Weekend Film Recommendation: The Bishop’s Wife

Your film reviewer is on Christmas vacation this week, and so we re-run a prior recommendation that is perfect for the holiday season…

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The only people who grow old were born old to begin with.

If you were asked to recall a 1947 Christmas movie that was nominated for a best picture Oscar, you would probably come up with the famous Miracle on 34th Street. But remarkably, it was only one of two Christmas films so honored that year. The other is this week’s film recommendation: The Bishop’s Wife.

Anglican Bishop Henry Brougham (A miscast but appealing David Niven) is under strain as he attempts to raise money for a new cathedral. Donations are not arriving, and the wealthiest woman in town (Gladys Cooper) will only help if the building is made into a tasteless monument to her late husband. Meanwhile, since becoming an Archbishop consumed with finances and grandiose plans, Henry has been drifting apart from his long-suffering wife Julia (the ever-luminous Loretta Young). He prays to God for aid and a friendly, dashing, sharply dressed fellow arrives at his office (Who else but Cary Grant?). Calling himself Dudley, the new arrival says he is here to help, which Henry takes to mean help raising money. But Dudley spends most of his time trying to restore Julia’s happiness instead, much to Henry’s irritation.

Some films live or die on the strength of a star’s charm, and this is an example of a film living, indeed thriving, on the charm of the inimitable Grant. Director Henry Koster seems to have instructed every female member of the cast to swoon upon meeting him, and it’s utterly believable given the warmth and gentleness that the handsome Grant radiates in ever scene. Loretta Young’s devout-and-goodly performance is perfectly matched to Grant’s, as the story requires their relationship to be intimate but at the same time innocent. She was at the peak of her powers in 1947, during which she not only garnered raves for her role in the Bishop’s Wife but also won a Best Actress Oscar for The Farmer’s Daughter.

Grant and Young get strong support from the rest of cast, particularly Monty Woolley as an atheistic retired college professor who is an old friend of Julia and Henry’s. The Robert Mitchell Boy Choir are also on hand for a mellifluous number in Henry’s former and very poor church, a symbol of the simpler faith and life that he has lost.

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The Bishop’s Wife rewards the eye as well as the heart, thanks to Gregg Toland being behind the camera. The town looks lovely, peaceful and Christmassy as can be. And Toland gets to be Toland, as you see on the left, which is my favorite shot in the movie, during which the characters slowly accrue at different depths away from Grant, who is making an emotional and religious connection to Henry and Julia’s little girl (played by Karolyn Grimes, who essayed a similar role in It’s a Wonderful Life).

The Bishop’s Wife is not a film for the cynical nor for those hostile to religious messages. But if the Christmas spirit animates your soul at this time of year, you will find much to love in this extraordinarily sweet movie.

I embed below the amusing “un-trailer” of the film, featuring the three leads and absolutely, positively no spoilers.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.