Film Festival: Christmas classics
The Bishop’s Wife (1947) takes us back to an old-fashioned Christmas with snowball fights, choirs singing, tinsel on the tree, and an angel coming to answer prayers. The angel is a very dapper looking Cary Grant, sent to help the Bishop, David Niven, figure out what he really needs to be praying for. Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) has recently been elevated to Episcopal bishop in New York. He has a lovely wife, Julia (Loretta Young), and a young daughter, Debby. The Bishop used to be the parish priest at St. Timothy’s back in a working class neighborhood, where Julia was very happy and they had many friends. Now they live in a large old-fashioned Victorian house with lots of wood paneling, stained glass windows, plate rails, and bronze statue lights. Their household includes Matilda the maid (Elsa Lanchester), Miss Cassaway the secretary, Delia the cook, and a Saint Bernard dog Queenie. The Bishop spends his time working on getting a cathedral built. His main patron and supporter is the very rich Mrs. Hamilton and she and her friends have the Bishop running ragged giving speeches and attending fund-raising meetings. We meet the angel, Dudley (Cary Grant), strolling through the happy Christmas shoppers on Madison Avenue. Parents help their children see the animated shop windows with angels, trains, and elves. Everyone wears a hat, men, women, and children. Dudley is the only one in the street without a hat. We don’t think being hatless is noteworthy today, but before John Kennedy famously decided to go through his Inauguration hatless, men wore hats. So we know that Dudley is different.
Hat shop and a stunning angel
We meet Julia, the Bishop’s wife, as she longingly looks at the fashionable, frivolous hats in a shop window. She is shopping in her old neighborhood, where people know her and greet her. She meets up with Professor Wutheridge in a florist shop, where they’ve both gone to get a Christmas tree.
“Why, I didn’t know you celebrated Christmas. I thought you had no religion. –Well, that’s true, my dear. But I like to have a Christmas tree because it reminds me of my childhood. I feel for some reason that this is a good time of year for looking backwards. Can you imagine me ever having been a child?” –Julia and the Professor
The Bishop is so booked up he can’t even get away for a lunch with his wife with his constant fund raising. Julia is unhappy and not really enjoying Christmas.
“Henry, what’s happened to you? What’s happened to us and our marriage? We used to have such fun, you, and Debby, and I! We used to be happy, we used to make other people happy. Oh Henry that was your gift! You’re no financier and you’re not a promoter. –Julia, you can’t see beyond the end of your nose. I want this cathedral to stand like a great beacon.” –Julia and Henry
Into this atmosphere, Dudley steps in to be the Bishop’s assistant. The Bishop has a lot of mistrust, but all the women are stunned by him when they meet him. Mildred just stands and stares. Miss Cassaway and Mildred start wearing flowers in their hair the more they are around Dudley. The Bishop’s wife and daughter are clearly delighted with him. All of this annoys the Bishop more!
“So, you’re beginning to believe in me, huh? –I don’t know who you are, I don’t know where you came from, or who it was that sent you. Whatever it was, I just wish you’d make haste, there’s no time to lose. – Because the cathedral must be built? –Well, obviously, that’s the most important thing! –Or because Julia must be happy? You know, Henry, it’s going to be difficult for me to help you until I’m sure of what it is you really want.” –Dudley and Henry
Snowball fight and Roman history
After helping Debby in a snowball fight with neighborhood kids and charming church ladies during a lunch at Michel’s restaurant, Dudley and Julia meet the Professor as they are walking home. They go to his home to have a bit of sherry. Dudley fixes it so the bottle replenishes itself. The Professor is stuck writing his Roman history because he can’t think of any new way to present the stories. Dudley explains an unknown story of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar that will help the Professor with his book.
“Well, where do you come from? And don’t tell me anymore about Vienna because I won’t believe it. –Supposing I told you I came from another planet, would you believe me? –I don’t know. –I’d believe you Dudley. –And you’d be right, Julia, as always. We all come from our own little planets. That’s why we’re all different. That’s what makes life interesting.” –Professor, Dudley, & Julia
Dudley continues working small miracles as the Bishop tries to get the cathedral funding quickly so that Dudley will go away. Dudley seems to love the life the Bishop has and the people around him.
“There are few people who know the secret of making a heaven here on earth. You are one of those rare people.” –Dudley
Christmas in the 1940s
The charm of The Bishop’s Wife comes from the set pieces that take us back to Christmas in the mid 20th century.
- The Bishop and Julia sit down to evening meals made by their cook and served by their maid. There are candles on the table and they sit at opposite ends. The meals have courses such as broiled grapefruit, celery and olive tray, and egg custard.
- In the park, the kids are riding down the hill on wooden sleds. They build a snow fort and defend it with a snowball fight. (Debby and the leader of the boys were both in It’s a Wonderful Life as Zuzu and young George Bailey).
- Michel’s is a continental restaurant with a big central station where the owner entertains the patrons making real Caesar salad in a huge wooden bowl. Dudley orders a guinea hen for lunch and orders stingers for the cathedral committee ladies to drink.
- Dudley plays with Debby on the floor near the dining room and tells her the Bible story of David, the lion, and the 23rd psalm. As he talks, one by one the household members come out to listen.
- The boys’ choir at St. Timothy’s sings a Christmas piece by Gounod in beautiful 4 part harmony (O Sing to God your hymns of gladness). Dudley seems to attract the boys into the church from where they’ve been playing. They all seem to be wearing plaid jackets and watch caps.
- Julia and Dudley go into a ladies hat shop to buy Julia the confection of a bonnet she’s had her eye on. It’s got satin ribbons and silk flowers, and is just completely frivolous but fetching.
- Dudley and Julia ride with Sylvester the cab driver to the park. They all join the iceskating with an old timey oompah band in the bandstand and people skating by the moored boats on the frozen pond. Julia and Sylvester become fantastic ice skaters with Dudley’s help.
- Matilda decorates the Christmas tree. She has lights, glass balls, tinsel rope, and tinsel. Dudley offers to decorate the tree for her, and it is a magical, shining thing, with a star on top.
Dudley writes a Christmas eve sermon for the Bishop:
“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 hung on the Christmas tree and the cry of bells and gifts. Especially with gifts. … All the stockings are filled. All, that is, except one. …The stocking for the child born in a manger.” –Dudley
In production planning, David Niven was slated to play Dudley. When Cary Grant read the script, he wanted in, but only as Dudley. Actually, almost all the key roles were slated for different actors. I think it serendipity that we got this as the finished film! Queue up The Bishop’s Wife for fantasy, nostalgia, and some true Christmas spirit!
Resource links for The Bishop’s Wife
- The Bishop’s Wife (1947) from IMDb
- Cary Grant overview from Turner Classic Movies
- Loretta Young from Biography.com
- David Niven’s obituary from the New York Times
- Monty Woolley biography from Fandango
- The relish tray from Epicurious
- What did women wear in the 1940s? from Vintage Dancer
- Roasted guinea hen Mediterranean style from Food and Wine
- Stinger cocktail recipe and history from Esquire
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