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); a lithe and ethereal dramedy with oodles of crisp charm and big-hearted comedy to spare. Not particularly well received upon its’ initial release, today The Bishop’s Wife is widely regarded as a holiday classic and rightly 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 profoundly 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 quintessence of gentle feminine grace and fortitude. The Bishop’s Wife continues to work 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 ambition. But the otherworldly creature sent in answer 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: two men vying for the affections of the same woman. But the broader implications of how a God-sent miracle can inadvertently become untrustworthy and perhaps even destructive to the humanity it must serve, tests the boundaries of Christianity in all sorts of subliminal and fascinating ways.
Like another truly inspired holiday classic, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), a darker undercurrent to man’s faith steadily emerges in The Bishop’s Wife; one to challenge each protagonist’s resolve and force a resolution beneficial to all. For Dudley (Grant), presumably heaven-sent to assist the bishop in his work is hardly as pure of heart, his faith and motives questionable behind his cordial façade. And Grant plays this ‘angel’ with an uncharacteristic streak of devilish larceny. Ironically, this makes Cary Grant the idyllic figure of angelic resilience; working against our expectations, though nevertheless to achieve his saintly purpose on earth. 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. Today, we tend to view Cary Grant through the rubric as a light romantic-comedy super star; just an amiable, bright and breezy bon vivant with a twinkle in his eye. Grant made it all look so utterly effortless one tends to forget the expert craftsmanship behind this well-honed disguise; a sort of mask of impenetrable virtue and vitality from which the more complex man of conflicting social anxieties and passions was rarely – if ever – seen. On occasion, however, Grant revealed himself more through the artifice of the characters he played on the screen; the wounded nature of his troubled heart judged merely as performance – Grant, expanding his actor’s range to encompass more composite roles.
The Bishop’s Wife is a testament to Grant’s varied talents. He plays an angel as an inherently good, but occasionally imperfect figure whose duties are somewhat superseded by his own tastes and desires. Unlike the angel-in-waiting, ‘Clarence’ from It’s a Wonderful Life, constantly receiving chastisements from his heavenly wranglers, and, sheepishly apologetic for the minor infractions he invariably commits along the way to achieving salvation for the mortal he has been sent to protect, Grant’s Dudley seems to be calling all the shots in The Bishop’s Wife; beholding to no higher authority and left to his own devices so long as he ultimately gets the job done in the allotment of time he has been given to work a miracle. Hence, the parceling off of said time is not entirely about doing what is best or even more precisely what is most concise to achieve this desired effect. In fact, Dudley is given several opportunities to instantly heal the mounting stresses in Henry and Julia’s lives but seems infinitely more interested in prolonging, and even adding to them in slyly flirtatious ways. His courting of Julia at Chez Michel’s; the favorite restaurant where she and the bishop first met, hints of Dudley presuming too much; pursuing a more personal agenda that has absolutely nothing to do with patching up their strained marriage. Dudley is thwarted in this endeavor, not by divine intervention, but by the accusatory stares directed at the couple by a suspicious gaggle of old beefs belonging to Henry’s parish; their gossip cleverly diffused with Dudley’s diversionary invitation to dine with them. Yet, his initial purpose in attending Julia at Michele’s is never to strengthen her reputation with Henry’s congregation; only to provide Julia with a momentary respite from the woes once again inflicted by a prudish dowager whose dictates momentarily command the future of her husband’s profession.
The Bishop’s Wife is undeniably a love story; except that the real ‘reel’ romance on celluloid here is increasingly between Julia and Dudley rather than Julia and her husband. Henry’s duties to the church have been split; faith and financial burdens steadily conspiring to deprive him of the love of a good woman; or rather, his ability to contribute to his marriage in meaningful ways. He prays for a miracle. Only the one he receives is hardly an answer to the question being asked. We could almost forgive Henry what amounts to his greed to possess the millions dangled before his eyes like the proverbial carrot by the wealthy but caustic Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper), if only Henry exhibited more patience and understanding towards his own wife. Alas, Henry has drifted away from the man Julia fell in love with and married. While he seems incapable of acknowledging this, Julia is even more likely a candidate for the inevitable fall from grace right into the arms of the first man to pay her a little attention. Mercifully, the man who reignites her passions is an angel, or rather, a creature of as earthly desires effectively masquerading as one. Dudley can never possess Julia. But that does not mean he is unwilling – even eager – to try; his penultimate declaration, “You lucky Henry, kiss her once for me” attesting to just how close Dudley has come to his own catastrophic transgression.
As our story begins Bishop Henry Brougham has been toiling for months on plans for a new cathedral, its centerpiece, the George B. Hamilton Memorial Chapel. Funding for the project has reached an impasse with the stoic widow, Mrs. Hamilton who demands 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 utterly charming, yet somewhat divisive angel, Dudley (Cary Grant). The truth of Dudley’s being is revealed only to Henry. Yet Dudley wastes no time sparking a longing for romance within Julia, although not necessarily for her husband. Indeed, Dudley’s arrival is both a blessing and a curse; steering Julia into a series of playful dalliances gradually to motivate her to question her own loyalties to hearth and home. But is it Dudley’s intent to elevate the level of discord between Henry and Julia merely to prove a counterpoint that will reawaken Henry’s feelings toward his own wife, or has this angel disavowed his true calling to pursue a mortal woman for his own lascivious advantage? We are never entirely certain. The actors, particularly Grant, exercise their motivations with an ambiguousness to suggest anything is possible. Our angel is trustworthy to a point, though 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 by 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 for a luncheon date with Dudley at Chez Michel, the restaurant where Henry first proposed and the place in which so many happy memories for Julia exist from seemingly now bygone days. Again, the moral ambiguity in Dudley’s purpose makes this scene 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 sincerity designed to rekindle the past within 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 about the Roman world - a project effectively ruined when Mrs. Hamilton had Wutheridge fired from the university because of his 'progressive' ideas. 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 fruitful discussion inside the professor’s apartment where Julia confides her sadness over the way both their lives have shifted away from the friends they once cherished.
