Weekend Film Recommendation: The Bishop’s Wife

Cary Grant and Loretta Young’s film The Bishop’s Wife makes for wonderful Christmas viewing

the-bishops-wife-10The only people who grow old were born old to begin with.

If you were asked to recall a 1947 Christmas movie that was nominated for a best picture Oscar, you would probably come up with the famous Miracle on 34th Street. But remarkably, it was only one of two Christmas films so honored that year. The other is this week’s film recommendation: The Bishop’s Wife.

Anglican Bishop Henry Brougham (A miscast but appealing David Niven) is under strain as he attempts to raise money for a new cathedral. Donations are not arriving, and the wealthiest woman in town (Gladys Cooper) will only help if the building is made into a tasteless monument to her late husband. Meanwhile, since becoming an Archbishop consumed with finances and grandiose plans, Henry has been drifting apart from his long-suffering wife Julia (the ever-luminous Loretta Young). He prays to God for aid and a friendly, dashing, sharply dressed fellow arrives at his office (Who else but Cary Grant?). Calling himself Dudley, the new arrival says he is here to help, which Henry takes to mean help raising money. But Dudley spends most of his time trying to restore Julia’s happiness instead, much to Henry’s irritation.

Some films live or die on the strength of a star’s charm, and this is an example of a film living, indeed thriving, on the charm of the inimitable Grant. Director Henry Koster seems to have instructed every female member of the cast to swoon upon meeting him, and it’s utterly believable given with warmth and gentleness that the handsome Grant radiates in ever scene. Loretta Young’s devout-and-goodly performance is perfectly matched to Grant’s, as the story requires their relationship to be intimate but at the same time innocent. She was at the peak of her powers in 1947, during which she not only garnered raves for her role in the Bishop’s Wife but also won a Best Actress Oscar for The Farmer’s Daughter.

Grant and Young get strong support from the rest of cast, particularly Monty Woolley as an atheistic retired college professor who is an old friend of Julia and Henry’s. The Robert Mitchell Boy Choir are also on hand for a mellifluous number in Henry’s former and very poor church, a symbol of the simpler faith and life that he has lost.

the-bishops-wife-deep-focusThe Bishop’s Wife rewards the eye as well as the heart, thanks to Gregg Toland being behind the camera. The town looks lovely, peaceful and Christmassy as can be. And Toland gets to be Toland, as you see on the left, which is my favorite shot in the movie, during which the characters slowly accrue at different depths away from Grant, who is making an emotional and religious connection to Henry and Julia’s little girl (played by Karolyn Grimes, who essayed a similar role in It’s a Wonderful Life).

The Bishop’s Wife is not a film for the cynical nor for those hostile to religious messages. But if the Christmas spirit animates your heart at this time of year, you will find much to love in this extraordinarily sweet movie.

I embed below the amusing “un-trailer” of the film, featuring the three leads and absolutely, positively no spoilers.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

13 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Bishop’s Wife”

        1. you’re probably right. washington dialed down many of the verbal excesses that marked some of his more recent performance and came across as very suave and almost gentle. i haven’t seen “the bishop’s wife” but i have seen grant in many movies and i understand better the basis for washington’s performance.

          1. You should definitely see the original. Not only will you see how well Denzel Washington channeled Cary Grant’s Dudley, but also what a perfect casting choice they made with Courtney Vance.

            But most important, you will get to see Grant in what may have been his best role ever. It was as though Robert Nathan had written the book just so it could become a movie for Grant.

          2. i’ll try to make time to watch it over my christmas break. the funny thing is that i am just this side of being a cynic and no more than neutral towards religious messages but i find it within me to enjoy a movie of this type from time to time. even cynics and atheists can come together for a well made film dr. humphreys 😉

          3. @navarro: Careful there, I didn’t say that atheists couldn’t enjoy it, after all there is a very appealing explicitly atheist character which is unusual for the period. I said it was not a film “for those hostile to religious messages”.

          4. @keith humphreys: fair enough. i hope you have a merry christmas and that we all have a happy new year. peace on earth and goodwill to humanity.

          5. I’m hostile to religious messages (I think organized religion is a complete and utter fraud) but a great movie is a great movie. For instance, I love “It’s a Wonderful Life” and it’s totally explicitly religious.

  1. The Bishop’s Wife and Shop Around the Corner are two of my favorite Christmas films that don’t often make anyone’s top lists. Great to see The Bishop’s Wife honored here.

    1. “…don’t often make anyone’s top lists.” That’s surprising, isn’t it, considering that The Bishop’s Wife was one of the five nominees for the Oscar for Best Picture that year.

      Gentlemen’s Agreement is an all-time great, so it was a deserving winner, but I think The Bishop’s Wife was highly regarded at the time. I suppose maybe it’s faded from the foreground because of the coincidence of Miracle on 34th Street having been made, and nominated for the same Oscar, in the same year.

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