Holiday Rewind: The Bishop’s Wife

I thought I had originally selected The Bishop’s Wife as a Christmas viewing, but I originally reviewed it in a September, so clearly not. I remember it as being less about Christmas than I had expected, which is strange if I hadn’t gone out of my way for it.

I also remember it being a quiet and almost thoughtful movie. It was light and feel-good more than being about the comedy or the drama. The busy man has to feel in danger of losing his wife to a man in tune with her needs to remember to value life outside of his ambitions. Merry Christmas, take nothing for granted. If I didn’t know that It’s A Wonderful Life only got popular much later because it could be run on TV for cheap, I’d suspect that this movie that came two years later was trying to capitalize on it.

The Bishop’s Wife. RKO Radio Pictures 1948.

Harry Brougham used to be the reverend of a small church in a poor part of the city, but not too long ago was appointed as the local bishop and tasked with overseeing the fundraising and construction of a new cathedral, which he’s become obsessed with building as a glorious edifice, but in order to get the money for such a grand work, must brown nose with the area’s wealthy elite, especially Mrs. Agnes Hamilton, who wants to leverage her donation to make the cathedral a monument to her late husband. But with his constant negotiation and planning meetings with the big donors, Bishop Brougham has not only lost all joy and charity, but also any time to love his wife Julia and daughter Debby. Strained by the tension between his principles and his desire to realize the magnificent cathedral of his dreams, Henry prays for guidance, and into his life pops Dudley, an angel who’s come to pose as Henry’s assistant and help him find his path. Though Henry doesn’t want to believe Dudley is who he says he is, particularly as Dudley won’t perform any miracles with witnesses, he does begrudgingly believe that Dudley may be supernatural. But instead of a helper to raise a cathedral from nothing with the wave of a wing, Dudley spends most of his time raising the spirits of Julia and Debby by “representing” Henry in his roles as husband and father. As Julia is lifted out of the misery of her existence since Henry’s duties took him away from his family life, Dudley’s relationship with her begins to resemble something wholly inappropriate.

This gets billed as a comedy, but it seems more like a light feel-good melodrama. Or really, it’s an unorthodox romance, where the central tension is that not only can the central couple really not be allowed to end up together, but the whole point of them getting dangerously close to falling in love is as a wakeup call to the protagonist. Dudley’s lies of omission and other interactions with the secondary and tertiary cast bring some levity, but it really feels more like comic relief than something intended as a comedy. Although perhaps in its day it was entering comedy territory just to put the pair into situations that lend themselves to misinterpretation from the outside. Definitely there’s a mild laugh a couple of times from people getting the wrong idea, but it’s very mild.

One may almost be tempted to consider it interesting that Cary Grant is not here as a romantic lead, only that’s not actually true, since again, the main shape of the movie is a romance story, only Dudley and Julia can’t actually be together. What makes it unusual is that the tragedy of them not being able to be together isn’t really foregrounded, it’s more of a postscript to the morality play of staging a crisis in Henry’s life.

I’m impressed with myself that in the original review I summed up the movie as feeling like a Christmas card, because I came up with the same imagery in organizing what I expected to write this time. Both times I was probably inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life originating as a short story in a Christmas card, even though I didn’t reference that movie directly in the original review. This came from a novella, as most movies with an unusual amount of texture do.

I also think I was pretty harsh on the diversions from the plot for entertainment value. Does the scene with Dudley, Julia, and their cab driver advance the plot the whole time? No, but it advances the theme of brightening the world with understanding and unconventionality. Does the boys’ choir scene advance the plot? No, but it illustrates some Christmas magic. I don’t know why I remembered it as barely a Christmas story, since so many scenes are steeped in at least being in early winter and the climax is on Christmas Eve, as well as having a very Christmas message of love, generosity, and fellowship. This could easily be among the movies left on repeat on cable channels that send everyone home for Christmas week.

The Phantom of 42nd Street

The Phantom of 42nd Street.
Producers Releasing Corp. 1945.

Before watching the movie:

Sometimes I just want a pulpy mystery. And it doesn’t hurt if it’s closer to one hour than one and a half or two because I’m busy.

I know I’ve seen the name Alan Mowbray around, but I couldn’t place him to anything specific. Seems like someone I should know.

I wonder if audiences outside New York are supposed to get the reference to 42nd street being a cross street with Broadway (something I only know because of the poster) and presumably a place where there are theaters. My initial guess would be that 42nd street would be far enough out of town that it’s not a very nice theater, but New York is gigantic next to the cities I’ve gotten a feel for, so maybe it’s in the heart of the theater district. I don’t know. I’m not a New Yorker, much like most of the people who would be watching this.

Continue reading

Mystery of the 13th Guest

Mystery of the 13th Guest. Monogram Pictures 1943.

Before watching the movie:

What intrigues me most about this story is that it’s about returning to the case 13 years after the presumed crime happened. The girl’s father invited 13 people to a party and died suddenly shortly thereafter, and now his will has requested that she return to the house and find the truth.

I don’t expect a great masterpiece, but uncovering clues that long after the crime was committed will probably be interesting.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons.
Mercury 1942.

Before watching the movie:

I seem to recall that this is sometimes regarded as at least equal in stature to Citizen Kane in some way. It doesn’t get the hype that Kane does though, and it seems to get discussed to the extent of “probably Orson Wells’ best film ever, but moving on…”

Much like Kane is a portrait of a life, just with a nominal mystery to drive the plot, this seems to be a portrait of a family’s travails over possibly years. I have a sense that it’s character driven and plot light and would probably be comfortable on the same shelf with Little Women.

