The Bishop’s Wife, 1947, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven. Directed by Henry Koster. B&W, 108 minutes.
Staid Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) has neglected his wife and family in his quest for a new cathedral, and is on the verge of giving in to a value system of greed and selfishness held by certain wealthy parishioners who aren’t afraid to make full use of their influence. He prays for guidance. To his shock, the answer comes in the form of a debonair angel, Dudley (Cary Grant).
The Bishop’s skepticism of Dudley’s claims of divine guidance is soon overcome by frustration with the angel’s growing relationship with his wife, Julia (Loretta Young). Dudley brings back a spark to Julia’s demeanor that has been missing for many years, as the Bishop has become more engrossed in his work and less attentive to his marriage.
Adding to Dudley’s work is a friend of the Brougham’s, the disillusioned Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley), who has stalled in his life’s work of writing a complete Roman history. Earlier he had given Julia a good luck token, a Roman coin he believed was worthless. Later, his gift turns around to bring him fortune in his work.
Cary Grant was originally slated to play the Bishop, and David Niven the angel, until Grant looked closely at the role of Dudley and felt the movie would be better if he played that part. As one of the most popular actors of his time, Grant had sway in the final decision.
Unhappy with the work of the director he originally hired, producer Samuel Goldwyn replaced him with Henry Koster. Famed writing team Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder were brought in to help with the script, although they were not given formal credit for their work.
The film met with strong reviews, including the New York Times, whose film critic wrote, “it comes very close to being the most enchanting picture of the year.” Audiences, however, were not as certain, and many stayed away, believing it was a religious movie. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won for Best Sound.
What is never revealed is the actual worth of the Roman coin, which the professor returns to the Bishop, and whether or not it could provide the means to build the cathedral. (It is noted to be a museum piece, which perhaps was intended to mean it had no market value, but one wonders…)
This is a sweet story that moves at a leisurely pace, and perhaps is a little long in the telling. However, it is a holiday classic for a reason. It is the timeless tale of hope for a marriage in need of a boost, and a man’s search for success leading him to value what is truly important. Add to that the element of faith, summed up in a moving Christmas sermon at the end of the film, and you have a movie that can be watched over and over again without getting stale.