Should you be relaxing at home between Christmas and the New Year and are looking for a seasonal film to enjoy with friends or family, The Bishop’s Wife (1947) is a classic.

It shares a few similarities with It’s a Wonderful Life: a Christmas setting, an angel (Cary Grant) who has not yet received his wings, a protagonist (David Niven as Bishop Henry Brougham) who is too close to money woes to see circumstances clearly and a heartfelt prayer for help. It also includes two cast members from Capra’s film: Karolyn ‘Zuzu’ Grimes who plays Debby (the bishop’s daughter)  and Bobby ‘Young George Bailey’ Anderson who plays the Defence Captain in the snowball fight scene.

The story

Episcopalians who belong or have been part of large big city parishes will especially appreciate this film. An early scene shows wealthy Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) refusing to donate to the bishop’s appeal for the new cathedral unless its memorial chapel is built in such a way that everyone can see how great her late husband was. She reminds the bishop that it was she who got him his promotion.

Henry is consumed by his cathedral funding appeal — at the expense of his family and friends. His marriage (Loretta Young plays his wife Julia) is in tatters; his daughter Debby rarely sees him. Brougham is ‘too busy’ to see his former professor, Dr Wutheridge (Monty Woolley), or to go out to dinner. He is terse with his servants and his hardworking assistant. He has more ‘important’ things to do than to visit the rector of his former church, St Timothy’s, whose doors are about to close forever.

After Mrs Hamilton refuses to pledge money for the cathedral, Henry retires to his study and prays for help. Suddenly, a man appears — Dudley (Cary Grant) — who says he is an angel. He reveals his identity only to Brougham. Not surprisingly, Henry is mistrustful and wonders aloud whether Dudley is in fact ‘a demon’.

It isn’t long before Dudley takes the episcopal household by storm. The only person who doesn’t care for him is Henry. Julia and Debby find Dudley a welcome ray of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy existence. The servants bake him a chocolate cake and lend him one of Henry’s unworn winter scarves.

Dudley seems to make everyone’s life that much happier, including the professor’s. He reassures the ageing man that he will be able to finish his latest book, which he duly does.

The film has genuine touches of charm. Just by waving a finger or giving a casual glance, Dudley is able to refill the professor’s old sherry bottle. He takes Julia and their taxi driver (James Gleason) to an ice skating rink which restores the crusty driver’s ‘faith in humanity’. He tells Debby the story of David and Psalm 23. (Photo credit for the scene, pictured at left: High-Def Digest.) With just a few gestures, he decorates the bishop’s Christmas tree to reflect the glory of the season, which cheers the young servant Matilda (Elsa Lanchester).

As for Henry’s financial tussle with Mrs Hamilton, Dudley manages to turn those circumstances around, too. In absentia, he fixes the bishop to a newly varnished chair of Mrs Hamilton’s and, on a solo visit to her mansion, manages to get her to admit that she never really loved her late husband. You should really see for yourselves to find out what happens from there, although most of the sites discussing the film relate the whole story.

The Bishop’s Wife puts the sins of pride and ambition in sharp relief, yet in a lighthearted way. The Christian message comes across clearly although without the seriousness of Capra’s film. That’s not a criticism, just a way of saying that, although the two bear certain similarities, the treatment is quite different and equally outstanding.

One thing I will reveal is that, even at the end, Henry still doesn’t like Dudley. (And, fair deuce, the angel does spend a lot of time cheering up Julia.) Henry complains that when he asked for help he didn’t receive it. Dudley replies that what Henry was asking for was ‘guidance’ which he (the angel) duly provided.

It’s a reminder to us that God’s ways are not man’s and that angels are God’s messengers, even if, as Dudley says, we begin to think that their ideas are ours! Pride again.

Henry’s Christmas sermon

Speaking of men thinking that angels’ ideas are their own, Dudley rewrites Henry’s sermon for the Christmas Eve service. (Dudley arranges things so that Henry, his family and friends have no memory of his being among them — although they do carry on with the benefits of his visit.)

This is Dudley’s text, which Henry delivered from the pulpit — a lovely sermon for the season:

Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking.

Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries. We celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, with the sound of bells, and with gifts.

But especially with gifts. You give me a book, I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry can do with a new pipe. For we forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that.

Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.

What went on behind the scenes

Meet Me at the Movies tells us about the difficulties in filming The Bishop’s Wife:

Producer Samuel Goldwyn originally slated Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright, fresh from their success in Goldwyn’s The Best Years of Our Lives, for the roles of the bishop and his wife respectively, with David Niven cast as Dudley the angel.

Unfortunately, for the production, Wright became pregnant and had to drop out. Andrews, according to Robert Osborne from Turner Classic Movies, stayed on board to get Loretta Young’s services. Andrews eventually dropped out and Cary Grant was set to play the bishop, but he really wanted to play the angel. Grant was a big enough star that he could pretty much get what he wanted; Grant became Dudley the angel and Niven was recast as the bishop, much to Niven’s dismay. Goldwyn was not happy with original director William A. Seiter so he replaced him with Henry Koster.

Niven’s wife Primmie had died before filming, which probably did not help.

