Old movies: The Bishop’s Wife

Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young in The Bishop's Wife.
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In another festive edition of our old movies column, we take a look at the Cary Grant and David Niven-headlinedThe Bishop’s Wife.


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If I had a nickel for every time I watched a film where the husband is being objectively awful to his wife, to the point where Cary Grant threatens to flirt and sleep with her, I’d have two nickels. Which isn’t a lot, but it’s weird it happened twice, right?

The first of those films is the incredible Dorothy Arzner dark comedy Merrily We Go To Hell (that I covered in more detail here), and the second is Christmas favourite The Bishop’s Wife.

Celebrating its 75th year anniversary, this week I’m going to be looking back at this absolute treat of a film.

Directed by Henry Koster and based on a 1928 novel of the same name, The Bishop’s Wife revolves around the titular Bishop Henry Broughham who is stressed by his work. He’s been trying to build a cathedral but is having trouble with the community and the trustees for a start.

Unfortunately, this means he’s neglecting his poor wife Julia and their daughter Debby. One day, they are visited by the mysterious Dudley – an angel who has come to aid with both Henry and Julia’s woes.

However, the closer Dudley gets to Julia, the more he realises he might be falling desperately in love with her.

This, then, provides the foundations for The Bishop’s Wife, a delightful romp with a somewhat shaky plot thankfully held together by the three leads: Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young.

There is a light-hearted tenderness to Grant’s Dudley as he joyfully shows the town all its secret wonders whilst simultaneously falling deeply for Julia. Young is captivating as Julia as she struggles with the cold distance her husband has created, whilst being careful and considerate to those around her. Together they create this endearing alliance between human and angel.

Cary Grant and Loretta Young in The Bishop's Wife.

On the other side of this, it’s certainly fun to watch Niven’s Henry become increasingly exasperated at the fact that Dudley is changing the world around him and canoodling with his spouse. It comes to a head in the most glorious of ways, culminating in a sweet and treasured ending that I’m not going to spoil here.

There’s so much to enjoy in this film, including some sparklingly impressive special effects, thanks to Dudley’s angel magic. The highlight here is the ice skating sequence, where Dudley and Julia take a lowly taxi driver named Sylvester and dazzle with spectacular dancing on the ice. Whilst it’s obviously not Cary Grant or Loretta Young doing the stunts (sorry to break the movie magic a little there), it is a heart-warming and delightful moment within the film.

There are naturally always going to be some comparisons to Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life with a film of this ilk. Both films revolve around angels who are sent to Earth in order to convince a man to change his ways. Of course, It’s A Wonderful Life is dark and puts the audience into George Bailey’s point of view, understanding the kindly soul and the struggles he came to find himself in. The Bishop’s Wife, however, focuses more on the angel and his mysteriously magical ways, enchanting all the people who come into contact with him.

The similarities don’t just stop at angel appearances (and the fact they rhyme). Bobbie Anderson, who plays young George Bailey, is one of Debby’s friends here whilst Debby is played by Zuzu herself, Karolyn Grimes.

The Bishop’s Wife
does have a similar theme, that family and loved ones are the most important part of life. Whilst It’s A Wonderful Life suggests that no man is an island, and you should be thankful for your wife and kids, The Bishop’s Wife offers a somewhat different moral lesson. Namely, if you don’t treat your family well, Cary Grant will appear and try to sleep with your wife!

It’s a festive message we should, er, all take to heart. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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