REVIEW: The Bishop’s Wife
Produced by: Samuel Goldwyn
Written by: Leonardo Bercovici, Robert E. Sherwood, Billy Wilder (uncredited), Charles Brackett (uncredited)
Edited by: Monica Collingwood
Cinematography by: Gregg Toland
Music by: Hugo Freidhofer
Starring: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester, Sara Haden, Karolyn Grimes
Based on the novel by Robert Nathan
[Some spoilers ahead!]
Cary Grant really could sell movies. Want proof? This film did not live up to expectations when it was first released in the U.S. under its normal title, as it was presumed to be too religious (Go figure, America – we weren’t all enamored with religious movies, even back then!), but when the studio had posters’ reflected title changed to Cary and the Bishop’s Wife, ticket sales reportedly jumped by 25%. The film would go on to be nominated for a few Oscars, including Best Sound, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, and Best Picture. It only won in the Best Sound category, but the nominations are still quite impressive. And, when I did a Google search for “Best Christmas Films” this year and pretty much every year past, The Bishop’s Wife was always up there alongside some of the greatest and even some of my favorites. Having reviewed most of those, however, this year, I figured, was The Bishop’s Wife’s year, particularly since I’ve been meaning to review some older films, anyway. Into the Netflix DVD queue it went! Would it be worth it?
Some of you may know the story, in some form, from either the 1928 novel of the same name by Robert Nathan (doubtful) or from the more recent 1996 remake/adaptation, The Preacher’s Wife. I hadn’t been exposed to either, at least not in full, so The Bishop’s Wife film is actually my first exposure to this story, really. (Take that, Roger Ebert! Reviewing remakes before you’ve ever seen the original adaptation. Pff…) The story is fairly basic in premise. Around the Christmas season, an angel named Dudley is sent to Earth to help out a desperate bishop named Henry Brougham, who has prayed for guidance while he attempts to raise funds for a new cathedral, but to no avail. Dudley volunteers to help the bishop, telling Henry that he is there as an answer to his prayers. Oddly skeptical for a man of God, Henry begrudgingly accepts Dudley’s assistance.
The Bishop’s Wife is, for all intents and purposes, a lighthearted, sweet natured romantic comedy with a playful sense of humor. During his time on Earth, Dudley cracks a few jokes with Henry’s friends and family members and seems to have some fun performing minor miracles for them right under their noses, and everyone, regardless of their faith (or lack thereof), seems to be especially fond of him – Henry’s wife, Julia, in particular, which forms the inevitable but strange love triangle that takes up the other half of the film’s plotting, with Dudley spending time with Julia and keeping her happy while Henry concentrates on his work, which Dudley has some involvement in – but not nearly as much as with Julia. Perpetually frustrated and, most of all, completely human (and therefore incapable of imbuing sudden ice skating talent in his significant other), Henry seems completely outmatched in every possible way in comparison to Dudley, and it seems as though the angel who was sent to help guide him may well be turning into a devil on Julia’s shoulder.
And… this is actually where I start to have issues with The Bishop’s Wife. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a bad film, by any means, and I liked the ultimate message regarding getting consumed in outward piety and ignoring what is in front of you. I also wasn’t fully expecting the way in which Henry’s own plot regarding the Cathedral played out, given the film’s age, as I myself had assumed it would be irrationally religious to the point where it was going to be far more materialistic than it ended up being (though I question Henry’s fretting for money, given the size of his house, its location in New York City, and the two servants he and Julia have on hand). However, Dudley is treated with far too much affection, to the point where it seems like the movie is mostly on his side, given how obviously infatuated it is with the star who plays him. And Cary Grant really is quite charming as Dudley, as he often is. He’s a bit smug, but I like that added edge to a character who could’ve been oppressively wholesome.
But, while I’m not certain “perfect” is necessarily the right word for Dudley as a character, I’m still not entirely convinced that the movie wasn’t actually trying to play him up as being in his right to step in on Henry’s marriage, either. This is based on the film’s affectionate depiction of his chemistry with Julia, the amount of sympathy the film has for her, and the apparent distaste it has for the stiff Henry beyond his admirable loyalty and good intentions. That ice skating thing I mentioned before wasn’t some kind of non sequitur – there’s a painfully long scene in which Dudley and Julia and their cab driver have a whimsical impromptu ice skating session where he romances her in front of everyone by secretly granting her expert skill while Henry toils away elsewhere, callously inattentive to Julia’s wifely needs. It would be one thing if it was intended to teach Henry a lesson about what could potentially happen, but it actually kinda left me with a gross feeling, given how wonderful it’s all supposed to be while knowing about Dudley’s infatuation – not to mention his manipulation of the situation and nonchalant demeanor when confronted about it.
I just don’t really get what the fuss is about, I guess. I like Cary Grant the actor just fine, and nobody else in the movie ever felt like they were poorly played, either, but I really didn’t care for them especially, either. The script has a few unexpected story developments and a few good laughs, too, but I’m not really certain why this al amounted to a consideration for Best Picture, nor is do I really understand why it’s considered a favorite holiday film for so many. I have a feeling that The Bishop’s Wife is simply aging poorly, and some things just aren’t registering for me as being nearly as delightful as it may have been had I been born a few decades earlier. Adding Cary Grant’s name wouldn’t have convinced me any more to see it, for example, and may in fact have pushed me away, given that it really was just a marketing ploy that makes no freaking sense – the character’s name is Dudley!
This isn’t a matter of the film being old or black and white, either – It’s a Wonderful Life remains one of my favorite Christmas movies and is very likely one of the greatest films of all time, period. I feel like it’s message is far more universal and enduring, however, when compared to this more whimsical fantasy tale I read the synopsis for The Preacher’s Wife after watching this film, and the admiration it felt for the husband character on the part of the filmmakers was far more apparent even from a summary, given he’s actually trying to help people directly rather than build what is ostensibly a status symbol that has the added bonus of being a place where people can be helped. He also sounds like he’s far more accidental about his absence, rather than outright dismissive, as with Henry here. I suspect that may very well end up being my preferred adaptation, whenever I get around to it. Who knows, though? Even the ’90s had a tendency to be artificially and overly sentimental, and maybe The Bishop’s Wife will stand out in a much better light.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5