Around the holiday time, CRAZYFILMGUY's thoughts begin to turn to snowmen and reindeer and angels. Angels are synonymous with the holidays. We put an angel at the top of most Christmas trees. As a child, my Dad would read to us The Littlest Angel during the holidays which was incredibly sad. I always think of the angel Clarence from the holiday classic IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) who tries to earn his wings by helping Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey through some tough times. But there is another holiday film angel who comes to the rescue of a bishop and his wife's marriage which is not as well known even if the actor who plays the angel is.
Cary Grant stars as the handsome angel Dudley in THE BISHOP'S WIFE (1947) which came out one year after Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Although I don't believe it's considered a Christmas movie, THE BISHOP'S WIFE does take place during the Christmas holiday. Since it's release, it has joined the staple of Christmas and holiday themed films that play every December on cable television. I had noticed it playing last year amongst other more traditional Christmas themed movies. The cast of Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven was too enticing to pass up.
THE BISHOP'S WIFE is directed by Henry Koster with a screen play by Robert E. Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici (with uncredited contributions from Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett) based on the novel by Robert Nathan. Adding to the film is the beautiful black and white photography by famed cinematographer Gregg Toland who shot CITIZEN KANE. There's something about black and white Christmas movies that I never get tired of.
The film opens with an aerial shot (perhaps of an angel soaring) over a town while Hark the Herald Angels Sing plays over the soundtrack, a boys choir performing in the town square. Dudley (Cary Grant), an angel, mingles with the holiday shoppers and carolers. He's on a mission although he doesn't quite know what his mission is yet. But when Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) prays for assistance in fundraising for a new cathedral, Dudley arrives at his house to help. But Dudley will discover that the strained marriage between Henry and his wife Julia Brougham (Loretta Young) will need just as much care as Henry's cathedral dreams. Henry has become so involved with his fundraising project that he's neglecting Julia and his daughter Debby (Karolyn Grimes). Dudley steps in to help. He takes Julia to her favorite restaurant Michel's. Dudley and Julia visit an old friend from her old parish Professor Wutheridge (Monty Wooley), a history scholar. Dudley works his angel skills so that Debby gets invited into a snowball fight with some other kids. Dudley takes Julia ice skating and encourages her to buy a fancy hat that she's coveted since Dudley first arrived.
Meanwhile, Henry is close to a nervous breakdown, dealing with the wealthy but obstinate Agnes Hamilton (Gladys Cooper). Mrs. Hamilton will only donate a million dollars to the cathedral if a wing of the church can be named after her late husband. Henry becomes increasingly jealous of Dudley who he feels is spending far too much time with his wife and daughter. Henry prays for Dudley to leave, worried that Dudley has been sent to replace him (even Henry's dog, a St. Bernard, chooses to sit next to Dudley rather than Henry at the dinner table).
Dudley does leave briefly. Henry caves in to Mrs. Hamilton's demands. But Dudley returns to work his angelic charms on Mrs. Hamilton. He convinces Mrs. Hamilton to donate her money to help the less fortunate (playing that angelic instrument the harp to win her over) rather than build a monstrous building to honor her late husband. And Dudley teaches Henry to enjoy life again, to embrace Julia and Debby with all his heart, and return to his humble roots at St. Timothy's that made them all so happy. "I was praying for a cathedral," Henry tells him. "No Henry, " responds Dudley. "You were praying for guidance."
At first glance, THE BISHOP'S WIFE is either a wonderful holiday story about an angel restoring man's faith in humanity or a creepy love story about an angel falling in love and stealing a bishop's wife. Thankfully, the film is more the former than the latter. Dudley does step into Henry's husband role, taking Julia to her favorite restaurant, visiting an old friend, ice skating, all things Henry used to do with Julia before he became involved with his cathedral project. For the most part, Dudley's intentions are to make Henry jealous, to realize he's neglecting his family. But toward the end of the film, Dudley does confess that angels do become attached to the humans they help. Is Dudley falling for Julia? When Dudley's mission is completed, he'll make everyone forget who he was or what he did. His next task will be on the other side of the universe, far away from Henry and Julia and Debby.
Like Clarence the Angel from IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, Dudley's mission is to make the mortals he's been sent to help realize everything they seek is right in front of them. The Professor has failed to write his great historical book. Dudley teaches him how to interpret the manuscripts and ancient Roman coin he couldn't before. Whether it's giving Debby the confidence to throw a snow ball or taxi cab driver Sylvester (James Gleason) the courage to ice skate, Dudley provides the encouragement that every day life and cynics say can't be done.
Hollywood studios are notorious for releasing competing films with similar plots. I don't think it's a coincidence that two films about angels came out within one year of each other. Both THE BISHOP'S WIFE and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE have some similarities and connections to one another. Both films contain an angel that arrives from heaven or some celestial way station to intervene in a human experience. Dudley is the main character in THE BISHOP'S WIFE. He's good looking, funny, and urbane. Clarence (Henry Travers) from IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is an older, white-haired, clumsy angel who only appears in the last third of that film. Both films swing back and forth from sentimental and romantic to haunting and sad and back. BISHOP is set during the month of December while WONDERFUL spans several decades of George Bailey's life but culminates at Christmas. Both Dudley and Clarence are sent to aid a human being near the end of their chain. Their incentive to help is to earn their wings.
