Film Commentary: “The Bishop’s Wife” — Realistic Christmas Sentiment
Though disguised in holiday trappings, 1947’s “The Bishop’s Wife” is about human frailty, thwarted ambition, and the humble rewards that accompany doing the right thing.
By Jay Atkinson
In December, our tablets, televisions, and phones are visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, an array of black and white movies that transport us back to a country we’ve long since departed from.
For many of us, these holiday films were already decades old when we first watched them, on rabbit-eared TVs that got only four or five channels. It was a simpler time, the era of our early Christmases, and watching these movies with our own kids has become a cherished family tradition. Usually lost in the procession of wonderful lives, miracles on Manhattan streets, and visions of Ebenezer Scrooge flying over London, is an overlooked 1947 classic that’s worth downloading, or borrowing on DVD from your local library.
Starring Cary Grant, David Niven, and Loretta Young, The Bishop’s Wife is the tale of a young Episcopal bishop struggling to raise four million dollars to build a grand cathedral in an unnamed city. The beleaguered clergyman, played by Niven, ignores his lovely young wife and daughter, as well as the approaching Christmas season, fretting over blueprints and the whims of his condescending benefactor, a rich, cranky widow. Enter the mysterious stranger, Dudley, portrayed by Grant, who performs numerous good deeds, informs Niven’s character that he’s been sent to assist him, and claims to be an angel.
A Samuel Goldwyn film partly shot in Minneapolis, The Bishop’s Wife contains several wonderful sequences. In one scene, Grant convinces Niven’s wife, the radiant Loretta Young, and their crusty old cab driver to go ice-skating at night in the local park. To the strains of a Salvation Army band, Young finds herself gliding over the burnished surface of the pond in the arms of Cary Grant.
“Oh, Dudley,” she says. “This is heaven.”
Although the more intricate maneuvers were undertaken by stunt doubles, Grant, a traveling acrobat in his youth, leads Young in a charming waltz that whisks her—and us—back to the unencumbered joys of youth. Another set piece depicts Grant in the basement of an old church, assembling a choir from what appears to be a motley group of street urchins. (The ensemble was actually an accomplished group called the Mitchell Boychoir.) As the boys wander in, sitting down in twos and threes, their voices combine in a magnificent, soaring rendition of “Noel,” accompanied by a brilliantly-framed series of shots by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Gregg Toland.
Though disguised in holiday trappings, The Bishop’s Wife is about human frailty, thwarted ambition, and the humble rewards that accompany doing the right thing. While gently admonishing the bishop that his priorities are all wrong, Grant’s wry, handsome angel, descended to earth in human form, must also wrestle with his own conflicted emotions. As the movie arcs toward its climax, Grant seems confused by his growing fondness for Niven’s beautiful, innocent wife. When he informs her that his time with their family is growing short, Young asks if she will ever see him again.
“They never send us to the same place twice,” says Grant, with a wistful smile. “We might form attachments.”
Niven arrives home just as his wife goes running upstairs, obviously upset. Approaching his visitor, the bishop doffs his hat, thrusts aside his topcoat, and says, “I’ve never before had to fight an angel, but I suggest you take off your coat and put up your dukes!”
Grant shrugs off the remark, but Niven’s character persists in his anger, saying, “I was praying for a cathedral!”
“No, Henry,” Grant says. “You were praying for guidance.”
In The Bishop’s Wife, none of the characters quite get what he or she wants. But there’s a sense of quiet realism here that’s often lacking in holiday films—a feeling that these people will soldier on with their lives, even after we’re done watching them. And when the story concludes, with the bishop delivering a sermon in the modest church where he launched his career, we’re reminded of the quiet moments in our own lives, and of what Christmas is all about.
Jay Atkinson is the author of seven books, including Legends of Winter Hill. He teaches writing at Boston University. Follow him on Twitter@atkinson_jay