Orchestrating yet another diversion for Henry surely to detain him at the widow Hamilton’s estate, Dudley accompanies Julia to Henry’s old parish, St. Timothy’s where he was expected to attend a boys’ choir rehearsal. In one of The Bishop’s Wife’s most deliberately evangelical exaltation, Dudley wills the boys who have yet failed to arrive on time for their practice 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 refrained from buying because of its perceived extravagance. Now Dudley encourages her to indulge in what she refers to as ‘her wickedness’. He further promotes her delinquency from returning home immediately after the rehearsal by suggesting they hail a taxi to Central Park. By now, Dudley has completely won over Julia; the pair enjoying a moonlit skate with their wily cabdriver, Sylvester (James Gleason) whose own faith in humanity is restored by their impromptu and infectious merriment. Returning home very late in the evening, Julia incurs Henry’s displeasure; the mood between husband and wife soured. Henry re-channels his jealous to Dudley, ordering him from the rectory. Dudley obliges, but playfully forewarns Henry 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) for the afternoon, 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 spurning of 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 remembrances; the experience ultimately softening her resolve towards the bishop. Thus, when Henry and Julia arrive much later in the evening to finalize plans for the cathedral, they discover Mrs. Hamilton has decided instead to disseminate her worldly funds to the poor and the needy as they require it. Embittered that his cathedral shall never rise, Henry returns home more distraught than ever. Dudley makes his most obvious play for Julia, a move to utterly convince her she loves her husband. In reply, Henry challenges Dudley to an earthly conflict, one narrowly averted when Dudley reasons he has finally made Henry aware of the wellspring of his own affections toward Julia. Departing for good, Dudley also cleanses his memory from the Brougham’s minds and hearts. They have forgotten this strange ethereal creature that 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 from just beyond the front gates, retreating into the misty darkness perhaps only to emerge once more into that otherworldly light.
The Bishop’s Wife was independent producer, Samuel Goldwyn’s personal production; an elegant fable that ultimately developed into so much more. Hugo Friedhofer’s inspired score elevates the unassuming romantic elements into a luscious mélange, joyous and playful comedic undertones and ever so slightly moody undercurrents that exquisitely augment the story. In the embodiment of Cary Grant, there is more than a genuine sense of unearthly presence. Veering between gentile naughtiness infused with a saintly (though never saccharine) veneer, Grant is wholly 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 simultaneously and infinitely more appealing; dispelling the clichéd iconography of the ‘angel’. And Grant repeatedly, and perhaps even deliberately, relishes testing the limitations of this character.
The film is equally blessed in its two supporting stars: David Niven and Loretta Young. Young is the pluperfect example of the devoted wife and mother without becoming preachy, saintly or wistfully lost in its purity of heart. Julia Brougham may be the bishop’s wife, but she has a mind and a will of her own – exercised and tested by Dudley’s more spurious intensions toward her. And it is to Young’s credit she manages a contented, almost ‘angelic’ kindness never to dissolve into the treacle as rank sentiment. In a role threatening mere caricature – the comedic dupe – David Niven instead manages to evoke a more intimate sadness. We truly feel for Henry Brougham, the dark horse in this romantic triangle even as he seems incapable of seeing the error of his ways. That intangible empathy is impossible to quantify, but it is pure gold. And in the final act Niven redeems his character by retaining his air of the gentlemanly grace, expressed in Dudley’s majestic epitaph delivered with understated eloquence. Not only does Henry manage to summarize the warmth of the tale, but to cause it to linger in the mind and heart 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."
The Bishop’s Wife arrives via Warner Home Video. Alas, the image is derived from older elements rather than a brand new scan. The overall characteristic is dark, Gregg Toland’s deep focus cinematography yielding some very fine and occasionally gorgeous visuals. But film grain is absent on the whole and fine details tend to lag behind what we are used to seeing on Blu-ray. The pluses – everything tightens up in hi-def (as it should). On the whole the gray scale is solidly rendered, although several sequences look as though contrast levels have been ever so slightly artificially boosted. Age-related artifacts are present but not pronounced. Warner has chosen to jettison the re-channeled stereo produced by Chace Audio for the DVD, leaving us with the original mono mix and its inherent limitations. On the whole, it sounds excellent and will surely not disappoint. Regrettably, there are NO extras. I would sincerely encourage Warner Home Video to go back to the drawing board on this one. The Bishop’s Wife is a classic – period – and deserving of a more comprehensive Special Edition Blu-ray release, beginning with a brand new scan of the original camera elements, if indeed, they have survived. Bottom line: as a heart-warming Christmas classic, The Bishop’s Wife comes very highly recommended. As a Blu-ray presentation, it is hardly as good as it might have been. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)