Both BISHOP'S WIFE and WONDERFUL have wealthy villains who torment the hero. The bishop Henry has to deal with the cold, rigid Mrs. Hamilton if he wants his cathedral built. George Bailey's nemesis was Mr. Potter, the rich and greedy banker. Both films have many colorful supporting characters including a taxi cab driver. BISHOP'S cabbie is Sylvester who drives Dudley and Julia to the ice rink and joins them for an ice skate. WONDERFUL's taxi cab character is Ernie, a family friend of George Bailey. The most amazing connection between the two films is the young actress Karolyn Grimes. Grimes plays the Brougham's only daughter in BISHOP'S WIFE and she's Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed's youngest daughter Zuzu Bailey in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Stewart digs Zuzu's rose petals out of his pockets to confirm he's alive after Clarence returns him to his life.
As sweet and entertaining as THE BISHOP'S WIFE is, the behind the scenes drama is just as captivating. The original director William A. Seiter left the film early on so producer Samuel Goldwyn brought in Henry Koster to direct. At the time, Cary Grant and David Niven's roles were reversed. Grant was the bishop and Niven was the angel. Director Koster didn't like that casting and made Grant the angel and Niven the bishop. It makes perfect sense and Grant's Dudley is a far more sexy, charming angel while Niven is perfect as the frustrated and befuddled bishop. Adding to the off camera drama was that Cary Grant and Loretta Young (who had worked together in the 1934 film BORN TO BE BAD) didn't get along very well during the making of THE BISHOP'S WIFE. Whatever differences they had off screen, their chemistry on screen is genuine.
Cary Grant as the earthbound angel Dudley is an odd, different role for Grant than audiences were accustomed to. Grant's not the romantic lead although his relationship with Julia borders on romantic at times. Dudley's more of a mediator. That's not to say Dudley doesn't bedazzle the ladies. Both the housekeeper Matilda (Elsa Lanchester) and Henry's secretary Mildred Cassaway (Sara Haden) are infatuated with the charming angel. Grant plays Dudley in a fun but subdued performance, never becoming too excited or too quiet. Bruno Ganz's performance as the angel Damiel in WINGS OF DESIRE (1987) owes a nod to Grant's performance. It's hard to believe Grant started the film as the moody bishop. That would have been a disaster. Fortunately, director Koster had Grant and Niven switch roles. Niven is much better as the distracted and frustrated Henry.
I first saw actress Loretta Young recently playing a significant other in another 1946 film THE STRANGER with Orson Welles. Young played Welles fiancée. As Henry's wife Julia in BISHOP'S WIFE, Young's Julia is almost angelic herself. She's the perfect wife, mother, and friend. Young's expressive face and big eyes convey her delight when she has fun with Dudley and her disappointment when Henry grows more distant and distracted from her. Loretta Young would win the Best Actress Academy Award a year later in 1947 for THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER. Later, Young would host a TV anthology show THE LORETTA YOUNG SHOW from 1953 to 1961.
Director Henry Koster gets a gold star for keeping THE BISHOP'S WIFE on course after the dismissal of the first director and switching the key roles for the two male leads. Although THE BISHOP'S WIFE is a fantasy film, it's also a spiritual film. But Koster isn't heavy handed with the religious aspects. He sets up the holiday motifs splendidly in the first few minutes with falling snow, Christmas trees and caroling, toy trains and angels in the shop windows, and even a Salvation Army Santa ringing his bell. Koster portrays the angel Dudley as mostly human-like. When we first meet Dudley, he seems like a good Samaritan, helping a blind man cross a busy street than rescuing a wayward baby carriage rolling toward certain peril. Later, Dudley's magic materializes in subtle ways: filing index cards without his hands, refilling the Professor's sherry glass with just the point of his finger, and walking out of Henry's locked study after Henry had locked the door.
Koster's only blip in THE BISHOP'S WIFE is the ice skating sequence in which clearly professionals are skating for the actors. Koster shoots most of the skating in wide shots but the audience can tell easily it's not Grant or Young skating. A few more close ups with the actors would have sold the illusion a little more. Koster would get to direct a much more spiritual and religious film with 1953's THE ROBE starring Richard Burton and Jean Simmons.
Ironically, IT' A WONDERFUL LIFE was considered a box office flop during its initial release. Yet produce Samuel Goldwyn had no qualms about making another fantasy film about an angel who arrives to help the Brougham family in THE BISHOP'S WIFE a year later. Although today IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE seems like a holiday national treasure, THE BISHOP'S WIFE was much more successful in its initial release due to the star power of its three main stars. Hollywood would return to novelist Robert Nathan's story again in the 1996 remake THE PREACHER'S WIFE starring Denzel Washington as Dudley and Whitney Houston and Courtney Vance as the struggling married couple.
They don't make holiday themed films like HOLIDAY INN (1942) or THE BELLS OF ST MARY'S (1945) nowadays so pour yourself a nice glass of egg nog, throw a yuletide log on the fire, and set your DVR for the uplifting tale of an angel keeping a family together in THE BISHOP'S WIFE. It might make you believe there's an angel watching over you.