Format: Turner Classic Movies on big ol’ television.
For the last few years, every time that Christmas has come along, I have considered watching The Bishop’s Wife and have always run out of time, just never getting around to it. With the number of movies I have left on my Oscars lists, it’s unlikely that I’ll have anything left other than movies I can’t find next December, so if I wanted to watch this at a time when it would be topical, it was pretty much now or never. Fortunately, this is exactly the sort of film that gets played on Turner Classic Movies in December, so I recorded one of the instances and watched the film today after a holiday get-together with my family.
It’s easy to put this in the same sort of vague category of Christmas movie as something like It’s a Wonderful Life because there is a strong supernatural component here. Specifically, there’s an angel who shows up and drives the plot. That angel calls himself Dudley (Cary Grant), and he has appeared to assist Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), who is trying to build a new cathedral. Now, Brougham’s denomination is never stated as far as I know, but he’s clearly not a Catholic bishop because he’s married to Julia (Loretta Young) and they have a daughter named Debby (Karolyn Grimes).
Bishop Brougham is obsessed with building the cathedral, which has prevented him from spending any real time with Julia and Debby. Instead, he overworks his secretary, Mildred Cassaway (Sara Haden) and is dismissive with house servant Matilda (Elsa Lanchester). Instead, he schmoozes potential donors and rich people, especially Agnes Hamilton (Gladys Cooper), who has the money to build the cathedral provided that it is dedicated to her late husband in a number of significant ways that clash with what Bishop Brougham wants to do.
Dudley’s presence is a disturbing one for the bishop. This is for several reasons. One is that Dudley seems to actually be the angel he claims to be. Another is that he seems to have a charm that immediately wins just about everyone else over. The main reason, though, is that Dudley seems far more interested in figuring out what Julia wants far more than in getting the cathedral built. Dudley is a sudden and welcome presence in her life, especially since her husband no longer pays her any real attention, making plans and then immediately breaking them.
Dudley serves as an inspirational presence to pretty much everyone he comes into contact with, inspiring a local cabbie named Sylvester (James Gleason) to have faith in humanity once again. He also inspires Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley), a non-religious retired historian to finally sit down and write something about history that will add to the general knowledge. What he can’t seem to do is get through to Bishop Brougham, mainly because the bishop starts to believe that regardless of the powers that Dudley seems to have, his main ability is one of being attractive to Julia.
There’s simultaneously a lot to unpack here and not really a lot to say. It should first be noted that while this movie does take place at Christmas and people shopping for gifts and such does take some part in the narrative, this is a film that could just as easily take place around Bastille Day or Casimir Pulaski Day. It’s a Christmas movie only in the respect that there’s a little bit of Christmas in it, and none of it really has to be.
The story itself is pretty straightforward. Dudley shows up, does some things to help out a variety of people and clashes with the bishop in the sense that the bishop seems to think (and with some justification) that Dudley is after his wife. Roll credits.
But this is a film that is about much more than just the story. It’s the sad hell of Cary Grant’s career that he was Oscar nominated for roles that didn’t really deserve it and overlooked for those roles where he was at his most Cary Grant. I love Grant in almost any role I’ve seen, and this one might be the most Cary Grant role in his filmography. He is immediately and instantly charming and likable, the sort of person who brightens up a room simply by being in it. Along with the always entertaining Elsa Lanchester and the sadly forgotten Monty Woolley, there’s a great deal of joy to experience here.
Loretta Young is, well, she’s fine. I’m not a huge fan of hers, but she doesn’t have a lot to do here other than be pretty, wear hats, and be constantly amazed at the knowledge and joie de vivre of Dudley. David Niven’s role is generally to wear a bishop’s collar and look dyspeptic most of the time. Either of them could have been easily replaced by virtually any actor capable of reading a line.
Regardless of that, The Bishop’s Wife is a charming film, sweet and entertaining. Oh, it’s a bit too religious for my tastes, but it’s a hard one not to like.
Why to watch The Bishop’s Wife: It’s charming.
Why not to watch: If you’re looking for a Christmas movie, this one is only marginally that.