“The Bishop’s Wife” is one of the seemingly lesser-known Best Picture nominees, despite starring Cary Grant and being about not only Christmas, but with a focus on religion. Perhaps because this film came out so soon after “It’s a Wonderful Life” that many would dismiss it as merely a pale imitator. While I wouldn’t dispute the possibility that this movie was made, in large part, to capitalize on Capra’s film (which is odd since the “It’s a Wonderful Life” wikipedia page suggests the film was a net loss),that does not detract me from saying that I considered this film to be an excellent watch.
The film is about a bishop named Henry (David Niven) who is working hard to gather the funds needed to construct a large cathedral. He says that he wishes to do this for the sake of God, though as the story progresses his true intentions appear to be more selfish in nature. The struggle to find funding and Henry’s almost obsessive drive to get the cathedral completed also puts a noticeable strain on his marriage and role as a father. Desperate for a miracle, he reaches out to God for guidance. His prayer is answered with the appearance of Dudley (Grant) – a strange, mysterious man who claims to be an angel. He offers to be Henry’s assistant, though the bishop is distrusting and doesn’t really believe the man at first. Only as time passes does he start to consider the possibility that Dudley is an angel, but his lack of trust persists as it seems that Dudley is not only sabotaging his attempts to raise money for his cathedral but also trying to woo his wife Julia (Loretta Young).
I was excited to see this movie, and for the most part wasn’t disappointed. Though it isn’t particularly fresh or unique (though, to be fair, this kind of story structure might have been more fresh when it was released in the 40’s and countless films/shows/stories to follow it in the coming decades using the same story doesn’t really help), it was still very well made and engaging.
Henry Koster’s direction may not be terribly innovative, but it’s still solid and gives us some very beautiful imagery — such as the shot of a rich, older woman through the strings of a harpsichord as Dudley plays it. This is aided by the work of cinematographer Gregg Toland, who uses an oddly vibrant and solid black and white coloration that makes everything pop out. It sort of surprised me that Toland failed to get an Oscar nomination for his work on this film, but perhaps the competition was too great. Still, I was impressed by the visual work of both artists.
The main issue with this film, and what keeps me from giving it a higher score, is that the story feels stale. It might have been somewhat new in 1947 but it is hard to say for certain, and so many other films have centered on a similar kind of story: a person comes to the aid of another only to be suspected of trying to steal the loved one from the person they’re supposedly trying to help, and then by the end reveal that it was all part of a more grand plan to get the person to see what’s truly important (i.e. family, friends, loved ones, etc.).
Bottom line is that you know this drill. This story is one that you’ve seen many, many times over. If the plot didn’t feel like such a re-tread of other films and stories I’ve seen, I would probably give “The Bishop’s Wife” a ‘great’ score, rather than just a ‘very good’ one.
I still highly recommend it as a somewhat obscure holiday film that touches on the true meaning of Christmas in a way you would likely not get from modern Hollywood. It’s very good, but it just falls short of separating itself from the pack. It’s charm does elevate it though.
Still check it out though, especially now during the Holidays.
Score: 3.5 out of 5 (but a very high 3.5, nearly a 4)
P.S. I hate that I had to watch this on a channel with commercial breaks rather than TCM. T’was a bit of an inconvenience, but what can you do.
Some Sources Consulted:
“The Bishop’s Wife” imdb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0039190/?ref_=nv_sr_1
“The Bishop’s Wife” wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bishop%27s_Wife
– imdb in general
“It’s a Wonderful Life” imdb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038650/
“It’s a Wonderful Life” wiki page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It’s_a_Wonderful_Life
Image Source (poster) here