The Bishop’s Wife (1947) – Classic Christmas Movie Review #6
After only recently being given a good position as bishop in a weathly neighborhood, Henry Brougham is battered with the troubles of a wealthy and controlling benefactor who is demanding a cathedral be built in her late husband’s honor. Struggling with his beliefs and with making people happy while obviously losing his wife, he prays for God’s help and receives it in the form of an angel named Dudley. This angel brightens everyone’s spirits, everyone except for the Bishop’s who finds him hard to accept and eventually, competition.
Starring Cary Grant as the angel, David Niven as the negative bishop, and Loretta Young as the beautiful wife, this film carries a story of what is most important at Christmas time. Also with Monty Wooley, Gladys Cooper, and Elsa Lanchester.
Those of you who have seen this one will be surprised to hear that originally the roles of David Niven and Cary Grant were reversed. The director had a time explaining to Grant, who felt the role of bishop just right for him, that the angel would fit him better. Grant agreed and aren’t we glad! Read on for the full synopsis and more behind the scenes trivia.
Being selected for the role of bishop is just what Henry Brougham wanted and thanks goes to the wealthiest woman at the church, Mrs. Hamilton. Unfortunately, Henry soon realizes the downsides to being favored by Mrs. Hamilton. She promises to give the necessary funds for the new cathedral if he will meet her conditions to have it built in the place and style she feels proper. Henry tries to explain that such a building should not be constructed for the pleasure of one person alone but the woman will not listen, and threatens Henry that she will withhold her money if necessary.
Christmas has nearly arrived and Julia, Henry’s wife, is out last minute shopping. She runs into an old friend, Professor Wutheridge, a sceptic of a man with a good heart. Seeing him brings back fond memories and Julia admits she wishes they had never left their original home at St. Timothy’s. But since there is nothing to be done about it she says goodbye to her friend and leaves him.
As the professor is returning home he is met by another old friend, one he doesn’t remember ever having met. The man calls himself Dudley. He remarks that Julia looked sad and the professor absently agrees trying to figure out how he knows the man. Their conversation ends and Dudley goes on his way, still unable to ever recall meeting the man.
Julia arrives home and enters their parlor to find an unhappy Mrs. Hamilton and an even unhappier Henry. Despite her efforts to encourage him, Henry remains cold and unresponsive to her. He returns to his office where he asks God for help. But little does he know in what manner his prayer will be answered. Suddenly, Dudley appears in the room with him and Henry can’t figure out how he got there. Dudley explains that he came at his request but Henry doesn’t believe him. Julia enters and Dudley tells her he is Henry’s new assistant. Still puzzling and becoming more hostile by the moment, Henry begins to tell Julia that Dudley says he’s an angel but Dudley won’t let him. The whole business is beginning to tire Henry and he is glad when Dudley leaves.
Unfortunately for Henry, Dudley returns the next day bright and cheery. He greets Matilda the maid and Miss Cassaway, Henry’s secretary, surprising them with his jovial manner, but Henry wants no part of him. He plans visit to Mrs. Hamilton and leaves Dudley to do what he pleases, despite the fact that Dudley offered to free him up for the day. So when Julia and her daughter leave for the park Dudley “finishes” early and goes to join them. He conveniently works things out so that he can take Julia to eat at her favorite restuarant, Michele’s, since Henry broke their date.
Everyone who meets Dudley likes him because he knows how to make them feel important. It is obvious Julia is having a wonderful time and when they run into Professor Wutheridge again, he invites them over to his house for a glass of sherry. They talk about a number of things and before long the hour is late.
At home, Henry is angered to find out where Dudley and Julia have been and he takes Dudley aside. He tells him he wants him to leave but Dudley won’t until the problem he came to solve is taken care of.
The next day, Henry and Julia are expected at St. Timothy’s to hear the boy’s choir rehearsal. When Mrs. Hamilton calls, Henry leaves Dudley to go with Julia and promises to meet them there. What Henry doesn’t account for is Dudley’s ability to restrain him.
Not surprised that Henry hasn’t shown up, Dudley convinces Julia to go skating with him. He even encourages their cab driver to come along to. And they skate like they’ve never skated before, thanks to Dudley.
Knowing that Dudley deliberately kept him from joining them doesn’t help Henry get rid of him. He soon begins to think he is losing Julia but what can he do?
While Henry and Julia are out visiting the day before Christmas Eve, Dudley goes ahead of them to Mrs. Hamilton’s. He finds out more about her than anyone has known and gets to the heart of her bitterness. When Henry and Julia arrive, Dudley has gone but left a completely different Mrs. Hamilton, one who is kind and thoughtful. Not knowing what to think, a baffled Henry leaves Julia with Mrs. Hamilton and absently walks around town. He stops in at Professor Wutheridge’s and opens up about his experience with Dudley, eventually telling him he believes he’s lost his wife to the angel. The professor counsels him to fight for her and declares that he has the advantage over Dudley.
With renewed fervor, Henry returns home ready to fight Dudley for his wife. What he doesn’t expect is Dudley’s response. It’s time for him to go, he says, and when he leaves they’ll never know he was there. But they will remember their lives have suddenly been enriched. And with that he’s gone.
At first Henry is confused. He thinks of Julia and runs to find her in Debbie’s room. He’s no longer frustrated, and has a new realization of his love for Julia. They spend Christmas Eve together at St. Timothy’s, no one knowing that their troubles were solved by an angel.
We’ve watched this one for years and loved it. Cary Grant delivers a grand performance as always, as well as the rest of the cast. I would say though, even though David Niven played a wonderful bishop, this role wouldn’t be one I’d recommend for someone to see who has never seen his other works. The whole time he is grumpy, hostile, shocked or anxious, which provides the perfect contrast to Cary Grant’s jovial, all-knowing, and friendly temperament. But hardly the best character for his personality. Real quickly, I would recommend My Man Godfrey and The Three Blind Mice.
During the filming when Grant and Young are at Michele’s, both complained that the camera was getting their worst side. The director tried to accommodate them but when the producer, Samuel Goldwyn himself, showed up he berated the director for wasting so much time and told Grant and Young, “Look, if I’m only getting half a face, you’re only getting half a salary!” And that was the end of that.
I can’t give a review of this movie without giving my full opinion, so here is what I don’t really like about the movie. The theology displayed is a bit off. How God uses angels here on earth one can’t know for certain. Maybe we do see them when we think we’ve met a human, I can’t be sure. But the fact that they would envy our lives here on earth or fall in love with a human is completely un-biblical. They were created to be God’s messengers; they are sinless and untouched by our cursed world, why would they envy us?
But other than that, I love the movie. And I recommend it. Watch it and tell me your opinion!
I hope you have enjoyed this review. Next up: one of Christmas time’s most popular movies!