Monday, December 22, 2008

The Bishop's Wife (1947)

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.


Unknown said...

A very nice essay on a great movie-- a lot to chew on here. It does seem that the story sets up Grant's "lonliness," as he describes his constant wandering & wants to stop this to be with Loretta Young. But on the other hand, one wonders if this is disingenuous-- just part of his plan to get Niven & Young back together as a "real" couple.

Christmas & Hanukkah, too-- perhaps to a lesser degree-- are difficult holidays for many; Christmas in particular is divorced to a great degree from its religious base (even among the religious, Christmas in this country is pretty much consumerist, & also tied in with often problematic family ties). As someone who isn't religious myself, & who still does celebrate Christmas, I think you're right about the temptation to try to re-capture childhood wonder thru the holiday-- like most attempts at re-capturing the past, this often ends in nothing but frustation.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.
J Hayes

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much for your kind comments and your own thoughtful post, Mr. Hayes.

I suspect you're right in that there is an element of Grant's being disingenuous in his almost-declaration of love for Loretta Young. But he plays it along a knife-edge, and we never really know, or aren't meant to know for sure. Though Hollywood loved to present films with religious overtones, certainly to appeal commercially to an audience the studio bosses felt was conservative and religious, one also senses discomfort in the portrayal of religious subjects. Faith is never explored, just used as a gimmick, as a plot device. There was the studio heads' prudent fear of offending that made them hesitant to delve too deeply.

Is this where our modern-day representation of Christmas as a ceramic village put on the mantle began? I don't know. Not that I have any objections to it; I don't. We must each keep the holidays in our own way. What fascinates me is the cynicism that leaks out of these warm-hearted holiday favorites, like the oozing pink juice from a chocolate-covered cherry.

As for the commercialism, that is American. I don't mind it. We have a secular nation, where people are free to be or not be religious. We are also free to control the commercialism in our own family holiday celebrations, and are in, or should be, in complete control over how tacky we get.

I'm more the small, plain, wooden Nativity scene in the living room, the candle in the window, and put the Baby Jesus in the manger when I come home from midnight Mass type of person. But if my neighbor has six-foot lighted figures of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble in Santa hats with flashing lights on his front lawn, I don't care. It's funny.

I will say though, that when it comes to Christmas movies, I prefer the old ones. The modern ones seem to try too hard, just as people seem to try too hard these days to make things bigger, flashier, the best Christmas ever. No wonder there is so much anxiety this time of year, with that kind of pressure we place upon ourselves.

Interesting that probably the most popular modern Christmas movie is "A Christmas Story" which is set in 1940 and harkens back to what we imagine is the simplicity of those days.

There is no religious presentation in this film, except for the street choir at the beginning singing. Ralphie's family goes to a Chinese restaurant Christmas morning, not to church. But before the mid-19th century, no American Protestant went to church Christmas day, either, particularly in New England where celebrations of the holiday were seen as Papist and baudy and inappropriate.

It took the commercialism, the merchants on Main Street, to bring Christmas into mainstream American homes. Afterwards, the churches followed, and began to celebrate Christmas.

Not quite a funny perhaps as Fred and Barney in Santa hats lit up on the front lawn, but still a delightful example of American quirkiness.

David K. said...

I like The Bishop's Wife a lot, but Dudley's affections toward Mrs. Brougham always leave me feeling a bit awkward. It doesn't seem very angelic at all!


Unknown said...

You're right, of course, about the modern Christmas holiday (i.e., celebrated as we know it) being a relatively newfangled thing-- a product of the Victorian age as I understand it. & I also get a kick out of the blow-up Barneys (tho we don't see too many of those per se out in rural Idaho)-- but I am a sucker for some of the kitschier aspects of Christmas. My wife, Eberle, lived in Brazil for a time & she always talks about how there was no raucous prelude to Christmas as she knew from the States (because as it sounds like you're aware yourself, Advent is a penitential season)-- then all the sudden on Christmas Eve, there was a "holiday," but not in the sense we know it.

& yes, I (& Eberle) like the old Christmas movies-- we're almost always watch the 51 "Scrooge," & we both like "The Bishop's Wife" a lot. Interesting how much Christmas figured in classic movies, even ones not ostensibly about the holiday.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I like the Scrooge movies, too, a very secular grasp of the Christmas message of redemption. No other secular Christmas story does it as successfully. I love reading it, too. Very moody and atmospheric. Dickens wrote it as a ghost story, after all.

Your wife's experience in Brazil sound interesting. I can remember traveling through Australia and New Zealand in late November and being amazed at how the Christmas rush was in full swing already, with no Thanksgiving buffer zone leading into it.

David, maybe that is why Dudley doesn't have his wings yet.

Actually, I have to tip my own Santa hat at the old movies for having the courage to not only bring up the taboo subject of religion, but to show religious represenatives, i.e. the bishop, and a particularly sexy angel, as being many-sided and not saccharine. They have faults.

Today's Christmas movies that show no hint of a religious aspect to the holiday at all are the more cowardly ones, I think. They do not dare broach the subject for fear of seeming to preach. Understandable, but hardly realistic in an age where our filmmakers pride themselves on realism.

Millions of Americans, and people all over the world, do manage some spiritual aspects to their lives without preaching or intolerance. Lumping these unassuming souls in with the sour, disaproving, holier than thou types, or the outright nutcases, is hardly fair or logical. Why not have the guts to show what exists?

K. said...

Excellent post! I'll definitely check this one out. Have you seen "Remember the Night," with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck? It doesn't aim as high as The Bishop's Wife, but is nonetheless highly enjoyable.

James Gleason was always good. At his best in The Manchurian Candidate.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, K, and thanks so much for your comments. Yes, I've seen "Remember the Night" and I like it very much.

I agree that James Gleason was always good. Though, when you speak of "The Manchurian Candidate", I think you're thinking of James Gregory. Also very good.

K. said...


Let this be a lesson: It never hurts to double check with

And after I did take the trouble to do that, I discovered that James Gleason (1) is in Night of the Hunter, one my favorite movies ever and (2) has one of those great working actor resumes (over 150 credits) that stretches back to 1922 and includes everything from an appearance in Leave It To Beaver to Hunter and Bishop's Wife.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

We all do it.

I liked Gleason in "Meet John Doe" where he plays the grumpy newspaper editor. He was always good at those gruff exterior but heart of gold type of roles.

Unknown said...

Like Cary Grant once answered when told "I wish I could be Cary Grant",
his reply was "So do I".

Who wouldn't want to be like Dudley.
A simply lovely movie worth watching over and over and over.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Agreed, John, Cary Grant was splendid as Dudley. He is quite poignant in the role.

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