The Bishop’s Wife (USA 1947)

A Christmas Tale.

A Christmas Tale.

This was the Friends of the Hyde Park Picture House Christmas screening. It has been re-released on DCP by Park Circus for the festive season: a good transfer.

The film opens with snow on the ground and a helpful and handsome man spreading the spirit of Christmas by helping people in the shops and streets. Then we meet Julia, wife of Bishop Henry Brougham, buying a Christmas tree. At the shop she meets old friend and atheist (or at least agnostic) Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley). The helpful stranger re-appears, claiming to know the Professor.  Later we learn that he is an angel named Dudley sent down to answer the ‘prayer’ of Henry, currently obsessed with raising funds to build a new cathedral. As you might guess the answer to the Bishop’s prayer is not quite what he expects and as the title suggests much of the narrative is concerned with Julia rather than her husband Henry. The Bishop’s ‘real’ problem is his loss of contact with both Julia and older friends and parishioners from his first parish St Timothy’s.

As Time Out notes

Cary’s charm works as successfully upon audiences as it does on the film’s characters’

Bishop Henry appears the only one resistant to Dudley’s charm. Julia sports a new hat and the maid Matilda (Elsa Lanchester) and the secretary Mildred (Sara Haden) start to sport flowers in their hair. Daughter Debby (Karolyn Grimes) enjoys bedtime moral stories and the family dog, a Saint Bernard, forsakes his usual mealtime place by his master to sit alongside Dudley. However, in what is almost a Hollywood convention, this amiable pooch disappears about half-way through the film.

Clearly the film (directed by Henry Koster) owes a debt to earlier films, especially Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). The re-release would appear to aim to provide a companion film for that regular seasonal favourite. And the film has a number of references to the earlier classic. There is the Angel, like Clarence (Henry Travers) in the earlier film he is a ‘lower class’ angel (Henry Travers seeming to me to be a more convincing embodiment). In both films the main character has arrived at a crisis in his life which relates to a problem with money, or lack of it. Part of the problem is personalised in a wealthy but anti-social character – Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and here Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper). There are also parallel sequences. The Capra film has an early scene of a frozen lake: we have a frozen pond in the Koster film, and the leader of a gang of boys is the same actor who played the young George Bailey (Robert J. Anderson). There is an ethnic bar, Martini’s, in one film: an ethnic restaurant, Michel’s, in the other.

Both films open with the crisis in place. The Capra film then presents a flashback running almost half the film to fill in plot and character; in The Bishop’s Wife this is done through dialogue. This leads to a lack of intensity in the latter and there is no attempt at a world of noir, one of the impressive features in the Capra film. The lack of emotional intensity in the Koster film is re-inforced by the casting. The type of characters played by Niven and Grant means that they rarely display the sort of emotional intensity that Jimmy Stewart brings to George Bailey. On the other hand Loretta Young does provide a subtle range of emotions as the wife who is emotionally deprived.

It seems likely that none of Samuel Goldwyn, Frank Capra or Henry Koster actually believed in the existence of angel or miracles. And both films have contradictions in the plotting of the resolution. In It’s a Wonderful Life the major problem is that Potter retains his ill-gotten $8,000. The Bishop’s Wife ticks more boxes in this respect, providing a conversion of Mrs Hamilton. This is performed by Dudley going back into her past: the nearest this film comes to the flashbacks of Bedford Falls. And Henry, like George Bailey, does seem to realise what really matters in life. However, as the film ends with Henry delivering a sermon in St Timothy’s on Christmas night, the words of the sermon have been dictated by Dudley.

Besides intensity the film lacks the community dimension of It’s a Wonderful Life. That film offers a sense of Bedford Falls as a community which motivates George Bailey’s life and work. The Bishop’s Wife fails to develop a similar sense of community, offering rather a limited circle of characters. When the banks close, the Bedford Falls’ citizens besieging the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association offices thye form a community that is familiar to us. A parallel scene in The Bishop’s Wife has the boy’s choir at St Timothy’s church, rehearsing for an appeal event, singing for Julia and Dudley. But the boys, as the minister, are all complete strangers to us.

The film is as sugary as that by Capra but lacks the dark tropes and intensity. It is very well played by the cast, including the many familiar supporting faces. It is finely photographed by Gregg Toland, with some notable mise en scène and deep staging. Early on, as Henry returns home in an ill-temper, Julia, holding the family dog, stands like a frightened school girl in a corner – speaking volumes about her emotional state. Later, as Dudley recounts a moral tale to Debby, other characters assemble and listen – the deep staging presenting the characters spread across the depth of field.

There is a fine skating sequence, though performed by doubles. And there are some nice and effective special effects, by John Fulton and Harry Redmond Jnr. The music score won an Academy Award nomination, as did the director and the film was nominated as Best Picture.

Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Script by Robert E Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici from the novel by Robert Nathan. Director Henry Koster. Cinematography Gregg Toland. Music Hugo Friedhofer. Distributed by RKO.

IMDB lists Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett as uncredited script contributors – I rather think the scene at Michel’s might be their handiwork.

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