Holiday Review: ‘The Bishop’s Wife’

Many cinephiles have pointed out that the years following World War II gave moviegoers some of the finest holiday films ever made. After years of bloodshed and destruction brought by the war, it is understandable why audiences craved something joyful and inspirational. To this day classics like: It’s a Wonderful Life, Christmas in Connecticut, Miracle on 34th Street, and Meet Me in St. Louis; still hold a special place in the hearts of movie fans and merrymakers alike. One of the milestone films in this run of Christmas classics was 1947’s the Bishop’s Wife.

The one thing occupying the thoughts and actions of Bishop Henry Brougham this holiday season is securing the financial backing to build a grand new cathedral. This makes the religious leader neglectful towards his wife Julia as he devotes his time and attention to this building rather than her. When Henry prays for divine guidance in his ambitious project, God seems to have other plans for him and sends the utterly suave and charming angel Dudley into his life. Dudley has come with a divine mission, not to build a structure but to inspire the bishop to rebuild his marriage and reconnect with those around him. Brougham is skeptical and resentful of his new angelic companion, but everyone else is taken by his charms, especially Julia forming an unintentional love triangle.

If this movie is to be believed, spending the Christmas season with an angel is everything one would hope it would be. He is handsome, affable and wise on a number of topics. Though Dudley has a message he is trying to deliver he never lectures or beats people over the head with it, instead he conveys it with compassion, kindness, and a little touch of the supernatural.  This goes a long way in creating the world of the Bishop’s Wife. While it may reflect the reality we all know, the appearance of Dudley brings a magical touch to the environment. This combination of the fantastical and the believable is what is largely responsible for the charm of this classic. Even a moment like the film’s famed ice skating scene is touched with an extra bit of holiday magic which makes it that much more endearing.

Granted casting Cary Grant as someone who puts everyone in awe due to his overall charm and charisma is a bit of a no brainer. Tony Curtis once sad that Grant’s strength was that he had all the qualities of a top-tier leading man but he was also unafraid to make a fool of himself when needed to endear his characters to the audience. This quality as an actor is what made Dudley one of the greatest roles of his legendary career. While everyone else is taken by him, Dudley is a character who does not really see himself as being out of the ordinary (aside from being an angelic entity that is) and goes about his routine naturally his only mission to inspire happiness and goodwill. More importantly he has to rebuild the marriage between Julia and Henry. Co-star David Niven, who himself usually carried an aura of charm and sophistication, proves to be a perfect foil for Grant turning in one of those great understated performances that is often sadly overlooked. He is a stiff everyman type character who constantly get the piss taken out of him by the seemingly perfect Dudley. It is understandable to see why the original director of the Bishop’s Wife had the actors in reversed roles to begin with. When Henry Koster took the helm, he had the vision to swap the two, and after much convincing movie magic was made. This pairing is surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast, including Oscar winner Loretta Young as a woman torn between being a loyal wife but also being attracted to the newcomer in town. Of course, as any cinephile knows when Elsa Lanchester is put into any role she steals the show, and her part as the Brougham’s housekeeper is no exception.

Despite being made in the 1940’s the Bishop’s Wife still touches on something we still see far too often. Many religious leaders seek to acquire as much financial gain as they can in order to build bigger and more elaborate places of “worship”. Whether intentional or not, they seek to use the resources at their disposal to bring glory themselves and their own accomplishments. All the while they could use these gifts to help others by: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, teaching the uneducated or any number of other things to help others. With this film, we see that God actually has to intervene in such a case in order to remind both the bishop of the film and in a way, us in the audience, that building fall apart and fade away but doing good for others is what truly matters in this world.