The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

The Bishop's Wife (1947)

The Bishop’s Wife (1947). 109 minutes. Directed by Henry Koster. Starring Cary Grant (as Dudley), Loretta Young (as Julia Brougham), David Niven (as Bishop Henry Brougham), Monty Woolley (as Professor Wutheridge), James Gleason (as Sylvester), Gladys Cooper (as Agnes Hamilton), Elsa Lanchester (as Matilda), Karolyn Grimes (as Debby), and Sara Haden (as Mildred Cassaway). Featuring The Robert Mitchell Boys Choir. Cinematography by Gregg Toland.

The Bishop’s Wife is a Production Code-era holiday film about a love triangle between an Anglican church official, his wife, and another man. This in itself would be potentially juicy material for a film of any era, but what makes The Bishop’s Wife veer towards the bizarre is that the other man making sexual advances towards the bishop’s wife is in this case an angel, sent down from heaven to assist the bishop as he navigates his way through a building project that is making his wife miserable and resentful. As a Christmas story with an at times miracle-working angel, the film can plausibly claim to offer displays of divine magic and religious virtue (it is light on other theological content); and in some ways its theme of heavenly intervention piggy-backs on the wholesome premise of one of the most well-known entries in the Christmas angel genre, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), which was released only the year before. But because of the nature of much of the angel’s behavior on earth in The Bishop’s Wife (specifically, the way he subtly romances the titular character), it is challenging to affix any of the sturdy morality of other holiday movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life to the story we see. The fact that its remake, The Preacher’s Wife (1996), is more heavily infused with child- and family-friendly elements serves as a strong indicator of how out of place the 1947 Bishop’s Wife is in the modern-day world of Christmas films. The Bishop’s Wife will thus prove challenging to anyone seeking out the usual Hollywood holiday fare, but for audiences that are open to its oddball tale of supernatural intervention gone wrong, it can impressively demonstrate how a Code-era film could be certified by internal Hollywood censors and still remain fairly edgy.

The film opens in wintertime as Bishop Henry Brougham struggles to balance his private life with his work life. As a bishop, he is tasked with raising money for a new cathedral, but his wife Julia is dissatisfied with the project and his role in fundraising. They quarrel and are frustrated. Alone in prayer, Henry asks for guidance, and the angel Dudley is summoned to his house, his true identity known only to Henry. Dudley, posing as Henry’s assistant, pledges to help him solve his problems.

It soon becomes clear, however, that Dudley is set on dissolving Henry’s building project, and in that he is successful. At the same time, Dudley takes it upon himself to spend more time with the neglected Julia, ostensibly to buck up her spirits by accompanying her on trips to hear a boys’ choir, skate on a pond, and shop downtown; but his feelings for her grow and become romantic in nature, and Henry fumes with jealousy. Finally, Dudley begins to tell Julia exactly how he feels about her, but she is horrified and cuts him off. Quickly coming to his senses, he informs Henry (who is by now willing to fight Dudley for his wife’s heart) that he is departing and will erase everyone’s memories of him in order to ensure peace and contentment. Having forgotten about Dudley, the couple reunites, happier than ever. The film concludes on Christmas Eve with Henry addressing his community about their future as Dudley looks on approvingly from a distance.

The Bishop’s Wife’s irreverence would veer more obviously towards deviance were it not for notable miraculous and ethical displays made throughout the film on the part of the angel Dudley. Through special effects, the movie gently reminds us of its otherworldliness and of the fact that Dudley is a divine messenger who is vested with special powers, even though we never see him arrayed in anything other than a suit and tie. Dudley demonstrates heavenly oversight through his charmed interaction with inanimate objects: index cards that Dudley tosses into the air in the office magically sort themselves and fall into their ordered places in boxes; his snowball glides through the air to strike its far-off target as if guided by an unseen hand; a bottle of sherry pours out unceasingly in his presence and is never depleted; a typewriter types by itself while Dudley dictates a speech into it; and finally, a Christmas tree decorates itself with ornaments, lights, and tinsel trim upon his command.

Although much of what Dudley uses his angelic powers to achieve is playful and witty, elsewhere his supernatural displays are fairly mundane, leading us to believe that his magic is not merely about amusing himself, impressing other characters, or demonstrating his authority to the audience. He intervenes and saves people’s lives in traffic repeatedly, and the people strolling through the downtown take their rescues in stride, barely aware of his intercession. His presence in these scenes, in spite of sporadic and intermittent magic, seems quietly and sweetly banal.

That is to say, it is possible to locate divine goodness in Dudley, both in his obvious power to rule over inanimate objects and in his empathetic connections with human beings. He is a natural at being human, and by the end of the film it is clear that he feels many of the things that humans do, including romantic love. In particular, he is an insightful reader of the human soul who understands human wants and needs, and he is especially skilled at reading women. We see Dudley watching women downtown as they window shop at Christmastime, and in a moment that strangely serves as a faint echo to the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin (1925), he even dramatically rescues a meandering baby carriage when the absent-minded mother who should be watching it is distracted by store displays.

Notably, when the bishop confesses to his friend Professor Wutheridge that Dudley is an angel, the professor is not in the least surprised. So just as Dudley accepts people, absent-mindedness and all, people accept Dudley. We can see how he could potentially be the right messenger for this community.  And it should be mentioned, the fact that in human form he looks and sounds like Cary Grant surely does not hurt.

