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 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.

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