Christmas 8 December 2018 | 13:00

Movie Advent #8: The Bishop’s Wife

08 December 2018 13:00

It’s a commonly heard complaint today that trailers give away far too much about the film they’re advertising. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve settled down to watch a new film in the cinema only to discover that I’ve seen all its best jokes and all its key scenes. Well, once upon a time in the now long-gone golden era of Hollywood, the production companies knew not to give anything away. Take the trailer for The Bishop’s Wife for example, the 1947 Samuel Goldwyn Productions feature directed by Henry Koster. The film’s three stars – Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young – are leaving the studio, joyfully heading home after wrapping the film when – shock horror! – they realise that they’ve forgotten to make the trailer! They hurry to another stage on the lot, only to be denied entry by the security guard. He’s new, he explains, so he doesn’t know them. ‘I’m David Niven and I play the Bishop,’ says the moustached British actor. ‘And I’m Loretta Young and I play the Bishop’s wife,’ explains his elegant co-star. ‘And I’m Cary Grant and I play…’ pipes up the dapper final member of the trio, but the other two shush him before he can finish. ‘Oh that’s right,’ he says with a smile. ‘Nobody’s supposed to know what part I play until they see the film.’ The seeds of intrigue sown, Young then goes on to earnestly describe it as ‘quite the most unusual picture Sam Goldwyn’s ever made.’

Samuel Goldwyn Productions were riding high when they released The Bishop’s Wife, the previous year they’d swept the board at the Oscars, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) having won no less than nine Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay. Interestingly, Wyler’s film had been up against none other than It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). Although Capra’s film wasn’t exactly a box office smash – it’s become increasingly acclaimed and beloved in the years since it was released; for many people, it’s the Christmas movie – it’s hard not to regard Koster’s film as Goldwyn’s attempt to produce his own fantastical festive offering to rival Capra’s.

‘The Bishop’s Wife’ (Henry Koster, 1947)

Despite Niven and Young’s admonishments, I’m going to have to spoil it a little. Though seventy-one years later, this seems more than acceptable. Like Henry Travers before him as Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, Grant plays an angel. The angel Dudley to be exact – what’s with these names? I can’t think of two less angelic-sounding beings than Clarence and Dudley! Dudley though, we presume, already has his wings as, compared with his predecessor’s warm-hearted if haphazard antics, he manifests as quite the debonair chap about town, the ‘miracles’ he performs more like entertaining tricks. These are also an opportunity for the studio to show off their special effects: a pile of note cards that fly through the air organising themselves, a typewriter that takes dictation, and – my personal favourite – unending Christmas cheer in the form of sherry glasses that mysteriously fill themselves every time a thirsty drinker drains them dry. The two angels missions aren’t dissimilar though. Clarence has to teach poor, flailing George Bailey (James Stewart) just how much of a sorrier place Bedford Falls would be if he’d never existed, while Dudley has the slightly less arduous task of reminding the overworked Bishop Henry Brougham of the important things in life.

The ‘terribly tired and worried’ Bishop is trying to raise funds to build an impressive new cathedral, a process that involves endless obsequious meetings with the city’s ‘vulgar rich’. Tired of playing second fiddle to his work, his wife Julia reminisces fondly about the days when her husband presided over a smaller church in a poorer part of town. Their life together was more carefree then, Henry was never too busy for his parishioners, or her, for that matter. Meanwhile, at his wits end as to how to raise the huge sum he needs for his cathedral, in a moment of despair, Henry asks God for help and lo and behold, Grant arrives. Henry is understandably dubious and more than a little thrown. I mean, who wouldn’t be if a well-dressed Cary Grant turned up claiming to be an angel, but what’s an overworked Bishop supposed to do? Bar the bit of indexing mentioned above, Dudley’s ‘help’ involves taking the wistful, beautiful Julia out for lunch and ice-skating. Though I shouldn’t forget his rather effective emotional manipulation of Mrs Hamilton, the most obnoxious of the vulgar rich Henry’s battling with, until Dudley thaws her icy heart.

Despite radiating charm, The Bishop’s Wife is never going to outshine It’s a Wonderful Life, not least because it lacks the depth of Capra’s film. One never really feels for Henry the way one does for George Bailey; not only is his despair never as dire as George’s, but even after he’s learnt to get his priorities straight, Henry retains a degree of aloofness. One wonders, however, how much of this was due to Niven’s own state of mind at the time. Only the previous year, his 28-year-old wife, Primula Susan Rollo, the mother of their two sons (the oldest of whom was three, the youngest not yet one), tragically died in a freak accident while playing sardines at Tyrone Power’s home in Beverly Hills. Niven’s terrible grief must still have been hanging heavily round his neck. Knowing this makes the sermon he preaches in the film’s final scene all the more moving though. He calls for ‘loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched-out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.’