The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Christmas was, at one time, more of a religious holiday than a commercial one. This is something that has been forgotten, for the most part. It is partly due to this mentality that I was surprised by the topic The Bishop’s Wife focuses on: not the holidays per se, but rather the internal conflict of bishop Henry (David Niven) as he tries to reconcile his burning desire to build a new cathedral with his increasingly slippery marriage. The bishop won’t have nearly enough money to build the cathedral unless he gets the support of Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper), the wealthy, widowed parishioner.

Enter Dudley. Or rather, descend Dudley from the heavens. You see, Dudley is an angel. A very handsome, wingless, sickly-sweet angel who appears to Henry as he prays for guidance in order to help him straighten out his life. Everyone in Henry’s house is positively enamoured with Dudley, though only Henry knows his true identity.

There is a lovely Mary Poppins whimsy about The Bishop’s Wife, found in all of Dudley’s little tricks. He has the ability to refill brandy glasses by twitching his fingers and organize index cards by shuffling them around with majestic 1940s special effects, and he goes to town decorating the Christmas tree. Things get complicated when Dudley develops a very close friendship with Henry’s wife, Julia, to the point where he infringes on what Henry considers his.

Julia is certainly interested in Dudley’s company, and enjoys having someone take time to be with her since her husband is so busy attending meetings and discussing funds. And not only is Dudley attentive to her, but he also loves her young daughter. Henry, on the other hand, becomes increasingly jealous of Dudley’s relationship with his family.

While the love triangle is resolved at the end, the cathedral plot is not. Under Dudley’s charming influence, Mrs. Hamilton is persuaded to donate her money to charity instead of to Henry’s cause, and the cathedral is never built. This plotline is left hanging at the end of the film, which I found rather irritating. It would only have taken another scene or two to tidy this up, but it seems instead that the relationships were always the film’s priority.

The Bishop’s Wife was well-cast with a group of very attractive actors. Loretta Young, who plays Julia, is almost too beautiful to be real, but her relationships with both Henry and Dudley (Cary Grant) is believable and blissfully naïve.

In general, films in the 1940s are very different from today. To a modern audience, the acting looks comedic, the special effects clumsy, and the pacing painfully slow. However, The Bishop’s Wife is a warm and humorous movie, perfect for cuddling up on the couch with a candy cane hot chocolate, not doing schoolwork, and with nothing to think about but the holidays.

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