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.

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