Skip to main content

I appreciate your appreciation, but what about my cathedral?

The Bishop’s Wife
(1947)

(SPOILERS) Mostly amiable and ever-so-slight (Cary Grant’s angel comes down to Earth, answering David Niven’s bishop prayer, but providing a lesson in priorities), this Yuletide tale manages to conclude on a rather perverse note, particularly for fare so weightless. One would immediately assume the incongruity of casting debonair, suave charmer Grant as one of the heavenly host influenced the content, such that his character was obliged to profess his decidedly less-than-divine interest in the bishop’s missus.



Charitably, one might suggest there’s an intentional echo of the Biblical nephilim, whereby the appeals of the flesh led to the exit from heaven of a company of angels, but the interplay lacks any comparably portentous aspect, and the adulterous possibilities of Dudley “wooing” Julia (Loretta Young) are played down; indeed, it seems, and in part concludes, that this has been for the purpose of wising up Niven’s Henry Brougham to what, and who, is really important.



Perhaps the tentativeness on display is a sign of the makers’ wariness over potential suggestiveness of the material; Dudley’s making a play is spoken of, rather than actually depicted, when Monty Woolley’s Professor Wutheridge urges Henry to fight for his wife; “She’s a woman, Henry, and you are a man”, unlike the non-Earthly Dudley; Julia herself, bowled over as she is by having Cary Grant fall in her lap, blanches when Dudley actually professes love (thus she remains true to her hubby); and when Henry confronts Dudley (“Trying to steal my wife, my child, my all that belongs to me. Julia means more to me than my life. I’m not going to lose her!”), the latter responds as if this has been his grand design (“Ah, then. I have news for you. I’m going”). Which, it kind of has (the confession to Julia scene might be construed as intentionally pushing her to push him away), but it has also yielded angelic envy and lust (“Kiss her for me, you lucky Henry”), which feels surprisingly raunchy for Hayes Code-era Hollywood cinema. More recently, the picture was remade as The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston, retaining this angel in love angle.



The picture runs with the Dudley’s behaviour being construed as other than innocent throughout, but this is very much the interpretation of others; such as the church committee members when he takes Julia to lunch (“He’s holding her hand”), Henry’s growing indignation, and the taxi driver assuming Dudley and Julia are a couple. It’s also made clear that Dudley is utterly irresistible just by being Cary Grant, as the responses of household servants Matilda (Elsa Lanchester) and Mildred (Sara Haden) attest.



The beatific quality is also emphasised by Dudley’s comedy miracles, from instant filing, to directing Debby’s snowball (two of the young cast members also appear in the previous year’s It’s a Wonderful Life), to tree decorating, to ensuring maximum attendance of a boy’s choir, to ice skating (with another comedy servant character, James Gleason’s taxi driver Sylvester; the events of The Bishop’s Wife revolving strictly around the troubles of those in positions of privilege,) to, most amusingly, Wutheridge’s ever-topped-up sherry bottle.



Woolley steals the proceedings whenever he’s on screen, an ebullient yet melancholy figure (“You know, for a while now, every time I’ve passed the cemetery, I’ve felt as if I were apartment hunting”), nursing the loss of his one great love but given new fire thanks to Dudley’s transformative magical sherry, such that he embarks on his 20 years-waiting book on Roman history.



I expected the business with professor’s rare Roman coin to lead somewhere more significant than it does (it is passed from Wutheridge to Henry, then from Dudley to Wutheridge, and then back to Henry and on to Julia), given its value, but the entire starting point of the picture, the stresses of the new cathedral project on Henry, also turns out to be something of a red herring. It’s included as a distraction from Henry’s wife and family, and resolved through a change of mind from rich, stern benefactor Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper). Having been told by Henry that the cathedral must be created for all, “not the glory of one individual” it’s not really what he had in mind when Mrs Hamilton decides to give the money to the poor (“That big roof could make so many little roofs”). As an outcome to the picture’s thematic content it fits, but in terms of narrative it feels like the problem has been shrugged off. Notably for Mrs Hamilton, like Wutheridge, lost love is at the seat of her mental malaise (she married a man she did not love after losing the composer she did 40 years before), and Dudley stirs healing emotions through playing her one of the composer’s compositions on the harp.



