I grew up watching The Bishops Wife every year during the Christmas season. Granted, it’s a more adult film, and it wasn’t one I started to appreciate until I was much older. This film was remade in the 90’s as The Preachers Wife with Denzel Washington and Whitney Huston. I have never seen that version, but as far as holiday classics go, The Bishops Wife is a bit under the radar to other Christmas greats such as Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Alistar Sim’s A Christmas Carol. But it‘s a great movie nonetheless.
This movie features everyone‘s favorite pretty boy angel, Cary Grant as Dudley, who answers the prayer of a young Bishop Henry (David Niven) who is seeking guidance as he tries desperately to get funds for the building of a new Cathedral. In traditional Christmas movie fashion, Henry’s a bit stubborn and bitter that his path in life didn’t turn out the way he expected. His wife Julia is just as depressed, and while she knows deep down she’s very much in love with her husband the bishop, the youthful spark that brought them together has become pretty dim. Enter Dudley to help provide guidance for Henry, but not exactly in the way he suspects. Dudley “helps out” by taking Henry’s wife to do all the things she used to do with her husband. Everyone whose lives have been touched by Dudley leaves them enamored with him…everyone except Bishop Henry of course, who gets increasingly jealous that Angel Dudley is spending so much time with his wife!
There is something I always found interesting about Cary Grants performance as Dudley. Even though he’s an angel brought in to help out a lost soul, in most cases an angel would have no physical emotional investment. Part of his plan was to take the Bishop’s wife out for a good time in order to make Henry jealous and help him appreciate what he has in front of him. But what I love about Dudley is that when he sees Julia out on the streets for the first time, you can tell just by the way he looks at her that he’s instantly fallen in love with her. This is a moment he has by himself when no one is looking, except the audience. It’s a great touch because it makes Dudley more than just an agent of God. He still feels things. Julia might possibly remind him of someone he loved in his mortal life. So when Dudley is taking her out ice skating, to her favorite restaurant, buying her hats and such, its not insincere, he genuinely deeply feels something for this woman. As an angel of course he knows his place and what his mission is, not to mention that it would be impossible for anything to happen between her and Julia since she’s mortal. Regardless of his plan, Dudley makes the most of his time with Julia, and you can see him enjoying every moment with her.
There’s also a host of great supporting characters in this film. The great Monty Woolley (he’s got the most awesome voice) plays The Professer. Another wonderful peformance is by Gladys Cooper, who plays Mrs. Hamilton, the wealthy benefactor willing to donate the funds to build the cathedral, but wanting it to be less of a church and more of a shrine to her late husband. However, Mrs. Hamilton has a beautiful scene late in the film between her and Dudley where she opens up to him and tells him about her real true love in life. One of my favorite actresses Elsa Lanchester also has a supporting role as Matilda, Henry’s maid servant who is completely infatuated the moment she sees Dudley.
As someone who is not a practicing Catholic anymore, I still appreciate the spiritual significance of films like the Bishop’s Wife. At the very least I believe in the notion that there are angels guiding us and helping us along, even if they’re a pain in the ass like Dudley is Bishop Henry. It’s a little funny about films of this period when films were made where all movie going audience members were assumed to be made up of all Catholics and Episcopalians. They had no qualms about promoting Christian values in the movies to everyone back then! Thankfully, The Bishops Wife is not overly preachy or sentimental in its message. At its heart there is a sincerity to it. That’s why I believe it’s important to know Dudley was truly in love with Julia, or the film really would have turned preachy, with God playing minds with Henry to push him into learning a lesson. The Bishop’s Wife is a great film that truly embodies the spirit of Christmas, and the never-ending riches of life that we can find in ourselves.