Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Bishop's Wife (1947): Story of a Well Tailored Angel

"This is a picture calculated to make an audience leave the theatre with a good feeling. It has a warmth and charm that makes believable the fantasy and has been put together with complete understanding by all involved." That is how the entertainment trade paper Variety began its review of The Bishop's Wife in November 1947. It is an apt statement to make for what has become a perennial holiday favorite. Many films move us on a personal level but Christmas movies hit us right at the heart for whatever the reason. They elicit such good and warm memories, whether as in my case it was watching them with parents, grandparents and other loved ones as a youth or simply having them playing in the background during holiday gatherings or decorating the tree. They are like old friends and to enjoy them at Yuletide becomes a tradition of sentiment not to be underrated or scoffed at. Samuel Goldwyn's The Bishop's Wife is one such seasonal classic.

Could there be a more suave, debonair or charming angel than Cary Grant? The actor made the perfect Dudley, a heavenly messenger/guardian sent to answer a prayer for guidance given by Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), a clergyman torn between the financial politics of building a massively ornate and superficial cathedral and the emotional needs of his neglected wife and child (Loretta Young and Karolyn Grimes). A poignant story told with charm, humor and tons of Hollywood gloss, the film offers a cinematic respite from the commercial brouhaha presented in modern times.

However, the final product, known and loved by audiences today, was a far cry from that originally planned. Originally directed by William A. Seiter, he was replaced by Henry Koster (who eventually was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the film). Koster in turn switched the actors playing the parts of Dudley and the bishop. You see, Grant was originally set to play Bishop Brougham and Niven, the charming angel. Can you imagine? Another casting change came with the replacement of Teresa Wright, who was originally set to play the title role but at the time of Seiter's firing, Wright discovered she was pregnant and Loretta Young was cast. As the star trio settled into their respective roles, it became apparent that each was perfectly suited to his or her part.

The supporting cast appeared to be "heaven sent" as well, offering an assortment of characters from the wonderful Gladys Cooper, as the snobbish Mrs. Hamilton, a wealthy parishioner, whose money the bishop hopes to use in order to build his shiny new cathedral, to James Gleason as Sylvester, a friendly, down to earth cabbie, who admires Dudley's zest for life. There's also Elsa Lanchester, as the bishop's maid, Matilda. Her sense of flighty and giddy cannot be beat. There are also some carry overs from the previous years holiday offering, It's a Wonderful Life. Karolyn Grimes, Zuzu in the Capra classic, appears as the bishop's daughter Debby, while one of the boys Grimes meets playing in the snow is Bobby Anderson, young George Bailey in Life. Also on hand from Bedford Falls is Sara Edwards, who played Mary Bailey's mother, Mrs. Hatch, this time around playing a church organist.

The film is laced with touching sentimental vignettes, sure to set the mood for any lighting of the tree. When Grant's Dudley relates the Biblical story of David to young Debby, he ends his tale with a recitation of the 23rd Psalm to a captivated audience which includes the bishop's entire household. The Robert Mitchell Boys Choir sings O Sing to God, ushering in the Christmas spirit and raising goosebumps along the way and Cary even gets in on the musical feel good, playing a harp solo ~ what else would an angel play ~ of "Lost April", a beautiful composition by musical director Emil Newman (Grant was actually dubbed by musician Gail Laughton).

Not to be forgotten are Monty Wooley as a gruff professor who experiences the joys of the season after meeting the urbane angel, Sara Haden, as the bishop's secretary, Mildred Casaway and Gregg Toland's magnificent cinematography. Cary Grant was paid a handsome sum to play the handsome angel but for audiences of the day as well as those in the present, it was money well spent.


  1. This is one of our favorite movies ... in fact, "The Bishop's Wife" and "Christmas in Connecticut" is how we spend every Christmas Eve after going to church. We've done it every year for years, and can recite the lines along with the dvd LOL.

    Wooley is just delightful in this role. I had no idea that Loretta Young was not originally cast ... though, as a huge fan of Teresa Wright, I would love to see it with her in it, too. She has a bit more grit than Loretta.

    Lovely post, Rupert - thanks!

  2. Another educational post, Rupert! Since my mom was a HUGE Loretta Young fan, I think this was the first Christmas movie I ever saw. And, personally, I like it better than "Wonderful Life" or any of the others. I never knew about the original casting. Wow! What a completely different movie that would have been!

  3. This is one of my favorite Christmas movies. It has a wonderful cast, every one of them is so perfect for their role. The Angel choir throughout the movie reminds me of Christmas. I also love the special effects.
    Merry Christmas.:)

  4. Wonderful post! I'm not sure why, but I always seem to forget about this movie - which is sad because it's really wonderful!

    Very interesting information! Fascinating read!

  5. This is one of my favourite movies, with its fairy tale atmosphere, a sensation of warmth, almost unearthly relationships and blissful existence. A long gone purity and innocence. Makes you yearn for something you know you'll never have. There couldn't be a more splendid angel and a more suitable cast. The angel choir, especially the scene with Cary Grant conducting, is absolutely exhilarating.
    I don't care much about Christmas, but this is Christmas spirit par excellence.

  6. Understandably your article helped me very much in my college assignment. Hats off to you post, wish look forward in behalf of more interrelated articles without delay as its sole of my favourite topic to read.

  7. As always, extremely informative, Rupert. Due to the sermon in this film, our family started leaving a stocking up every year for Baby Jesus.

  8. I cannot believe I've never seen this movie! I've seen snippets, of course, in a "coming attractions" kind of way on TCM, but haven't watched the movie itself. Thank you for this well-detailed review--I will certainly make a point of watching it this year!

  9. This heart-warming film was definitely one of my family's favorites! Growing up in a home with all girls, we just LOVED Cary Grant! :)



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