The production was a difficult one, but not due to concerns over prurience; director William A Seiter was replaced by Henry Koster, there were casting changes (Dana Andrews was originally the bishop, Niven the angel, Teresa Wright the wife), and the leads swapped roles (there are conflicting reports on this; some say Grant was initially reluctant, others that it was his idea, and others still that he was always Dudley). Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder also had to rewrite several scenes following tepid previews. Audiences also avoided the film at first, as they thought the picture sounded too religious (it certainly works under the assumption there are perceived blessings to be soaked up).



Certainly, Grant isn’t such a good fit for Dudley, rather straight-jacketed (he won’t be ending up with the girl, and must be respectable and earnest rather than sly and insincere) but simultaneously much too “Cary Grant” to convince as a divine emissary. Whereas, one could easily get that from Niven (I’m not sure Grant would really work in the Niven role either, though). While Niven plays up the sourpuss side of Henry, and he’s very much the reactor to Grant’s limelight hogging, he makes the most of a comedic scene in which a chair has, at Dudley’s behest, attached itself to Henry’s posterior. Young is fine, but very much the object of affection caught between the two male stars.



The Bishop’s Wife is curiously wayward as inoffensive Christmas movies go, then. Love is the key for all its afflicted protagonists, yet that very emotion becomes the blemish tarnishing its final act revelation. Robert E Sherwood (who won an Oscar for Rebecca) and Leonardo Bercovici adapted Robert Nathan’s novel and, aside from the miscasting of Grant, the fault lies somewhere in this material. It’s also a picture that, despite the trappings, isn’t really so festive in feel; like Grant’s performance, The Bishop’s Wife is too reserved, lacking the old Joyeux Noel, reluctant to uncork the mulled wine, or get that endless supply of Wutheridge’s sherry flowing.



Popular posts from this blog

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

I don’t think Wimpys still exist.

Last Night in Soho (2021) (SPOILERS) Last Night in Soho is a cautionary lesson in one’s reach extending one’s grasp. It isn’t that Edgar Wright shouldn’t attempt to stretch himself, it’s simply that he needs the self-awareness to realise which moves are going to throw his back out and leave him in a floundering and enfeebled heap on the studio floor. Wright’s an uber-geek, one with a very specific comfort zone, and there’s no shame in that. He evidently was shamed, though, hence this response to criticisms of a lack of maturity and – obviously – lack of versatility with female characters. Last Night in Soho goes broke for woke, and in so doing exposes his new clothes in the least flattering light. Because Edgar is in no way woke, his attempts to prove his progressive mettle lead to a lurid, muddled mess, one that will satisfy no one. Well, perhaps his most ardent fans, but no one else.

It looks like a digital walkout.

Free Guy (2021) (SPOILERS) Ostensibly a twenty-first century refresh of The Truman Show , in which an oblivious innocent realises his life is a lie, and that he is simply a puppet engineered for the entertainment of his creators/controllers/the masses, Free Guy lends itself to similar readings regarding the metaphysical underpinnings of our reality, of who sets the paradigm and how conscious we are of its limitations. But there’s an additional layer in there too, a more insidious one than using a Hollywood movie to “tell us how it really is”.

The voice from the outer world who will lead them to paradise.

Dune (2021) (SPOILERS) For someone who has increasingly dug himself a science-fiction groove, Denis Villeneuve isn’t terribly imaginative. Dune looks perfect, in the manner of the cool, clinical, calculating and above all glacial rendering of concept design and novel cover art in the most doggedly literal fashion. And that’s the problem. David Lynch’s edition may have had its problems, but it was inimitably the product of a mind brimming with sensibility. Villeneuve’s version announces itself as so determinedly faithful to Frank Herbert, it needs two movies to tell one book, and yet all it really has to show for itself are gargantuan vistas.

