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.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.