(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.