Give poor, starving Gurgi munchings and crunchings.

The Black Cauldron (1985) (SPOILERS) Dark Disney? I guess… Kind of . I don’t think I ever got round to seeing this previously. The Fox and the Hound , sure. Basil the Great Mouse Detective , most certainly. Even Oliver and Company , so I wasn’t that selective. But I must have missed The Black Cauldron , the one that nearly broke Disney, for the same reason everyone else did. But what reason was that? Perhaps nothing leaping out about it, when the same summer kids could see The Goonies , or Back to the Future , or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure . It seemed like a soup of other, better-executed ideas and past Disney movies, stirred up in a cauldron and slopped out into an environment where audiences now wanted something a touch more sophisticated.

Monster nom nom?

The Suicide Squad (2021) (SPOILERS) This is what you get from James Gunn when he hasn’t been fed through the Disney rainbow filter. Pure, unadulterated charmlessness, as if he’s been raiding his deleted Twitter account for inspiration. The Suicide Squad has none of the “heart” of Guardians of Galaxy , barely a trace of structure, and revels in the kind of gross out previously found in Slither ; granted an R rating, Gunn revels in this freedom with juvenile glee, but such carte blanche only occasionally pays off, and more commonly leads to a kind of playground repetition. He gets to taunt everyone, and then kill them. Critics applauded; general audiences resisted. They were right to.

It becomes easier each time… until it kills you.

The X-Files 4.9: Terma Oh dear. After an engaging opener, the second part of this story drops through the floor, and even the usually spirited Rob Bowman can’t save the lethargic mess Carter and Spotnitz make of some actually pretty promising plot threads.

Three. Two. One. Lift with your neck.

Red Notice  (2021) (SPOILERS) Red Notice rather epitomises Netflix output. Not the 95% that is dismissible, subgrade filler no one is watching but is nevertheless churned out as original “content”. No, this would be the other, more select tier constituting Hollywood names and non-negligible budgets. Most such fare still fails to justify its existence in any way, shape or form, singularly lacking discernible quality control or “studio” oversight. Albeit, one might make similar accusations of a selection of legit actual studio product too, but it’s the sheer consistency of unleavened movies that sets Netflix apart. So it is with Red Notice . Largely lambasted by the critics, in much the manner of, say 6 Underground or Army of the Dead , it is in fact, and just like those, no more and no less than okay.

Oh hello, loves, what year is it?

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) (SPOILERS) Simu Lui must surely be the least charismatic lead in a major motion picture since… er, Taylor Lautner? He isn’t aggressively bad, like Lautner was/is, but he’s so blank, so nondescript, he makes Marvel’s super-spiffy new superhero Shang-Chi a superplank by osmosis. Just looking at him makes me sleepy, so it’s lucky Akwafina is wired enough for the both of them. At least, until she gets saddled with standard sidekick support heroics and any discernible personality promptly dissolves. And so, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings continues Kevin Feige’s bold journey into wokesense, seemingly at the expense of any interest in dramatically engaging the viewer.

What about the panties?

Sliver (1993) (SPOILERS) It must have seemed like a no-brainer. Sharon Stone, fresh from flashing her way to one of the biggest hits of 1992, starring in a movie nourished with a screenplay from the writer of one of the biggest hits of 1992. That Sliver is one Stone’s better performing movies says more about how no one took her to their bosom rather than her ability to appeal outside of working with Paul Verhoeven. Attempting to replicate the erotic lure of Basic Instinct , but without the Dutch director’s shameless revelry and unrepentant glee (and divested of Michael Douglas’ sweaters), it flounders, a stupid movie with vague pretensions to depth made even more stupid by reshoots that changed the killer’s identity and exposed the cluelessness of the studio behind it. Philip Noyce isn’t a stupid filmmaker, of course. He’s a more-than-competent journeyman when it comes to Hollywood blockbuster fare ( Clear and Present Danger , Salt ) also adept at “smart” smaller pict