Wikipedia takes up the story from there:

In early previews, audiences disliked the film, so Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett made uncredited rewrites. Even so, and even though the premiere of The Bishop’s Wife was accompanied by critical success, the film didn’t do very well at the box office at first. Market research showed that moviegoers avoided the film because they thought it was religious. So, Goldwyn decided to re-title it Cary and the Bishop’s Wife for some US markets, while adding a black text box with the question “Have you heard about CARY AND THE BISHOP’S WIFE?” on posters in markets where the film kept the original title. By adding Grant’s first name to the title the film’s business increased by as much as 25 per cent.[1][2]

In the end, the film was put forward for several Oscars:

nominated for Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture and Best Picture.[4]

It won Best Sound, thanks to Gordon Sawyer’s expertise.

More reasons to watch

The acting, as described by High-Def Digest:

… Grant, here at his polished and debonair best, makes his angel so human, we often forget his heavenly association. The result is an airy fantasy that’s grounded just enough in reality to be palatable, and features a surprising amount of romantic tension. The comfortable interplay between the three leads further fuels the narrative engine, and top-flight supporting work from a stellar cast that includes Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Gladys Cooper, and Elsa Lanchester immerses us deeper into the drama while adding to the sense of high-spirited fun that’s such a vital component of the film …

Young won the 1947 Best Actress Oscar for her work in another light comedy, ‘The Farmer’s Daughter,’ but there’s little doubt her natural, at times luminous, performance in ‘The Bishop’s Wife’ contributed to her victory. Niven brings his usual dry and droll sense of humor to the proceedings (a few of his reaction shots are priceless), along with a poignancy one can only attribute to the grief he was feeling over the tragic and untimely death of his first wife, which occurred at a Hollywood party only a few months before production commenced. As the Scrooge-like society matron eventually enlightened by Dudley, Cooper is appropriately arch and icy (much like the domineering mother she played in ‘Now, Voyager’), while Woolley engenders sympathy as a rueful professor who also benefits from Dudley’s “meddling.”

The script, as detailed by author and lecturer Jay Atkinson:

When he informs her that his time with their family is growing short, Young asks if she will ever see him again.

“They never send us to the same place twice,” says Grant, with a wistful smile. “We might form attachments.”

Niven arrives home just as his wife goes running upstairs, obviously upset. Approaching his visitor, the bishop doffs his hat, thrusts aside his topcoat, and says, “I’ve never before had to fight an angel, but I suggest you take off your coat and put up your dukes!”

Billy Wilder was one of the uncredited screenwriters on the film. I read elsewhere that he was responsible for some of the best scenes and lines in it.

However, let that not detract from the overall script from the renowned Robert Sherwood and  Leonardo Bercovici — not to mention Henry Koster’s direction. Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review of 1947 described it in glowing terms:

In shaping this warm and winning fable from a Robert Nathan book, Robert Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici have written with beautiful belief that a point clearly made in performance doesn’t have to be hit a dozen times nor a moral quietly manifested put into a hundred solemn words. And so there is no heavy pounding of the lesson of humanity, of the futility of ostentation, of the special possessiveness of a man’s love. Nor is there any such pounding in Henry Koster’s directorial style.

The music, says Jim Lochner of Film Score Click Track, is outstanding (emphases in the original):

THE BISHOP’S WIFE contains one of Hugo Friedhofer‘s most heavenly scores …

Friedhofer utilizes all the proper instruments of the season—chorus, organ, sleigh bells–and subtly weaves in a number of Christmas carols. The score is based on a series of leitmotifs, much like his Oscar-winning score to THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES the previous year.

The boys choir from impoverished St Timothy’s — played by The Robert Mitchell Boys Choir — sing like angels. They perform O Sing to God by Charles Gounod.

Background on three people behind the film

The Bishop’s Wife was a novel by author, poet and screenwriter Robert Nathan (1894-1985), who came from a prominent New York family of Sephardic Jews. He dropped out of Harvard to pursue writing. Published in 1928, his novel is rather faithfully translated in the film version, although there are a few differences, as follows:

… the Bishop prays for help, and it comes in the form of MICHAEL, a handsome goldenhaired angel, who takes the position of archdeacon … Michael’s pure limitless capacity for love is stifled by his mortal duties of manipulating money from wealthy religious patrons, including MRS. LANYARDE and MR. COHEN… During a conversation with the scholarly PROFESSOR WUTHERIDGE, Michael learns that an angel can’t fulfill “mortal love” as it is unrelated to the divine version. With that, he returns to Heaven after completing his fundraising mission. Julia, realizing she will never have a passionate relationship with the Bishop, decides to have another child with whom to share her love.

It’s hard to imagine that an angel could learn something from a mere mortal. It’s the other way around.

Robert Sherwood (1896-1955) one of the principal screenwriters, was a member of the Algonquin Round Table. Sherwood, also born into a prominent family and a Harvard graduate, was close friends with Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, the best known of the Algonquin set. Sherwood was a patriotic American who served for a time as the Director of the Office of War Information during the Second World War. After the war ended, he wrote the Oscar-winning script for The Best Years of Our Lives, which pipped It’s a Wonderful Life for so many Academy Awards in 1947.

Director Henry Koster (1905-1988) arrived in the United States, one of many talented German Jews who arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s. Born Hermann Kosterlitz in Berlin, he had an early interest in film. His uncle owned a cinema and his mother provided the music to silent films. While she played, he watched the silver screen. He worked as a short story writer then moved into film as a scenarist before becoming a director. He was nominated for Best Director for The Bishop’s Wife.  He also directed films as diverse as Harvey, The Robe and Flower Drum Song.