Based on Robert Nathan’s 1928 novel of the same name, The Bishop’s Wife is quite an enchanting Christmas movie. Its story, characters, performance, and message are sure to delight viewers of all ages. This movie is often overlooked when it comes to selecting Christmas films. Yet it is a treasure and should not be missed.
The Bishop’s Wife’s story centers on Bishop Henry Brougham and his wife, Julia. Brougham, a rather young bishop, is currently having trouble raising funds for a new cathedral. In his pursuit of the financing, he has favored courting the area’s aristocratic class, who may or may not be religious at all. Brougham’s actions have resulted in the alienation of another struggling parish under his purview. Because of the difficulty regarding the cathedral project, Henry and Julia’s marriage has become strained.
One evening, Brougham prays and asks God for assistance. A few moments later, a man known only as Dudley appears to Brougham. Dudley claims to be an angel sent to help Brougham with his request. For being a man of faith, Brougham is rather skeptical, but agrees to allow Dudley to assist him. However, Brougham does not know that Dudley’s assistance will stretch far beyond the cathedral’s construction, but may help Brougham and others in more ways than they could have imagined.
The film’s pacing is metered quite well. The context of the cooling of Julia and Henry’s relationship and the complex situation regarding Henry’s cathedral project and its streams of funding are established quickly and effectively. Dudley’s introduction to the Broughams is neatly woven together with the opening sequence showing Dudley’s assistance of other citizens. Once Brougham decides to let Dudley support him, the pacing becomes very fluid. Dudley is a very calm and collected character and his interactions with Julia, Henry, and others help the story progress in a seamless manner.
The Bishop’s Wife’s tonal motifs include: unfettered support of a spouse, gaining the proper perspective, not being sidetracked with frivolous pursuits, and the importance of guidance. Some tension is created as the film develops concerning Brougham’s perception of Dudley’s interaction with his family. The emotional tension precludes the movie and its story from becoming bland and monotonous.
The performances throughout the film are very impressive and noteworthy. Cary Grant’s Dudley is portrayed with ease. Grant effectively portrays Dudley’s calm, even-minded, and beneficent character traits. Dudley is as charming as Henry Travers’ Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Loretta Young’s titular character is masterfully acted. Her interpretation of Julia Brougham’s positivity and reassurance of her husband are so selfless that it become truly heartrending when Henry shows he does not appreciate her support. David Niven’s performance of Henry Brougham is quite convincing. Henry’s complexities are accurately illustrated by Niven. One moment the audience sympathizes with him and the stress he bears regarding the cathedral. The next moment his ungratefulness toward Julia is downright repulsive. As the narrative matures, Henry even exhibits Scrooge-like behavior. This creates a nice counterbalance between Henry and Dudley. Nevertheless, Niven’s performance is sound and Henry has a great character arc. The three principals, Grant, Young, and Niven, all have excellent on-screen chemistry and depict their characters, emotions, and relationships in a truly memorable fashion.
The supporting cast of Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Gladys Cooper, Karolyn Grimes, and Elsa Lanchester all put their talents on full display. The way in which they communicate their own characters’ perspective and relationship to the Broughams and the cathedral endeavor are enjoyable to watch. It is also charming to see the positive impact Dudley has on each of these characters as he interacts with them and how it juxtaposes their relationship with the bishop.
Gregg Toland’s cinematography is well done. The nicely composed medium shots in the Brougham residence create a sense of immersion as it feels like you are there with the characters. The special effects are also nicely executed. Dudley does have some angelic powers such as telekinesis and the ability to manipulate objects. These portions are expertly depicted and still hold up in the twenty-first century. I can only image how audiences would have reacted to these segments in 1947.
Additionally, the camerawork during the ice skating sequence is neatly shot. The substitution of stunt doubles in long shots and Grant, Young, and Gleason in the medium shots is good. There did seem to be a bit of a noticeable difference in height, but it may keep you guessing as to whether or not the principals are actually skating.
The movie has impressive production design and music. From the cityscape during the opening sequence to the Brougham house and Henry’s study to the residence of Professor Wutheridge, an old friend of the Brougham’s, the set design and its level of detail is remarkable and compelling and will assist in the suspension of disbelief. The music features a great song from the Mitchell Boys Choir. Musical cues complement Dudley when he assists someone or uses his angelic abilities, reminding viewers that Dudley is no human but an angel.
Henry Koster does a solid job in his direction of The Bishop’s Wife. He is able to translate the screenplay adaptation of a novel into a memorable and pleasant movie. His supervision over the actors and their performances, especially the dichotomy between Dudley and Henry, is quite impressive. Moreover, the use of effects and stunt doubles are implemented in a convincing manner.
The Bishop’s Wife was also nominated for several Academy Awards including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. It was awarded the Oscar for Best Sound, Recording. As such, Koster’s strong direction of the film is unmistakable.
In conclusion, The Bishop’s Wife is a wonderful movie that features strong writing, acting, and technical aspects. It often gets overshadowed by other Christmas films, but is a noble, memorable Christmas movie with important underlying messages. As such, The Bishop’s Wife is a film that can be enjoyed by the entire family and should definitely be watched. If you do not watch it, you are truly missing out on a special, endearing film.
Distributor: RKO Radio Pictures
Production: The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Director: Henry Koster
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenwriter: Robert E. Sherwood (screenplay); Leonardo Bercovici (screenplay); Robert Nathan (book); Billy Wilder; Charles Brackett
Director of Photography: Gregg Toland
Editor: Monica Collingwood
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Costume Designer: Sharaff; Adrian
Set Decoration: Julia Heron
Release Date: December 9, 1947 (New York); February 16, 1948
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Copyright Holder: Samuel Goldwyn
Cast: Cary Grant; Loretta Young; David Niven; Monty Woolley; James Gleason; Gladys Cooper; Elsa Lanchester; Karolyn Grimes
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Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour and 49 minutes (109 mins.)