THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947)

  • Director: Henry Koster
  • Writers: Leonardo Bercovici and Robert E. Sherwood, based on the novella by Robert Nathan
  • Starring: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester, Sara Haden, and Karolyn Grimes
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar (Best Sound), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Henry Koster, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch:  Free streaming on Kanopy, free streaming (with ads) on Tubi app and Pluto TV, stream with cable subscription on TCM App, Stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The Bishop’s Wife seems like one of the more religious “mainstream” Christmas movies, since, you know, it’s about an actual bishop who has to give sermons and everything, and it also involves an actual angel. Yet the primary achievements of said angel primarily involve getting the bishop not to work so hard and pay attention to his wife, nothing particularly religious in nature. The movie has the romantic lead to end all romantic leads in Cary Grant, and deploys him in such a way that most of the romance comes from his sheer presence. If Loretta Young’s Julia, in the end, rebuffs Grant’s (admittedly extremely subtle) advances, then, we are meant to think, she must really and truly be into her husband the bishop. But mostly the movie is just Grant being super nice and charismatic while everyone in the movie stares at him in awe. Which I suppose makes him absolutely perfect for the role of a literal angel.

David Niven plays Bishop Brougham, who we learn has become obsessed with raising the funds for a new cathedral rather than paying attention to his family and whatnot, especially his wife played by Young. Then Cary Grant suddenly appears in Brougham’s office and announces he is angel sent to help, not with the cathedral as Brougham first assumes, but with his personal life. Meeting everyone else, Grant introduces himself as the Bishop’s new assistant, Dudley. In this role Dudley generally helps with everything (in one scene he decorates the parish Christmas tree in like two seconds flat), but the Bishop remains skeptical of him. Maybe that’s because Dudley seems to be spending an awful lot of time with Julia, ostensibly in order to “cheer her up,” but the Bishop (almost correctly, we eventually figure out), thinks it looks an awful lot like Julia and Dudley are having an affair, to the point where it almost doesn’t matter if they are or not.

Grant and Young’s whirlwind under-the-radar “romance” leads to many of the movie’s best-known scenes, including the one where they go ice skating and Grant turns out to be do like Triple Axels or whatever. He also insists that the boys let the Bishop’s daughter join in their snowball war, striking a blow for gender equality in 1947, I guess. He even charms the movie’s most random character, the atheist “Professor Wutheridge” (Monty Woolley), through a combination of helping the Professor out with some Roman archeology through some eyewitness accounts and by making the Professor’s bottle of booze keep magically filling itself back up (“It’s a miracle!” the Professor exclaims). There are not that many actors at any given time who could pull off this role, but Grant is certainly among them. At the end of The Bishop’s Wife, the cathedral falls through but a small local church is saved, Dudley writes a Christmas sermon for the Bishop, and then vaguely asks Young if she would like him to stay with her. Seeming to understand what he means, she says it’s probably time for him to move on. Dudley disappears and everyone forgets about him, while the Bishop gives a sermon about the true meaning of Christmas is more than boxes or bags. Sorry, that’s one of our coming features, but the meaning is pretty much the same.

Some movies have light touches, and then there’s this one, which seems poised to evaporate into the air at any moment but never quite does. As a story, everyone is mostly nice to each other, and then the Bishop is vaguely jealous and gets stuck to a chair, and then everyone is nice to each other again. There are a couple of very slightly special effects-y scenes with Dudley’s angel powers, and that’s sort of it. The jokes tend to bring smiles rather than laughs. To at least some degree, therein lies the movie’s charm. It is a cool hang without a lot of that pesky conflict. But of course, that weightlessness doesn’t really lend itself to making the movie particularly memorable or interesting from a filmmaking perspective, either.

After test screenings did not go well, RKO Pictures did some last minute edits with the help of an uncredited Billy Wilder, then, in some markets, changed the title of the movie to Cary and the Bishop’s Wife, just in case we didn’t quite get that this was, at least supposedly, a romance starring Cary Grant. I think maybe more movies today should just have the actors’ names in the title. Anyway, critics and audiences both turned out to really like the movie, which to everyone’s surprise received a bunch of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. This was probably helped by the fact that lead actress Loretta Young turned out to be at the very height of her career in 1947, and in fact won the Best Actress that same year for a separate role in The Farmer’s Daughter

The Bishop’s Wife came out just after World War II, and can be lumped into the same genre of friendly, light hits as, for example, Going My Way. 1947 was a year in which not only could The Bishop’s Wife get a Best Picture nomination, one of the other four nominees was Miracle on 34th Street. Yes, Gentlemen’s Agreement beat all of its “feel-good” competition, but that could be an example of vote-splitting more than anything. However, that appeal was not limited to a specific era. Long before I knew The Bishop’s Wife was a thing, I saw its hit 1996 remake, The Preacher’s Wife, a handful of times. That movie casts Denzel Washington as the angel, peak-famous Whitney Houston as the titular wife, and Courtney B. Vance as the preacher. Despite the title change it is almost beat for beat the same movie, except with more of Whitney Houston singing in a gospel choir. This proved a major financial success 49 years after the original, though it didn’t get quite the same universal critical acceptance.

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