With The Bishop’s Wife we come to what is not only one of our favorite Christmas movies but also perhaps the best film on the list, with the exception of It’s a Wonderful Life. Why would this sentimental film fantasy about an oddly named angel (Dudley) helping an Episcopal bishop re-learn the true meaning of Christmas and that he loves his wife be such a top-notch film? First, it has so many skilled contributors. It was expertly directed by Henry Koster, who was nominated for an Academy Award as best director for this film. The script was written by Robert E. Sherwood, who had in the previous year done the screenplay for The Best Years of Our Lives and who had on his list of credits such varied films as Rebecca, Waterloo Bridge, Idiot’s Delight, The Petrified Forest and The Ghost Goes West. The cinematographer was also one of Hollywood’s best, Gregg Toland, who was behind the camera for The Best Years of Our Lives, Citizen Kane and Wuthering Heights. Toland’s deep-focus camera fills so many shots with ironic layers of meaning, as in the central scene where Dudley engages not only young Debbie with the story of David and the lion but also all of the other members of the bishop’s household. The film score is by Hugo Friedhofer, whose credits include The Best Years of Our Lives, The Sun Also Rises and An Affair to Remember. All that and I haven’t even mentioned Cary Grant, David Niven, and Loretta Young, nor one of the widest range of quality character actors of any of the films on our list. Pay close attention to the sensitive, detailed and restrained performance given by Cary Grant. At first glance, he seems stiff and far removed from the screwball slapstick of his roles in The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby and My Favorite Wife. But notice from the beginning his attraction to Loretta Young in front of the milliner’s store, his distracted glances at her framed photograph in the bishop’s office, and the times he resists touching her.
Bishop Henry Brougham is so focused on raising funds for a new cathedral that he has lost contact with the most important things in his life: his wife, his daughter, and his old friends. Distraught he prays for help, and the angel Dudley appears. At first befuddled by Dudley, the bishop grows distrustful and jealous as his staff, his daughter, and especially his wife are attracted to this handsome, sensitive stranger. The bishop moves from frustration to jealousy to anger, realizing that he still loves his wife and is willing to fight for her. Dudley leaves, as he promised, with no one remembering his visit but all finding new hope on Christmas Eve.
The film begins a few days before Christmas and ends with a short, Dudley-inspired homily by the bishop on Christmas Eve. The streets are filled with snow, Christmas carols, and shoppers. There is a miraculously decorated Christmas tree and equally miraculous ice skating.
Eugene Borden (restaurant owner Michel) played a waiter at Luigi’s restaurant in Never Say Goodbye. Borden had roles in many movie classics, including Casablanca (1942), On the Town (1949) and An American in Paris (1951).
Montey Woolley (Professor Wutheridge) will be seen soon in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). He appeared with Cary Grant in the bio-pic of Cole Porter, Night and Day (1946), where he plays himself, as a long-time friend of the famed songsmith. He has a delightful small role in one of our favorite under-rated screwball comedies, Midnight (1939), starring Claudette Colbert, John Barrymore and Don Ameche.
James Gleason shows a delightfully silly side to his character as the cab driver Sylvester. It is quite different from the mostly serious role he had in Meet John Doe.
Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Hamilton) had a long career in films such as Rebecca (1940), That Hamilton Woman (1941), Now, Voyager (1942) and My Fair Lady (1964). She appeared in a small role with Cary Grant in Mr. Lucky (1943).
Sara Haden (Mildred Cassaway) has already been seen in The Great Rupert and be seen again in The Shop Around the Corner.
Elsa Lanchester (Matilda) will be seen later in an eccentric role as Kim Novak’s aunt in Bell, Book and Candle (1958). She appears in another Christmas film, Come to the Stable (1949). She also appeared in Mary Poppins (1964). Her most famous role was perhaps a dual one, as Mary Shelley and the monster’s mate in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
If Karolyn Grimes (Debby) looks and sounds familiar, it’s because she played Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life. She had another distinctive role in John Ford’s Rio Grande (1950).
Regis Toomey (Mr. Miller) was previously seen in Meet John Doe and will be seen again in Come to the Stable.
Robert Anderson (the snowball captain) is another link to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), where he played the young George Bailey.
Tito Vuolo (Maggenti, the tree shop owner) appeared with Cary Grant as Zucco in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). He appeared as Mozzarella in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959). One of his finest small bits is as Luis, the waiter promoting sea bass in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941).
Edgar Dearing (the cop on the beat) played an Irish policeman in numerous films. We saw him previously in Christmas Eve (1947). He had similar roles in The Awful Truth (1937), After the Thin Man (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941).
Sarah Edwards (Mrs. Duffy, the organist) has already been seen as Mrs. Hawkins in Meet John Doe. We will see her soon as Mary Hatch’s mother in It’s a Wonderful Life and as the first customer rejecting the music box in The Shop Around the Corner. Her other roles include a train passenger in The Thin Man Goes Home, the attorney’s wife in The Awful Truth and Mrs. Burton in Tom, Dick and Harry, which starred Ginger Rogers.
Eugene Borden appeared with Fred Astaire in Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Silk Stockings (1957).
Karolyn Grimes had a role in Blue Skies (1946).
Edgar Dearing appeared with Astaire in The Broadway Melody of 1940 and Swing Time (1936).
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
As I said earlier, it’s one of the best all-around films on our Christmas list. It’s got Cary Grant in it, who incidentally was originally cast as the bishop! I also love the connections to It’s a Wonderful Life (the oddly named angels and the three character actors mentioned earlier). And then there’s Elsa Lanchester’s wonderful line: “Nobody expects him to be normal, he’s a bishop.”
WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM
Turner Classic Movies will show The Bishop’s Wife on December 24 at 8 p.m.