The Bishop’s Wife

The Bishop's WifeSynopsis: An episcopal Bishop, Henry Brougham, has been working for months on the plans for a new cathedral paid for by a stubborn widow. He is losing sight of his family and of why he became a churchman in the first place. Enter Dudley, an angel sent to help him. Dudley does help everyone he meets, but not necessarily in the way they would have preferred. With the exception of Henry, everyone loves him, but Henry begins to believe that Dudley is there to replace him, at work, and in his families affections, as Christmas approaches.

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The Bishop’s Wife 8.25

eyelights: David Niven. Cary Grant. Elsa Lanchester. the film’s message.
eyesores: the simple-mindedness of some of Dudley’s “miracles”.

The Bishop’s Wife is a simple but charming tale: a bishop is too focused on building a cathedral to see that he’s strayed: he’s willing to compromise just for the sake of getting it done, he’s cast aside his spouse, forgotten his daughter and is no longer enjoying life as he once did.

In comes an angel to bring him back on the path of righteousness.

Henry Brougham: “I was praying for a cathedral.”
Dudley: “No, Henry. You were praying for guidance.”

I’m not a religious man. I’m also not an atheist; I’m agnostic. And while I do have a problem with organized religion because it can foster groupthink and personal disempowerment, I also recognize that it can have its uses; some people need guidance and don’t know where else to find it.

Thus, unlike some, I don’t necessarily have extreme reactions to faith-based material. And when the sentiment is right, as it is with ‘The Bishop’s Wife’, I can actually lose myself in the fantasy and enjoy the core elements that make it great – even though it revolves around something I don’t believe in.

At its core, ‘The Bishop’s Wife’ is about priorities. It’s about knowing what truly matters in our lives: the things we need versus the things we want. It’s about a rekindling of our of spirit, of the magic inside us – as opposed to focusing on all the challenges and problems that we face daily.

It’s also a story about the power that we have to change lives. While the picture is about an angel, we all have the opportunity of making a difference in other people’s lives every day. We can choose to make it a positive or a negative difference, but should we choose to, we can have a potent effect.

Furthermore, it’s a story about hope, love and friendship. And it takes place at Christmas time.

In fact, it starts on the streets of a major city (presumably New York), while the masses are wandering about Christmas shopping. We first meet Cary Grant’s character, Dudley, as he goes around doing good deeds: helping a blind man cross the street, stopping a baby carriage from rolling off into traffic, …etc..

Then we meet Julia, as played by Loretta Young. Dudley crosses paths with her as well as her professor friend. It’s only after she goes home to her spouse, Bishop Brougham, that the story really begins to unfold. Until then, we were only barely getting a sense of the characters for the first time.

Julia is late for a meeting of the committee involved in the funding of the cathedral that the Bishop is planning. This is when we realize the kinds of hurdles he will need to surmount and how troubled he is with these challenges. We also discover the kind of impact this is having on his relationships.

After the Bishop prays for guidance, Dudley mysteriously appears in his study, telling him that he has come to help him. From that point onward he will bring new life to the household, sometimes take care of business matters, but mostly rebuild the bridges that had been in disrepair for so long.

Cary Grant is excellent as Dudley, and one can see why he was a silver screen superstar – he’s got that magic, the very thing that also makes him perfect for playing an angel. My only real  issue is with the self-contented smile that he affects from time to time, making Dudley seem goofy, perhaps maybe even a little psychopathic. This is something that he tweaked as he seasoned further as an actor, but it’s mildly disconcerting here.

David Niven is brilliant as Henry Brougham. He plays meek-but-confident extremely well. Even though his character is meant to be the “bad guy”, thanks to Niven he comes off as sympathetic but merely misguided. Unlike the debonair characters that Niven usually plays, he makes Brougham a conflicted, very human character, whose intentions are entirely good. To think that he originally was set to play Dudley, until Grant was brought on board. What a loss that would have been.

Loretta Young is good as Julia, the titular bishop’s wife, but she isn’t at all stellar. In fact, her screen presence is such that I don’t really understand what would make her so appealing to Dudley. I mean, she’s pleasant, but she has very little distinctiveness – she’s not remotely in the same league as Katherine Hepburn or Myrna Loy, for instance.

On the flipside, despite my reservations (following ‘Bell Book and Candle‘ and ‘Murder by Death‘), Elsa Lanchester is actually rather delightful here. She plays the dutiful maid who gets slightly smitten with Dudley, and does so with just the right amount of awe and propriety. At no point does she overact (as she’s done in other instances), so I got a real kick out of her.

Monty Woolley was excellent as the Broughams’ friend, Professor Wutheridge. The good professor has been trying to write a history book for twenty years, but has lacked the inspiration to even put down one single word. Woolley has made him rather appealing: intelligent, joyful, and friendly. I would love to see if this translates to any of his other parts.

Gladys Cooper was fabulous as, Mrs. Hamilton, the insistent old widow whose financial contribution is key to the construction of the cathedral; she wants things done her way, no matter how outrageously vain it might be. When Dudley meets with her, touching her heart, you could actually see the beauty in her face shine through. She reminded me of a much older Lea Thompson.

Also of note is Karolyn Grimes who played the Broughams’ daughter. She wasn’t entirely natural, but was pretty good for the era, and considering that child actors are rarely superb. She would also play Zuzu in another Christmas classic, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life‘. One could barely ask for a better résumé.

Evidently, ‘The Bishop’s Wife’ is about relationships, about characters, but it also has a few nice set pieces that were no doubt a wonder to behold back in the day, such as the ice skating sequence, which had some pretty superb ice moves in it. But there were also all the magical moment, such as Dudley making up the Christmas tree, or dictating to the typewriter.

Cynics would likely not have much fun with such a movie: it’s far too hopeful and sweet for many modern viewers. Some might even brand it corny. I don’t and yet I’m without a doubt pretty cynical. It’s just that the film does a marvelous job of tapping into and highlighting the best in people – which, whether cynics want to or not, is a flame difficult to extinguish.

Or course, it was made in a different era – and it shows.

For example, only back then could a complete stranger be left behind in the house, alone with the spouse. And with the children. Nowadays he might be arrested, considered a stalker. Perhaps Bishop instinctively knew that this man was safe, could be trusted? This is unclear. Either way, this would play out very differently today – or the picture would die at the hands of we modern “sophisticates”.

‘The Bishop’s Wife’ is meant to warm hearts and marvel the dreamers, and it does a terrific job of it. It may not be a Christmas movie in the traditional sense but it does take place during the holiday season, and it embodies the Christmas spirit. Granted, it’s of a different, seemingly long-gone, era, but it’s not so far gone that all of us have forgotten, or look down upon, the values it bestows.

‘The Bishop’s Wife’ succeeds at pretty much everything it attempts to do. It’s a classic.

(Not bad for a troubled production such as this one – not only was the original director, William Seiter, canned and Henry Koster had to film an entirely new picture (the film had already cost a million dollars by then!), but the producers ended up bringing in Hollywood legends Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder to do uncredited rewrites after Koster’s film was shown to preview audiences. And that’s not accounting for the casting switcheroos!)

Date of viewing: December 3, 2013

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