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

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…