I was honored when Family Friendly Reviews asked me to participate in their first blogathon, focusing on Christmas Movies. Immediately I knew I’d write about one of my favorites, The Bishop’s Wife. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn, directed by Henry Koster, and made in 1947, the film resonated so much with audiences that besides doing extremely well at the box office it was a Best Picture nominee at that year’s Academy Awards. The talented cast included Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Gladys Cooper, Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Elsa Lanchester, and Karolyn Grimes.David Niven portrays Bishop Henry Brougham and Loretta Young is his wife, Julia. They have an 8 year old daughter, Debbie(Karolyn Grimes, who also played Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life) and they live in a huge house with a cook and a maid, Matilda(Elsa Lanchester), and the Bishop also has a secretary, Miss Cassaway(Sara Haden.) Life would appear to be simple and easy for the Bishop and his wife, but that isn’t the case at all.
It’s Christmas time as the film opens and we see a winter’s evening settling in over a large city. The city isn’t identified but as large as it is in the opening flyover shot, I assumed it to be New York City. We see excited and smiling children admiring the department store windows decorated with moveable characters, acting out little scenes of elves building toys in Santa’s workshop. Watching all of this happiness is one lone man, smartly dressed, who quietly assumes a watchful eye. He helps a blind man cross a busy street, cars suddenly braking to a stop as if an unseen force caused the braking. We see this same man stop a runaway baby buggy and then hand the infant over to her grateful mother. Then as this man is about to stroll away, he notices Julia, the Bishop’ s wife, looking longingly at a hat in a store window.
Julia moves on from the store window and runs into Professor Wutheridge(Monty Woolley) at the florist’s store where she is going to buy the Christmas tree for the Bishop’s house. ( She orders a huge tree, to be delivered, for $1.85!!!! Oh those 1947 prices!!) The Professor admits that he misses seeing Julia and Henry since Henry’s promotion from being the head minister at St. Timothy’s, which is now in danger of being shuttered. Julia agrees that she misses the Professor, the old neighborhood, and she is sad about St. Timothy’s. The Professor knows about Henry needing to raise money for the building of a cathedral and despite being a non-religious man, he gives Julia an old Roman coin, and asks her to give it to Henry, to put it towards the cathedral. This offering touches Julia and she tears up in spite of herself.
When Julia arrives home, she has just missed another meeting with Mrs. Hamilton(Gladys Cooper) and the cathedral committee. What she missed was Mrs. Hamilton scolding Henry about his “fuzzy-thinking” and the doubts Mrs. Hamiton has that Henry is the right man for the job. Mrs. Hamilton’s bossy, irritable mood has rubbed off on Henry and he chastises Julia for missing the meeting and he scoffs at the coin from the Professor. Julia and Henry sit down to an unhappy, tense dinner and Henry tries to make amends with the suggestion that he and Julia actually have a date for lunch the next day. Julia’s face lights up at this plan, only to have their date shattered with a phone call from Mr. Travers, to remind Henry about a meeting that will conflict with the date and cannot be gotten out of. With the date cancelled, Julia goes upstairs and Henry goes back to his study and looks intently at the painting of a cathdral that is above the fireplace mantle. He prays aloud to God for guidance and hears the door to his study open and close. He turns to see who is there and no one is there. As he looks back at the painting, it seems to be lit up and a man is suddenly in the room with him. It is the smartly dressed man we saw in the film’s opening, the good samaritan who was helping people. The man introduces himself as Dudley(Cary Grant), and he tells Henry that he is an angel, sent by God, to give Henry the help he’s prayed for! Henry is at first, very skeptical that this man is an angel and he demands that Dudley perform a miracle right then and there, perhaps to build the cathedral with the wave of his hand. Dudley chuckles at Henry’s challenge and informs Henry that he will help Henry reach his goals until Henry utters a prayer saying he doesn’t need Dudley’s help anymore and Dudley will then leave and no one will remember him having been among them.
Dudley, himself, has a conflict. He is falling in love with Julia, and Henry has an inkling that this is happening. All the ladies in the Bishop’s household: daughter Debbie, Miss Cassaway, Matilda, and Julia, are all charmed by Dudley, much to Henry’s consternation. There are many great scenes where Dudley steps in and weaves his “angel magic”: helping Debbie get accepted into a snowball fight, keeping the Professor’s sherry bottle filled, dictating the Bishop’s sermon to an unmanned typewriter, helping Julia and taxi driver Sylvester(James Gleason) ice skate like Olympic athletes, playing the harp to melt Mrs. Hamilton’s icy heart, getting the boys to show up for choir practice at St. Timothy’s, keeping Henry away from the choir practice and literally stuck at Mrs. Hamilton’s home, and my favorite: the decorating of the Bishop’s Christmas tree.
What I enjoy about this movie is it’s depiction of faith, of a marriage in trouble, and of relationships developing and relationships healing. The characters are very realistic, even the depiction of an angel! Who wouldn’t want Cary Grant as their angel?? There is charm, comedy, and a wistfulness in this film. When it was first in production, Samuel Goldwyn didn’t like the way the first director, William A. Seiter had handled the film, so he fired Seiter and had him replaced with Henry Koster. He also had Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett make some uncredited rewrites of the screenplay. Gregg Toland’s cinematography was top-notch. Based upon Robert Nathan’s 1928 novel by the same title, I am glad Goldwyn stepped in and ordered those changes which yielded such a rich film.
Will the cathedral get built? Will Mrs. Hamilton win and get Henry demoted? Will St. Timothy’s be closed for good? Will Henry and Julia’s marriage be saved? Will Dudley resolve his feelings for Julia? Will he reveal who he really is to her? The only way to find out the answers to these questions is to seek out The Bishop’s Wife for oneself. It is available at Amazon and at TCM, and it will air on TCM on Christmas Eve at 12:15 am EST, so set that dvr machine!
At the film’s end, we get to hear a portion of Bishop Henry’s Christmas Eve sermon:…”all the stockings are filled except one, the stocking for the child in the manger…Let us ask ourselves what would He wish for most? Let each put in his share. Lovingkindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.” I would add that for the next Christmas season, if you or your family are looking for an opportunity to serve others check out Operation Christmas Child, part of an outreach with The Samaritan’s Purse Ministry. It allows one to give gifts that will be picked up and delivered to children in third world countries. The ministry supplies a guided list of gifts to send and the costs for mailing the packages oversees. For more information, click on this link.