The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone. ~George Elliot

We know he is a force for good from the moment we see him.  The streets are buzzing with the excitement of Christmas.  Children crowd the sidewalks watching toy displays in store windows as snow gracefully decorates the pavement.  The man stands still behind the children enjoying their joy and wonder.  He then notices a blind man trying to cross a busy intersection.  With ease he walks over, gently grabs the blind man’s elbow and guides him across the street.  As he does so cars come to a halt.  There’s something special about this man.

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After saving a baby from a near-catastrophe just moments later, the man walks down the street to where the noise has ceased.  There he sees a woman who’s stopped to admire a hat on display in the window of a boutique.  The man’s gaze follows her as she crosses the street to choose a Christmas tree for her family.  The woman’s name is Julia.  She’s the Bishop’s wife.  The Bishop is the one who asked for guidance, the reason this good man has come to this place.

The Bishop asks for guidance
The Bishop asks for guidance

It’s not uncommon that Christmas or holiday movies ask us to believe in miracles or to see that they feature immortal beings sent from somewhere high above.  Santa Claus, ghosts, elves, talking reindeer and angels are but a few of those chosen to deliver messages during the time of year we seem to need them most.  In countless of those stories we are asked to suspend disbelief and most of us do so willingly.  That’s particularly true when the movie delivers its message in as charming a manner as does Henry Koster’s THE BISHOP’S WIFE.

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Now, I must warn you to proceed with caution.  No one’s supposed to know what part Cary Grant plays in this until they see the picture.

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Thematically there is nothing particularly unique about THE BISHOP’S WIFE – a troubled man has lost his way and needs to be reminded of what really matters.  In the case of THE BISHOP’S WIFE the forlorn man is Bishop Henry Brougham who’s been commissioned to build a new cathedral and is failing at the task.  The Bishop prays for guidance and an angle appears, an angel named Dudley who looks like Cary Grant.  Dudley makes his true identity known only to Bishop Brougham who thinks the answer to his prayer is the realization of a building, which he has been so caught up with that he has lost sight of his family, of love, of promises and of personal obligations.

Dudley’s mission, if you will, is to get Bishop Brougham back on the right path, the righteous path by way of reminding him it’s what he has right in front of him that is valuable.  I guess it’s what we all need reminders of now and again.  The Bishop asks for a great miracle, why not build the cathedral and his problems would be solved?  But that’s not the kind of miracle Dudley performs.  Rather than use his supernatural powers to build great halls of worship Dudley enchants the disenfranchised, brings joy in simple pleasures and reignites passion in those who’ve lost love and purpose.  In the long run Dudley helps the Bishop by changing the lives of those around him.  His special gifts reintroduce people to joy and warmth and cooperation and longing so that each sees his/her own path more clearly – all serve as lessons for the Bishop, but there are also many small miracles as side benefits.

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There’s Mrs. Hamilton, one of the rich widows on the cathedral committee who promises to donate substantial funds, but only if the Bishop bends to her will.  Mrs. Hamilton’s heart is irrevocably changed by Dudley with a reminder of true love.

A few moments with Dudley and Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) remembers where her heart is.
A few moments with Dudley and Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) remembers where her heart is.

Professor Wutheridge is an old man, a friend of the Broughams, an author and historian who has lost his words.  For him Dudley allows renewed energy and passion for living in addition to an unending stream of brandy.

Intrigued, but distrusting of Dudley Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley) eventually finds renewal
Intrigued, but distrusting of Dudley Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley) finds new will

Next is a cab driver named Sylvester, one of my favorite characters in the movie.  Sylvester is a kind and generous soul, the salt-of-the-Earth type who has gained great insight through his daily routines, “The main trouble is there are too many people who don’t know where they’re going and they want to get there too fast!”  It’s an afternoon of impromptu ice skating with Dudley and Julia that restores Sylvester’s faith in human nature.

