03 December 2008

The Bishop's Wife

The Bishop’s Wife is Still Lovely
By Kristin Battestella

Modern audiences are familiar with the story of The Bishop’s Wife from the 1996 remake The Preacher’s Wife. Fine in its own right with stars like Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, and Courtney B. Vance , The Preacher’s Wife also shines for its African American spotlight. As representative as The Preacher’s Wife is of its time and place, The Bishop’s Wife is chock full of fifties nostalgia, quirks, and holiday magic.
Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby, Suspicion, Arsenic and Old Lace) stars as the angel Dudley, who is sent to earth before Christmas to help Bishop Henry Broughman (David Niven, My Man Godfrey) raise enough funding for the town’s new cathedral, but more importantly, save the tense marriage between the Bishop and his wife Julia (Loretta Young, The Farmer’s Daughter). Things aren’t as easy as they seem for Dudley. Henry doesn’t believe he’s an angel, and Dudley becomes more fond of Julia then he should.

The Bishop's Wife Let’s get some of the hokey out the way. Wise folks today can clearly see that it isn’t Cary Grant and Loretta Young in the ice skating sequence, and a few other miracles from Dudley haven’t stood the test of time either. No, if you’re looking for special effects, look elsewhere. The Bishop’s Wife is about the exact opposite. We can’t seem to put aside our crazy commercial Christmases as it is, so maybe the absurdity of an angel is just what we need to keep us warm and fuzzy and nostalgic inside.
Cary Grant is his usual suave self as the angel Dudley. It’s a given that there would be some charming of the Missus with Grant around, but the Hitchcock alum also shows a bit of conflict for Dudley. He’s an old angel caught between doing the good of his job and never getting too attached to his earthly charges. Likewise Niven’s Bishop Henry is in the right place. Instead of giving us an abusive father or alcoholic or some such, writer Leonardo Bercovici (from Robert Nathan’s novel) gives us a man trying to build a church. What could possibly be wrong with that? The realizations from Niven are touching and humorous, as are Gladys Cooper’s (My Fair Lady, The Song of Bernadette) as his rich benefactor Mrs. Hamilton. Monty Woolley (Since You Went Away) as the cooky old man Professor Wutheridge is also a delight. It’s a touch of the young at heart old man we often see in old films, but we can always use a good dose of someone who really, gosh honestly believes.

And of course, we have the beautiful Loretta Young nearly stealing the show as Julia. When I was younger, I wasn’t that familiar with Young. Her eponymous show was a bit before my time. She’s an unconventional beauty in a way, yet her charm is undeniable. Julia’s a housewife without a care in the world, there should be no complaints really, but something is in fact missing in her life. It’s a lovely performance that we can still relate to sixty years later.

Nominated for Best Director here, Henry Koster (The Robe, Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation) may seem to take The Bishop’s Wife a toe over in sentimentality, but in today’s Hollywood, we don’t often get an overly sappy and sentimental film that is actually good. Were this another silly B flick, The Bishop’s Wife would have disappeared from our collective conscious. But no, we keep coming back to this charmer every holiday season for a reason.

I much prefer my black and white VHS, but now is the time to upgrade to an affordable DVD copy. There are, however, colorized versions of The Bishop’s Wife available to those that prefer it. Both versions can usually be found on television sometime in December. Younger folks who can’t stand black and white might enjoy the color version or be put off by the saturation process. If you haven’t seen The Bishop’s Wife in awhile, then this is the holiday season for young and old to reminisce and enjoy.

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