Sunday, December 20, 2009

A look back at The Bishop's Wife...

"Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking.

Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child's cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven't forgotten that night down the centuries.
We celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, with the sound of bells, and with gifts.

But especially with gifts. You give me a book, I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry can do with a new pipe. For we forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. Its his birthday we're celebrating. Don't let us ever forget that.

Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shinning gifts that make
peace on earth."

- David Niven as Bishop Henry Brougham (1947)

With those beautiful and eye opening words comes to a close one of the most charming Christmas movies ever made. The Bishop's Wife was produced in 1947 by legendary film producer Samuel Goldwyn. The film tells the story of an angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) who is sent to answer Bishop Henry Brougham's prayer for help during the Christmas season. Bishop Brougham (David Niven ) has been having a tough time after leaving behind his modest church and middle class community to help build a cathedral in a wealthy part of town. Once there his new tasks and responsibilities begin to take priority over his relationship with his loving wife, Julia (Loretta Young), while also putting his values to the test. The film is now a well loved Holiday classic and was nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Director (Henry Koster), Best Score (Hugo Friedhofer ), and Best Picture (Samuel Goldwyn).

Not many people are aware of the difficulties producer Samuel Goldwyn faced in bringing this classic to the screen. After having spent a million dollars in principal photography Goldwyn shut down the picture unhappy with the results its original director, William A. Seiter was getting. Early audiences who got a preview disliked the film so much that Goldwyn called in the great Billy Wilder and frequent collaborator Charles Bracket to do an uncredited rewrite of the script. In the original version of the film the role of the bishop's wife -- Julia, was played by Teresa Wright, Dudley was played by David Niven, and the Bishop by Cary Grant. Goldwyn replaced Wright with Loretta Young and switched the actors on the two main roles. It has been reported in many books and articles over the years that Grant was quite reluctant to go with the switch and play the role of Dudley. I'm glad in the end he decided to go along with the changes since his portrayal of Dudley is truly remarkable.

Grant plays the role of the angel with a great deal of charm and passion. He never lets the fantastic and sometimes larger than life characteristics of such a role get in the way of allowing genuine emotion to pour through. The role of Dudley turned out to be one of his most remembered performances in a very impressive career. Watching Grant's angel as he helps others see the better in humanity and as he performs all his life changing miracles is a real treat. You find yourself smiling through most of the film thanks to the joy his character brings to so many people in the Bishop's life. For a story with such a powerful message the acting and the treatment of the material is done in a very subtle way and you never truly feel you've been hit over the head with a life lesson. This is largely accomplished by the wonderful actors and the sharp writing. Near the end we discover that Dudley's mission of becoming involved in people's lives without ever being able to get emotionally attached is one of the toughest tasks ever and we are treated to a heart-wrenching scene were the angel is tempted by the power of human desires.

This type of conflict has been explored with various degrees of success in many other films including Wings of Desire, its remake City of Angels, and the remake of The Bishop's Wife: 1996's The Preacher's Wife. The Bishop's Wife is the best by far, thanks in great part to Cary Grant's interpretation of the angel, which is never one dimensional or flat. Dudley not only affects the lives of the Bishop and his wife, he pretty much has a positive impact on everyone he runs across -- from a cab driver who's lost faith in humanity, to a college professor who doesn't really believe in anything other than what he can find in a textbook. By the end of the movie the Cab driver has experienced the joys of new friends and the Professor has realized there are bigger things in life than those we can understand and so he joins the others for Christmas mass for the first time in a very long time.

The film' supporting cast is very impressive. Sylvester -- the can driver is payed by James Gleason and together with Loretta Young and Cary Grant he shares one of the most beautiful looking Christmas sequences in any film as the three go ice skating together during an afternoon of playing hooky. Monty Woolley as Professor Wutheridge has some incredibly poignant moments throughout the film. His character of the non-believer who ends up believing helps cement the themes of the story and gives it even more heart.

Hugo Friedhofer's score is another great element that helps make this a perfect film. The film also features the Robert Mitchell boys choir. Friedhofer, fresh off of scoring another classic, The Best Years of our Lives, does a great job of bringing the holiday season to life through his music for The Bishop's Wife. There's a beautiful melody in the film's third act that plays a key part in the life of one of the characters and the scene in which Dudley plays the melody on a harp is one of the many musical highlights of the film. The score features many cues that can be listened to as part of any Christmas play list, its just full of beautiful music. In 2002 the folks at Screen Archives finally released the entire score on a 25 track CD with great liner notes and beautiful photographs throughout the album booklet.

Along with Frank Capra's Its A Wonderful Life, this film does a great job of exploring the true meaning of Christmas and for that it will forever remain in the hearts of those who understand what it is we truly come together to celebrate in this joyful season. I really recommend everyone to watch it at least once during the Holiday season.

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

Hi there - I think we share a love for the same holiday movies. I wrote a song called George Bailey, all about It's a Wonderful Life and who I consider one of the best characters in film. I would love for you to take a listen! You can do so via my website or by watching the youtube video below. Thanks and happy holidays!

Carolyn Sills


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