In this season of Hanukkah and Christmas, though miracles are commemorated, they are seldom looked for anymore, or at least seldom recognized. “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947) presents the intriguing Christmas card type setting awash in post-war cynicism. Cary Grant is the suave and charming angel with the California tan, whose presence is by turns eerily threatening as it is comforting.
David Niven plays the Episcopalian bishop who has turned from parish vicar to corporate CEO in his drive to build a new cathedral. He matches Cary Grant perfectly in his comic timing, since the sight of a dignified man struggling to maintain his dignity under absurd circumstances is frequently hysterical. Niven’s scenes in the wealthy lady’s mansion with the wealthy lady’s expensive chair inexplicably stuck to his bottom are among his best. His embarrassment and distress grow acutely each time the butler makes an entrance.
An interesting aspect to the character is that maintaining his dignity has become more important to him than maintaining his faith, and both dignity and faith have been pushed aside for ambition as he obsesses so much over obtaining donations for his new cathedral. He is willing to sell out his principles to court the golden pocketbook of the always magnificent Gladys Cooper.
When she asks that the a depiction of St. George resemble her late husband in the new cathedral icon of St. George and the Dragon, Niven asks her quite seriously, “Who do you see as the dragon?”
Loretta Young plays his radiant wife, and though as appealing as ever, Miss Young hasn’t much to do in this film except enjoy Cary Grant’s company, which must have been easy.
The character actors, as always in any film, make this one come alive and by the end of the film seem like our extended family: Elsa Lanchester as the maid, whose precise intonation and crisp consonants alone endear her to me; James Gleason as Sylvester the cab driver, and the lovably crusty Monty Woolley as the professor of antiquities who claims to have no faith, but who keeps a Charlie Brown tree in his flat to remind him of his boyhood.
That’s the kind of faith a lot of people fall back on this season, not so much faith in a divine presence or in the miracles these holidays represent, but a comforting memory of childhood. “It gives me the illusion of peace on earth, good will to men,” Woolley tells Grant of his tree. A tree gives him this sensation, not faith, not hope, and it is not a real sensation of peace anyway, it is only to him, an illusion.
Mr. Grant’s penetrating gaze and implacable, insinuating smile are priceless, both funny and edgy. Though he enchants the ladies, his is a sly smile, not beatific. When Niven doubts Grant’s being an angel, Grant offers, “As you’re walking through the streets of the city, you may suddenly look into a strange face. It may be the face of a murderer. Or, it may be the face of an angel.”
It’s the kind of remark and delivery you might see in a Hitchcock film, so challenging and so chilling. Mr. Niven demands Mr. Grant perform miracles that he might believe in him, and Grant teasingly shames Niven, a bishop, for his lack of faith without the miracles.
As it is, his angel character does pull off a few party tricks as miracles in the film: Monty Woolley’s wine that never depletes, the instantly decorated Christmas tree, the skating party where Loretta Young and James Gleason could quit their jobs as cab driver and bishop’s wife and go join the Ice Capades. He can also make a typewriter type by itself without Dragon Naturally Speaking computer software.
The biggest miracle is one that Grant pulls off with the help of David Niven, giving Niven the push he needed to do the miracle himself, which is to give up his notion of erecting a cathedral that would only be a monument to wealth, and instead returning to his roots as a shepherd of his flock and helping the poor.
One needs two things to perform miracles it seems. One is the determination to do so. Second, is a sense of wonder. As we see with the professor, who Grant inspires to finish his lifelong work of writing a text on ancient history, a sense of wonder is fertile ground for miracles. Perhaps that’s why he, and many of us, prefer to use the holidays as an opportunity to re-live our childhoods. There is no greater sense of wonder felt than when one is a child. Miracles are possible then.
Grant’s last miracle is to un-bewitch Loretta Young, driving her back to her husband simply by forcing her to choose her husband’s love when Grant comes close to declaring his love for her. He has also, by this time, made Niven so jealous, that Niven is forced to fight for his wife, and their marriage is strengthened simply by deciding themselves that they want to be married to each other.
When Cary Grant bows out, gracefully, he bids goodbye to Niven and steps, surprisingly, into the camera instead of away from it. As if he is stepping right into us. It’s a nice effect, making the final, and inevitable, shot of Grant walking away in the snow a bit of a letdown. Ending with the previous shot would have been more powerful, if less poetic. But no one sees him but us, and none of these people whose lives he has touched will remember his presence among them. He wanders off to his next assignment, never to return lest he become too attached to these mortals. Are all angels so lonely?
Or do we project our loneliness onto them? In this season of miracles, the irony is that though we take such elaborate preparations this time of year to remind ourselves that they exist, we still have a hard time accepting that they do. How ironic that these Christmas movies often do not really remind us of a miracle of peace on earth, good will to men, as much as they do to remind us of our own cynicism.