just beyond the church’s front gate, the angel left to wander the darkness after having left behind so much otherworldly light.
The Bishop’s Wife was independent producer Samuel Goldwyn’s personal production; an elegant holiday tale that ultimately developed into so much more. Hugo Friedhofer’s inspired score elevates the gentle unassuming romantic elements while keeping the comedic undertones in balance with the ever so slightly moody undercurrents in the story. In the embodiment of Cary Grant, there is more than just a genuine sense of unearthly presence. Veering between naughtiness infused with a saintly veneer, Grant is believable as the angel with a personal agenda. Indeed, the Cary Grant persona – usually referenced as the urbane sophisticate - herein suggests something slightly more dangerous yet utterly more appealing; an immediacy to the man that dispels the cliché iconography of what we perceive to be an ‘angel’. And Grant repeatedly, and perhaps even deliberately, relishes testing these limitations without becoming a detriment to the character.
The film is equally blessed by its two supporting stars: David Niven and Loretta Young. Young embraces a high morality and proud ideals of the devoted wife and mother without becoming preachy, saintly or wistfully lost in the purity of the part. Julia Brougham may be the bishop’s wife, but she has a mind and a stubborn will of her own – exercised and tested by Dudley’s more spurious intensions toward her. And it is to Young’s credit that she manages a contented, almost regal kindness throughout the film that never sinks her part into the treacle of rank sentiment. As for David Niven: in a role that might have reduced him to mere caricature – a dupe for the comedy – the actor instead manages to evoke a more intimate sadness. We feel for Henry Brougham, even as he seems incapable of seeing the error of his ways. That intangible empathy is impossible to quantify but pure gold to behold. And in the final act it remains a majestic epitaph delivered with poetic, yet understated grace that lives on long after the houselights have come up.
"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. 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. It's 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."
MGM/Fox’s DVD has re-released as a single after appearing in their Holiday Classics box last year. Regardless of the version you acquire, you’ll be getting the same base transfer with problematic mastering. Although the B&W image can be quite sharp and detailed, there is an extensive amount of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details throughout the presentation that tends to distract. It’s a genuine shame we couldn’t have had better luck with this title. As WB as since managed to acquire the Samuel Goldwyn catalogue from MGM/Fox one may hope that a future Blu-ray is in the works. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.
On the whole the gray scale is solidly rendered, although several sequences look as though contrast levels have been artificially boosted. Age related artifacts are present but not pronounced. The audio is another curiosity; ‘remastered’ by Chace Audio into a rechanneled pseudo-stereo with inherent limitations in the original mono stems. Regrettably, there are NO extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)