The Bishop’s Wife

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THE BISHOP’S WIFE holds sentimental appeal for its fans as a feel-good holiday picture, with another angel rescuing a relationship, seeing to it hopes are restored. Unlike the previous year’s It’s A Wonderful Life, the angel in this 1947 fluff isn’t a cute old bumbler who can’t swim named Clarence, he’s a suave, urbane, effects-summoning ice-skater. He is saddled with ‘Dudley’, but he looks like Cary Grant. He also plays the harp…well, because angels do that.

A mis-mix of talents in the writing, directing and casting made for a lengthy and expensive shoot, with scenarists and directors coming & going, stars demands and temperaments skirmishing, but in the end it worked out and audiences were pleased. A pleasant diversion, somehow it received five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, so someone (like maybe a non-angelic Samuel Goldwyn?) must have leaned on the earthbound Academy members. *

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Frustrated in his lofty aim to build a heckuva cathedral, a bishop (David Niven) is not only down, he’s dour in general and a drag to & on his wife (Loretta Young). Cary/Dudley appears out of nowhere and takes care of everyone’s problems (suspense notably lacking). Beyond funding for church projects and healing marital moping between the co-stars, the heavenly emissary with the perfect response to everything makes writers block disappear for a skeptical professor (Monty Wooley—more likable than usual), thaws a frosty widows heart and purse strings (Gladys Cooper), has the help swoon (Elsa Lanchester) and leaves a gabby cabbie a happy camper (James Gleason).

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109 minutes unspooling, it won an Oscar for Best Sound, and along with being up for the big prize, was nominated for Director (Henry Koster), Film Editing and Music Score. Filmed mostly in Minneapolis, the cast also features Sara Haden, Regis Toomey, The Robert Mitchell Boy Choir and two kids familiar from It’s A Wonderful Life, Karolyn Grimes (‘Zuzu’) and Bobby Anderson (‘George Bailey’ the Younger).  Once again, grosses and roll call placement depends on the source: Variety had it #21 for 1948—when it made its money, with rentals of $3,000,000. Cogerson lists it as #19 for the releases from 1947, grossing $9,400,000. Get to Heaven, ask Sam Goldwyn. Remade in 1996 as The Preachers Wife, a not-bad film that had its own set of production difficulties.

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* At least $900,000 was spent with direction by William A. Seiter, but Goldwyn gave him the boot, scrapped the sets and re-shot with Koster taking over. The script had been done by Robert E. Sherwood (The Best Years Of Our Lives) and Leonardo Bercovici (blacklisted a few years later), but it limped at previews and so was doctored up by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Koster. It’s a nice little movie, yes, but the Academy Award nominations were really undue. Going up against the years other Christmas movie, the great Miracle On 34th Street, it conjured a place on the roster that could/should have been occupied by—let’s see—Black Narcissus, Captain From Castille, Nightmare Alley or Out Of The Past.  Sorry, Dudley, keep up the good work.

That last snarky sentence to the side, this well-constructed oldie could stand in for many films that have sentimental value that often exceeds their intrinsic “worth” as either a “product” or “art”.  Christmas with close friends, 2017: from their collection, we agreed on this for the post-dinner flick. Me, Mr. Movie Guy–had never seen it. Aware of it, of course, but ya can’t catch’em all and somehow this popular item had passed my paws for lo, many a Santa orbit. I confess I wasn’t all that taken with it, but I can readily see how others would be. I left them with Pocketful Of Miracles, which for whatever reasons they’d overlooked (I guess people Have Actual Lives or something…). That one, flawed as it is, rings some childhood bell with me, as The Bishop’s Wife does with them. Maybe they’ll like it, maybe they’ll have the same polite “seen it now” take I had with this movie. Meanwhile, smirking dullwits who grouse about It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle On 34th Street can feel free to catch the next sleigh to Siberia.

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One thought on “The Bishop’s Wife

  1. I love this film, but I can’t argue much with what you said. Maybe it’s because I like Grant in the role or the sets, or maybe I’m just sentimental. I also thought much of the script was clever, as were the scenes where Dudley used his powers. My only complaint, I wish it were in colour.

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