I'd like to spank the Academy

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

downloadDirected by Henry Koster

Happy Christmas Eve! I decided that there is no better way to celebrate Christmas Eve than in reviewing an Oscar-nominated movie that ends on Christmas Eve.

The Bishop’s Wife is a Christmas classic that I did not grow up watching, which is actually kind of strange, come to think of it; we watched so many in my family when I was growing up. Anyway, I saw it for the first time a few years ago, and I thought it was kind of creepy. Yes, it has some familiar Christmas movie elements – someone who has forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, an angel sent to help, a moment with a lovely carol – but in a normal Christmas movie, the angel is not trying to seduce the wife of the man he’s sent to help.

So what’s the story? Episcopal bishop Henry Brougham has decided that his purpose in life is to glorify God by building a huge cathedral, but he can’t raise the money. In his obsession to build the cathedral, he has started to neglect his family, his parishioners, and his relationship with God. One night, desperate to get the money for his cathedral, Henry prays for help. Help comes in the form of angel Dudley, but it’s not the kind of help that Henry was expecting.

The Good: Most of the cast are excellent. David Niven makes a fabulously stuffy bishop. Loretta Young does a wonderful job as Julia, the distressed wife who can’t seem to get her husband to see past his plans for his cathedral. James Gleason is delightful as always in his role of Sylvester, the comedic taxi driver. Monty Woolley plays atheist Professor Wutheridge with charm and sympathy. Gladys Cooper in her role of Mrs. Hamilton is the epitome of the wealthy society dame who always gets her way in the end. There is good chemistry among the cast; they just work well together as a team.

Other film elements work together well, also. The music is just right, jolly and Christmassy at times, dramatic and sad when needed. There are some fun editing tricks that showcase Dudley’s angelic powers. The design of the bishop’s house (the rectory? I’m not sure of the right term) – nice, but old-fashioned – contrasts perfectly with Mrs. Hamilton’s fashionable mansion and Professor Wutheridge’s tiny apartment in a poorer part of town. 

The Bad: Whoever decided to cast Cary Grant as an angel had a lapse of judgment. Don’t get me wrong; I love Cary Grant, but this role just doesn’t fit him. His calm angel’s demeanor comes off as smarmy half the time. The “angel knows best” attitude doesn’t work with him. Grant seems supercilious rather than sympathetic.

The Ugly: The story and screenplay make me so uncomfortable. I have no problem with an angel coming to help someone remember what’s truly important in life, but an angel should not make a woman fall in love with him in order to make her husband feel like he has to literally fight for her in order to keep her. It’s underhanded and gross and a little misogynistic. Dudley uses his powers to keep a woman’s husband away so that Dudley can take her on a date? Creepy! The fact that Dudley makes the women around him feel better about life by charming them seems to say that women will be happy as long as they have a little attention from a handsome man. The screenplay is quite funny in places, and the idea of an angel falling for a human woman is fine, but the rest of it is just plain wrong.

Oscar Won: Best sound, recording.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best film editing; best music, scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture.

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