Continue reading

The Missing Corpse

The Missing Corpse. Producers Releasing Corporation 1945

Before watching the movie:

I just found out about this movie, and it sounds like a lot of fun. A newspaper mogul gets killed and planted in his rival’s car, so the rival then has to hide the corpse to not get charged for the murder, only the body keeps going missing and somehow turning up in conspicuous places.

Some of the names in the cast seem vaguely familiar, but there’s not really anything that would’ve made it stand out except the black box algorithms that control our lives thought I might like it, and for once it looks like they’re right.

Continue reading

Snuffy Smith, Yardbird

Snuffy Smith, Yardbird
(or Private Snuffy Smith)
Monogram Pictures 1942

Before watching the movie:

This is based on the newspaper comic strip (Barney Google and) Snuffy Smith, that’s coming up on its hundredth anniversary and is still in newspaper comics today that one could argue that fresher strips deserve, except at this point all the new strips worth reading are webcomics. In that hundred years, the focus shifted from city slicker gambler Barney Google to the hillbilly rascal Snuffy Smith, to the point that Smith was added to the title by the 1930s and Google was written out by the 1950s, only very recently being remembered by the current writer(s).

It looks like it’s going to be hard to tell what the movie changed from the strip and what the strip itself changed between the 40s and the time I became familiar with it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Snuffy’s moonshining, which seems to be a major character point here, was a bigger part of the strip that got deemphasized to the point of nonexistence by the 90s for the purpose of making the funny papers safe for children who might accidentally learn about alcohol and lawbreaking otherwise.

After watching the movie:

Snuffy Smith is a moonshiner in the hills outside the Appalachian town of Hootin’ Holler, who defends his still from the Revenuers with the help of his friends. When revenue agent Ed Cooper tracks Snuffy back to his cabin, he goes to his friend Saul’s cabin to hide out, and arrives while Saul’s daughter Cindy is being courted by Don Elbie, a Hootin’ Holler native now a US Army Private. As Snuffy is impressed by Don’s khaki britches, gold buttons, and description of “all the food you can eat, a nice place to sleep, and $30 a week”, and as he interfered in Saul trying to run off Don for blood feud and daughter-protection reasons and so now can’t hide out there, Snuffy decides that joining the Army sounds like a pretty good deal. However who does his sergeant turn out to be but Sgt. Ed Cooper! Also there’s a distilling accident that turns Snuffy’s dog invisible.

The concept of “cartoon character joins the military” stories during the 40s is pretty well-traveled. Popeye didn’t wear his iconic outfit before he joined the Navy, and of course Disney and Warner Bros. characters made propaganda cartoons that are still enjoyed today. Everyone was making “the characters you love join the military to do their part for their country (so how about you do too?)” movies. So it’s not too weird to take a hillbilly with no interest in leaving his part of the hills and drop him into the military. What’s odd is that he doesn’t just enlist or get drafted, he tries to enlist, gets refused for very good reasons, and then the General is accidentally indebted to him, and gives Snuffy special dispensation, to a point.

The invisible dog is a much more random element, and what’s bizarre is that an entire movie could be done with that, but instead, it’s a really minor thing that’s used for some jokes here and there, but mostly just gets Snuffy out of some scrapes in the third act. Snuffy and Loweezy don’t understand why this batch turns things invisible, and Snuffy suggests he’ll paint his still with it to hide it from the Revenuers for good, but then the Army calls him up and tells him he can’t bring his dog, so he just pours the invisible spirits on the dog and brings him anyway. That’s weirder than anything that I can imagine happening in the comic.

So like a lot of the propaganda wartime “join the army” stories, this is all about being at a camp still at home. The rising action is mostly concerned with Snuffy’s division winning a wargame with a special new gunsight that Don invented, but there’s also American fifth columnists trying to steal the gunsight to sabotage the army, which would be the most bizarre thing about the movie if not for the invisible dog that’s mostly ignored.

I understand why this exists, but also, the entire thing is a “why does this exist?” Most pieces make sense on their own, but they add up to something highly unusual and not necessarily good. The parts that aren’t confusing are fun, though.

The Third Man

The Third Man. London Film 1949

Before watching the movie

Apparently, this movie has appeared in the number two spot on a list of best British movies, and I only hear about it in discussion of lesser-known great Orson Welles movies. Welles is playing the (supposedly?) dead man, so, while even in the late 40s, you don’t cast Orson Welles as a corpse, his presence might be inflated by the fact that he’s the only recognizable name in the cast.

Continue reading

The Stranger

The Stranger. International Pictures 1946.

Before watching the movie:

As much as personalized algorithmic suggestions tend to point me toward things I want to watch, they tend to get trained more narrowly than my tastes actually are, and they’re limited by what’s been made available based on what the userbase as a whole wants to see. So sometimes it’s a refreshing change of pace to just go to the library and see what jumps off the shelf.

Perhaps a learning AI trained on the entire back catalog of my blog and having the entire history of Hollywood movies to choose from might suggest a 40s Orson Welles thriller about searching out an escaped Nazi officer, but it doesn’t seem likely.

Continue reading

Who Done It?

Who Done It? Universal Pictures 1943.

Before watching the movie:

What can one expect from an Abbott and Costello movie? Bumbling into trouble, one-liners, slapstick. I can’t point to anything about this movie that I think is going to be truly remarkable. It’s a vehicle picture coming out of the Hollywood machine of the Golden Age contract films model.

I have nothing to point to that I’m very interested in, beyond seeing Abbott and Costello get into trouble and be silly for a bit. They’re what sell the movie, which is the whole point.

Continue reading