Monday, December 12, 2011

Stubs - The Bishop's Wife

THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947) Starring: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Gladys Cooper and Elsa Lanchester. Directed by Henry Koster. Written by Robert E. Sherwood and Leonard Bercovici. Based on a novel by Robert Nathan. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Run Time: 107 minutes. Black and White U.S., Romantic Comedy, Christmas.

It is Christmas time and Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is preoccupied with raising funds, not for the needy of his parish, but for a new cathedral he wants to build. All of his time is spent trying to placate his major contributor, Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper). Henry neglects his family, wife Julia (Loretta Young) and daughter Debby (Karolyn Grimes, who also played Zuzu in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE), and his flock. Henry prays for divine intervention and his prayer is answered in the form of Dudley (Cary Grant), a handsome angel who reveals himself only to the Bishop.

For a while, Henry would have preferred that his prayer was ignored. Dudley seamlessly fits into Henry’s household and nearly takes over his family as well. Everyone takes a shine to Dudley, from Henry’s secretary, Mildred Cassaway (Sara Haden) to Matilda (Elsa Lanchester), a member of his household staff, to even his wife and daughter. And Dudley’s charms also touch the lives of everyone he comes in contact with, including an old friend of Henry’s family, Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley) and Sylvester (James Gleason), a cab driver who picks Dudley and Julia up one evening. Dudley’s charms even extend to Mrs. Hamilton.

But as much as Dudley touches other people’s lives, he is touched by Julia, to whom he is obviously attracted. He spends an inordinate amount of time with her, substituting for Henry, when Julia visits their old church. Dudley woos Julia by being the way Henry used to be, impetuous and fun. Julia feels so much at ease with Dudley that Sylvester assumes they are a couple. The attention Dudley is paying to Julia and the way it makes her feel is not lost on Henry, who finally stands up to Dudley and tells him that he wishes he would finish his work and leave.

And Dudley does finish his work by convincing Mrs. Hamilton that she could pay homage to her deceased husband by using her wealth to help the poor rather than build the cathedral. Dudley also helps to save the old church by restoring interest in its boys choir, His work completed, and knowing that Julia loves her husband, Dudley leaves and promises Henry he will never return. And once he’s gone no one will remember that he was ever there. Rejuvenated to his calling and his family, Henry delivers a Dudley-penned sermon at the Christmas Eve service, which closes the film. The sermon reminds all of us whose birthday we are celebrating this holiday.

This is a film full of warmth and humor and makes for good-viewing anytime, but especially at this time of the year. Like most of the great classic Hollywood films, there is not one thing you can point to as being the reason why it is so good. The film is well written. There are no holes in the story. One of the things classic Hollywood did so well was seamless story-telling. The viewer is taken on a trip by the film and delivered at the end, usually to a happy ending. And that’s the case with this film. Henry who almost loses his way learns the true value of his family and faith by the end and the viewer learns that lesson along with him in a subtle way. The film despite its title is not preachy and does not take a stand for a particular religion, though it is obvious that the Bishop is Episcopalian.

My only knock about the film is a rather clumsy sequence when Dudley takes Julia and Sylvester ice skating. While the film tries hard to match the action, it is quite obvious that most of the skating is done by stunt doubles for the trio. Again, that’s looking for something to pick on, but the doubles do stand out and are somewhat distracting in a rather long sequence near the middle of the film.

The cast is great. Grant is as suave and appealing as an angel as he is in any role he plays. There doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t do on screen with the possible exception of a double axel. Niven is right for the part of the Bishop. He is likable while still being distracted. One feels for the Bishop’s predicament. Who hasn’t wished for a helping hand when their life gets to be too much? And Loretta Young is both beautiful and approachable as Julia. She is able to convey a sense of loneliness while still doing her duty as the wife of an important figure in the community. But like other Hollywood classics, it is the supporting cast that adds depth to the film.

Monty Woolley had a fairly short Hollywood career appearing in only about 30 films, may be best known for the role of Sheridan Whiteside, a cranky radio personality in 1942’s THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. His part as Professor Wutheridge in this film is sort of the polar opposite of Whiteside. Rather than being pompous and self-assured, Wutheridge needs a push to get on with his life’s work. His scene with Dudley and Julia and the bottle that never empties is one of the highlights of the film.

James Gleason is one of those faces that pop up in such films as MEET JOHN DOE (1941), A GUY NAMED JOE (1943) and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944). Never really the lead, his presence usually only makes the films he's in better. In the BISHOP’S WIFE, he keeps the mood light with his portrayal of Sylvester. Little known about Gleason is that he was also a writer, co-writing the second film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929).

Also showcased is Elsa Lanchester as Matilda, one of the household staff who falls under Dudley’s spell. Elsa, best known as the bride of Frankenstein’s monster in that 1935 film, was also married to actor Charles Laughton. Elsa played a variety of supporting roles in films from the 1920s to 1980, being nominated for Academy Awards for her parts in COME TO THE STABLE (1949) and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957). In this film she is called upon to do little more than be flustered whenever Dudley is in the room with her.

There is a story about the making of the film and while sources seem to vary slightly it comes down to second choices. Director Koster was not Sam Goldwyn’s first choice and neither apparently was Grant as Dudley. When Goldwyn was unhappy with the production on the set, he replaced William A. Seiter with Koster. And it depends on what source you use, but either Grant was originally cast as the Bishop and switched roles with Niven, or Dana Andrews was originally cast as the Bishop and when Koster came in, the role went to Niven to get Grant to play Dudley. This sort of cast changing is part of the Hollywood process. In the end it doesn’t matter who was originally cast in what part. What matters is what’s on the screen.

THE BISHOP’S WIFE is a good movie by any standard, having been nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Scoring and Best Picture and winning one for Best Sound. It is one of those films that can be watched at any time of the year, but it comes to the top of my playlist at Christmastime, due to the holiday’s significance as a backdrop to the movie. Heartwarming and spiritual without being preachy, THE BISHOP’S WIFE is a classic.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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