Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Bishop's Wife directed by Henry Koster (starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven)

The Bishop's Wife (1947). Screenplay by Leonardo Bercovici and Robert Sherwood from the novel The Bishop's Wife by Robert Nathan. (Some scenes were reportedly rewritten uncredited by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.)

Bishop: Are you expecting a letter?
Dudley: Well, you never know. If I did get one, the stamp would certainly be worth saving.

That's because Dudley (Cary Grant) is an angel sent to give guidance to forlorn Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), and who eventually lights up the lives of everyone else in the Bishop's life, especially The Bishop's Wife in this delightful Christmas film from the late 1940s. When the Bishop prays for help in getting a new cathedral built (the local millionairess widow will only give if her late husband's name is prominently displayed), Cary Grant shows up as his "assistant" but soon makes the Bishop even more miserable by charming his wife Julia (radiant Loretta Young), daughter Debby, and even housemaid Matilda (Elsa Lanchester, always wonderful).

The Bishop's Wife is truly "heavenly" with Grant playing off his tried-and-true persona. Originally Grant and Niven were supposed to have the opposite roles, but Grant decided he could do more with the angel role — and Grant was a bigger star — so they were exchanged. Good thing, too: I can't imagine Cary playing the indecisive Bishop any more than I can imagine Niven charming a woman away from Cary Grant.

Only a few things keep The Bishop's Wife from being perfect. There is an overlong ice-skating scene that really stretches the believability (I had to keep telling myself, "He's an angel; he can do anything"), and the film runs on about 20 minutes too long. In the beginning, Grant is so taken by Young that, if he weren't an angel, those looks would feel really sleazy. Turns out that Cary is just discovering temptations, which makes the ending all the more noble.

I originally saw The Bishop's Wife during the summer months a few years ago in the midst of a Cary Grant festival on Turner Classic Movies. That experience feels a little strange, but the movie is so ... happy that it's easy to slip into the vibe, especially with all the Christmas carols being bandied about like so many candy canes. I'd certainly recommend that fans of the stars watch it at least once (especially since Loretta Young, whom I don't find all that attractive, is made, through Gregg Toland's photography, into a very appealing woman). Niven is rather on the milquetoasty side and his richest scene involves him being stuck in a chair, but the rest of the film is two hours of Christmas joy.

Sharp-eyed viewers may recognize actress Karolyn Grimes (Debby) from her role in another classic Christmas film. The year before The Bishop's Wife, she played Zuzu in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie directed by Kirk R. Thatcher (starring Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Joan Cusack, David Arquette)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2002). Teleplay by Tom Martin and Jim Lewis.

This umpteenth offering from Henson Studios is a parody-laden tribute to It's a Wonderful Life (among others) starring Joan Cusack as villain Rachel Bitterman; David Arquette as Daniel, a social-worker/angel (Heaven is implied, but never said outright) who wants to take Kermit's case; and Whoopi Goldberg as "The Boss" (see?). Also appearing are William H. Macy and Matthew Lillard along with a host of cameos from television personalities (Kelly Ripa, Molly Shannon, Carson Daly, the cast of Scrubs), including a misguided appearance from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and a hilarious turn from Mel Brooks as a lost snowman narrator.

As a whole, It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie succeeds admirably. The normally frantic Arquette tones it down considerably, settling into a mildly annoying tone that suits the character. And all the muppets are in fine form. Given that I grew up continually exposed to these voice artists, the fact that many of the characters are now embodied by different performers would hardly escape my notice. But I am happy to say that it was not a distraction and, actually, I did not realize that the characters formerly voiced by the legendary Frank Oz (who left the troupe just prior to this to focus on directing) — Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Animal, and Yoda in a cameo — were not Oz himself until doing the research for this review. (Kudos to Eric Jacobson, who makes it seem easy to fill those shoes.)

But the main thing I noticed about the movie was the amount of sexual innuendo. Not only is the "Voulez vous coucher avec moi, c'est soir" line from Moulin Rouge featured (and given a funny twist) in the "Moulin Scrooge" centerpiece (the highlight of the feature), but lines about topless bars, ogling of cleavage, and a stereotypically "dramatic" gay character (who admires Kermit as he walks away) round out the mix.

There is also a dark layer to the proceedings that, while seemingly appropriate given the source material, seemed not at all suitable for the target audience. Kermit screaming "I wish I'd never been born" over and over was nothing short of disturbing.

The story involves the normal crew and their attempts to retain the Muppet Theater by delivering their rent on time to Cusack's Bitterman. Unfortunately, Bitterman changes their contract and the time of delivery of the money is moved up six hours — unbeknownst to the rest until it is almost too late. It is then up to Fozzie to deliver the money before the deadline. This leads up to a painfully funny suspense- and slapstick-filled action sequence involving mistaken identity and various obstacles that eventually ends up ... but that would be giving it away. The eventual solution to the problem, while surely obvious to a town official, escaped me until it was delivered — but it was glossed over in favor of wrapping up the proceedings.

While it's difficult to recapture the original nostalgic joy that came with The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie (or even the early days of Sesame Street), anything involving our felt friends is worth a watch. It's always good to see them in action, and It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie is no exception.
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