Sylvester (James Gleason) is never at a loss for words
Sylvester (James Gleason) is never at a loss for words

Then there’s Julia, the Bishop’s wife.  Julia suffers while her husband loses his way to himself and to her.  Julia receives special attention from Dudley.  He reminds her she is worthy of romancing and owning beautiful things and she, in turn, reminds the angel of his humanity.

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Julia (Loretta Young) is enchanted by Dudley and he by her

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Dudley is portrayed by a beguiling Cary Grant.  Mr. Grant demonstrates his considerable talent by adding several degrees of warmth and charm to his impressive frame in this portrayal of an angel.  You may want to visit the recent ABCs of Cary Grant post dedicated in a much more expansive manner to explaining why he remains the standard of the silver screen.

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The performances in THE BISHOP’S WIFE are all affecting across-the-board, however.  Loretta Young is sublime as the Bishop’s wife and makes a perfect match for both Grant and David Niven who plays the bitter and distant bishop to perfection.  And Monty Woolley is as memorable as always, his impressive voice and eccentric manner make his portrayal of the old intellect a highlight.

Perhaps the greatest miracle of all with regards to this movie is the movie itself.  Despite its high caliber stars and talented supporting cast (list below) THE BISHOP’S WIFE manages to be soft, lovely, humble and magical.  This is a movie with just the right amount of sentimental, which guarantees to leave you – as the wise Sylvester says – “with pockets bulging with the coins of self-satisfaction.”

The terrific cast:

Dudley . . . . . Cary Grant
Julia Brougham . . . . . Loretta Young
Henry Brougham . . . . . David Niven
Professor Wutheridge . . . . . Monty Woolley
Sylvester . . . . . James Gleason
Mrs. Hamilton . . . . . Gladys Cooper
Matilda . . . . . Elsa Lanchester

The Brougham's maid, Matilda (Elsa Lanchester) is as taken with Dudley as everyone else
The Brougham’s maid, Matilda (Elsa Lanchester) is as taken with Dudley as everyone else

Mildred Cassaway . . . . . Sara Haden

Dudley startles the Bishop's secretary, Mildred
Dudley startles the Bishop’s secretary, Mildred (Sara Haden)

Debby Brougham . . . . . Karolyn Grimes

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Little Debby Brougham (Karolyn Grimes) listens intently as Dudley tells her the story of David

Maggenti . . . . . Tito Vuolo
Mr. Miller . . . . . Regis Toomey
Mrs. Duffy . . . . . Sara Edwards
Miss Trumbull . . . . . Margaret McWade
Mrs. Ward . . . . . Ann O’Neal

Before you go take a look at the non-trailer trailer for THE BISHOP’S WIFE, which is one of my favorites featuring the film’s three stars on the lot at Samuel Goldwyn Studios.

And I leave you wish wishes that you and yours may have many magical, peaceful and lovely moments throughout the year.

Aurora

 

14 thoughts

  1. By far the best Christmas movie ever! Subjective view? Perhaps. But your article points out beautifully what is spiritual, charming, magical, and ever timeless about THE BISHOP’S WIFE. No movie since has captured the spirit of the Christmas. A close second would be, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.
    Everything, I mean everything, about this movie is perfect including the soundtrack!

  2. a masterpiece ..one of my two favourite Christmas movies. The Bishop’s Wife is timeless… beautifully acted photographed … wonderful music score… and with that indefinable thing … “heart” ..somehow warm without being syrupy … and this Christmas Eve I will have the joy of watching the Blu Ray…so let’s raise a glass of the Professor’s indifferent wine….and toast the Season

  3. I just adore this movie — it is one of Cary Grant’s best, in my opinion. Moving, funny, and wise, I think it speaks to so many of us. It’s funny — I’m Catholic, and when I was a kid I saw this title and thought ‘how can a Bishop have a wife?’ LOL! Thanks for a really good tribute to this wonderful film.

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