Film Score: Hugo Friedhofer Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Starring: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Elsa Lanchester and James Gleason
It’s A Wonderful Life failed to draw post-war moviegoers to the theatre in numbers great enough to make a profit, producer Samuel Goldwyn nevertheless decided to create his own holiday supernatural classic the following year—though he was actually inspired by the success of MGM’s The Bells of St. Mary's which, incidentally, was playing at the Bijou Theater in Capra’s film. And while The Bishop’s Wife is a far lesser film, to be sure, it does have some endearing moments. The story comes from the 1928 novel of the same title by Robert Nathan. Goldwyn originally brought in William A. Seiter to direct. Seiter was a journeyman director but had done no major films, and his absence of directorial flair eventually caused Goldwyn to scrap what he had done and begin over with Henry Koster who, while his best films were still ahead of him, was simply a much better director. The actors Goldwyn originally hired also changed, as David Niven had originally been cast as the angel, while Dana Andrews was set to be the bishop and Teresa Wright his wife. But when Wright became pregnant she had to bow out, and then Andrews left shortly after when Goldwyn was forced to lend him to RKO in order to get Loretta Young. Finally, the producer brought in Cary Grant to play the bishop, but when he was unhappy with the script he decided to play the angel and Niven was moved over to that part. Though it could have worked the other way, this was definitely the right choice as it is firmly Grant’s picture and he is charming throughout.
The film begins at night up above the city, with the lights below reminiscent of the stars that open Capra’s film. Once on the streets a group of young carolers singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is observed by Cary Grant, who smiles wryly and then moves on down the street. Grant is set apart from the rest of the men on the sidewalks because he isn’t wearing a hat. He helps a blind man across the street, fearless as cars screech to a halt in front of them while they walk together. He enjoys the delight on the faces of the children looking through the store windows, and then saves a baby carriage from rolling into the busy street. It’s clear from the opening that Grant is not a normal person. Then he spies Loretta Young, looking longingly at a hat in the window of a dress shop—shades of Mrs. Miniver. While purchasing a Christmas tree, Young meets Monty Wolley as the atheistic college professor who buys a tree every year because it reminds him of his childhood. It comes out in conversation that her husband, David Niven, is a bishop who is under a lot of stress trying to raise money to build a new cathedral—and neglecting Young in the process. The plot revolves around Niven’s obsession with his new church, having abandoned his old neighborhood parish and curried favor with his richest parishioners in order to get his cathedral built. It has caused a rift in his marriage and home life, but he doesn’t seem to care.
Grant’s role as the angel is to be the answer to Niven’s prayers. His biggest donor will only agree to give him the money if he builds the church as a temple to her late husband, and he calls on God for help. Grant tells Niven who he is, and what his mission is, but won’t let him tell Young or anyone else. What Grant decides to do is essentially distract Young by paying her all the attention to her that her husband should, which keeps her from taking out her displeasure on Niven, and at the same time making Niven jealous. The story itself is rather predictable, and at times quite pedestrian, especially where religion is concerned. In fact, many moviegoers stayed away from the film because they thought it would be just about religion, causing Goldwyn to change the name of the film to Cary and the Bishop’s Wife at some theaters. In truth, the very religious nature of the film is off-putting at times, but since it is such an obvious part of the story it’s to be expected, and the whole picture has a heart-warming quality in spite of it. The one exception is the character of the professor, who by the end of the film has been turned away from his atheism and is apparently prepared to embrace his lost religion. It’s a bit underhanded in its assumption of the rightness of religion, but other than that there’s little to complain about. The film was remade in 1996 by Penny Marshall and called The Preacher’s Wife, starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston.
One of the fascinating aspects of the film is how much it draws on previous supernatural films, especially in the casting. First of these is Monty Wolley, the professor, who with his clipped white beard actually looks a bit like Edmund Gwen from Miracle on 34th Street. Next is the maid, Elsa Lanchester, who played Mary Shelley in Bride of Frankenstein as well as the “Bride” herself. Then there is cab driver James Gleason, who is probably best known for his iconic performance in the supernatural comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan. But the most blatant attempts to capitalize on It’s A Wonderful Life are the couple’s daughter Debby, played by Karolyn Grimes who was also Zuzu Baily in that film, and the appearance of Robert J. Anderson, who was literally unforgettable as the young George Baily in Capra’s film. Not only was Grant unhappy with the screenplay, but Goldwyn was as well, and brought in Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett to do an uncredited rewrite over the weekend before Henry Koster began filming his version. Ultimately, in spite of the turmoil, the film was a success both financially and artistically, though while it was nominated for several Academy Awards, like Wonderful Life, it only took home one technical award. Though The Bishop’s Wife is not great cinema, it is a charming film that deserves a viewing every Christmas season along with Capra’s masterpiece.