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

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.