The Bishop’s Wife

The Bishop’s Wife. RKO Radio Pictures 1948.

Before watching the movie:

Cary Grant and David Niven are an unexpected pairing. Grant gets all the focus, so I saw Cary Grant and that it’s a romance and assumed that Grant is the Bishop. But it turns out that he’s an alleged angel and Niven is the Bishop, which makes more sense for their types.

Grant’s character inveigle his way into the Bishop’s life claiming to be an angel here to help with a challenging renovation, but mostly imposes upon him and attracts the attentions of his wife, hence the title. Sounds like an unusual setup for a screwball comedy.

After watching the movie:

Henry Brougham used to have time for his wife Julia and daughter and work for charitable causes, but ever since he was made the Bishop for the region, his time has been consumed by securing funding for a new, impressive cathedral, grinding his principles into dust as he feels he must toady to the wealthiest people in his community in order to get the money that he needs. Stonewalled by the demands of his most vain potential donor, Brougham prays for guidance, and is suddenly met by a man claiming to be an angel, sent to help him achieve what he needs to do. Introducing himself to others as Dudley, Brougham’s new assistant, he’s not trusted enough by Brougham to tend to fundraising, but is permitted to escort Julia on her day’s errands. Dudley keeps Julia entertained by playing on her good memories of Henry before his work consumed him, making her feel like she’s courting the young man she fell in love with again. Dudley is perhaps a little too tempted by her good nature.

The comedy is very muted, and pretty much all of it is in the interactions between Dudley and other people around town, not the Broughams. The Professor, who hasn’t written a line of his perennially promised book in decades, and the cabbie are the main comic relief characters, and they don’t get much time. This is mostly the story of how Dudley gets so close to Julia that eventually none of them are comfortable about it, and the change wrought in Henry because of it.

There’s a lengthy ice skating/dancing scene that finishes advancing the plot fairly quickly and continues for several minutes. That and the boys’ choir song seem to come from the urge to pack as much entertainment as possible into the movie, but I always find such diversions dull failures of the pacing. The ice skating scene seems to be shot on a set, so it doesn’t even “open up” the movie.

Dudley’s powers are mostly limited to those which can be explained without magic, except for his gift to the Professor of an infinite bottle of sherry that cannot cause inebriation. He doesn’t get more into magic until he has “a lot of work to do” on Christmas eve, which includes some time saving parlor tricks when nobody’s looking. Of course, he certainly could just make a cathedral appear out of thin air, he claims, but how would anyone explain that to the community? It also speaks to the central message encouraging us all to quiet acts of kindness and generosity to improve everyone’s lives, one small interaction at a time.

This is a more subdued movie than I expected. It’s quietly about family, charity, and open-heartedness, but it’s also about Cary grant in a weird love triangle, put in the position of an apparent homewrecker in order to try to save a marriage. The resolution seems a little rushed, but it altogether feels more like a Christmas card than a movie.

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