Yet in spite of the presence of the film’s direct and palatable messenger from God in nearly every scene and the comfort of both the small and large miracles he brings, The Bishop’s Wife feels oddly unstable, as if it is in danger of tipping over. That is because Henry and Julia’s marriage is in deep trouble, with or without the cathedral project, and with or without Dudley; for while it is true that the couple does not appear to be equipped to think of a solution to the building problem together, it is also not clear that they can solve much of anything else in their relationship. They do not communicate well with each other, with the result that they are often frustrated and moody. In addition, Julia feels let down and abandoned by Henry, in spite of the regular time they spend together. For example, although the couple is served a multi-course meal every evening, which they eat late but still together, nevertheless Julia struggles because Henry is not ready for dinner at a consistent hour, and her cook must delay serving the table while the main course over-roasts. It is less that she desires time with Henry and more that she desires Henry on her own terms, according to her own schedule. She also wants her husband to participate in her extracurricular fantasies, regardless of the consequence to his work. Julia is frustrated because Henry will not take her to a romantic restaurant for lunch; she desires to skate with abandon at the ice pond, to be encouraged to buy a frilly hat.

Perhaps most concerning, then, is the fact that Henry and Julia do not appear to have anything approaching similar values, and that is a problem that could be insurmountable for them. Julia resides in a world where it is possible to take time regularly in the middle of the day to enjoy an elaborate French meal, be wooed on skates, and go shopping on a whim, whereas Henry’s time is defined by heavy responsibilities to make improvements on church assets and expand his religious community. Henry is asking for a short-term sacrifice to benefit the public that she is unwilling to give. It does not make her particularly appealing, but in the end the film renders him incapable of offering the sacrifice as well.

As it is, the end result of Dudley’s intervention is to make their unsatisfying relationship and its context only minimally satisfying. While some aspect of Henry and Julia’s attraction to each other is magically restored in the final scenes, and we might feel pleased that their relationship has not been utterly destroyed (either because of their behavior or Dudley’s), the film awkwardly insists that Henry divest from the cathedral project and deprive the church of the opportunity for growth and expansion in order to restore joy to his marriage. But this seems awfully short-sighted. If the solution really does have to be that he gives up fundraising for this project in order to save his marriage, why is it never suggested that someone else could take up the project instead? The movie actually cuts off funding for the building altogether, obliterating the possibility that someone might jump in and salvage the plans. It seems so unnecessary, as if The Bishop’s Wife is forcing Henry to repent rather than Dudley and Julia, the participants in the extramarital romance. The Code may have insisted that Dudley and Julia end their relationship clearly and without explicit breach of her marriage, and that the Brougham family be preserved, but it weirdly reserves its punishing morality for the bishop himself. That is just one reason that its ethical universe appears to be warped; the heaven that has orchestrated Dudley’s visit seems to have largely tuned out of the story that follows his arrival (at least until its conclusion).

Dudley’s mission to fix the building problem places the preservation of marriage, rather than the church, at the center of the story. But at the same time, Dudley’s mission as it veers off course becomes the opposite of a wholesome project to realign a husband and wife. That is because while Dudley is sent to help the bishop, he instead helps himself to the bishop’s wife and creates a love triangle, unsettling the household through romantic turmoil that no amount of fantastic, miraculous displays such as self-decorating trees and magical, flying snowballs can fully correct. Dudley becomes, in as Code-friendly a way as it is possible to make him, a supernatural seducer whose line of sight is transposed from the bishop to his wife, and whose initially holy intentions are rendered irrevocably socially inappropriate.

I freely acknowledge that The Bishop’s Wife’s suggestive content is far from smoldering, and although it is naughty in suggesting that Julia gets swept away by a good-looking angel, forgetting her husband momentarily in the process, it does not resemble erotic Code-era films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Yet it still locates romantic fantasy and moments of intimacy in Dudley and Julia’s relationship. Take, for example, Dudley’s lunch with Julia at Michel’s (her favorite restaurant), which he undertakes ostensibly in his capacity as Henry’s assistant and helper. The lunch is both a friendly and upstanding meal in public—a favor he is doing for Henry—and something more, involving charm and flirtation. In the restaurant, Julia and the angel are seated at a cozy booth, and he speaks in French to the waiter as he orders for them both, which causes her to swoon. The lunch is thus more than a special favor. It is a kind of extramarital delight that both Dudley and Julia clearly enjoy. Although he does eventually invite some of Henry’s parishioners who are dining nearby over to the table to join them—out of concern that they might misunderstand what is taking place—this tactful act only serves to reinforce our sense of his special concern for Julia while also underscoring that his lunchtime rendezvous with her (and the extent to which he and she are enjoying it) does in fact have every appearance of being not wholly above board.

Dudley’s involvement with Julia becomes more obvious later on—specifically via one of the film’s recurring motifs: the image of Julia window shopping and fixating on an embellished bonnet in a haberdasher’s window (she is in turn being viewed by Dudley as she looks on, in an echo of the party scene in which Cary Grant observes Ingrid Bergman in Notorious [1946]). Whereas the lunch scene more closely approximates a formal date, the scene where Julia finally enters the haberdasher’s shop with Dudley resembles a shopping trip with a close friend. But by standing in the place of the shopping companion, Dudley achieves a special level of intimacy with Julia—beyond friendship—as he encourages her to try on the hat she so admires, and dissuades another customer from taking it home. As an advocate for Julia’s personal fantasies, Dudley demonstrates that he sees more deeply into her private desires than her husband does, and the power of this moment is monumental in its ability to pull Julia up out of her personal misery. (It is hard to imagine Henry stepping over the shop’s threshold and taking a similar interest in women’s accessories.) Dudley, as a supportive teammate, also demonstrates his commitment to infusing her life with pleasure and joy by working with her as a collaborator. The angel emerges not just as a dreamy romantic figure but also as an intimate partner.

Admittedly, it is not at all clear what Dudley’s plan is: how is he as an angel going to successfully run off with Julia? It is hard to believe that long-term, this romance that crosses spiritual planes would flourish under the supervision of Dudley’s all-knowing boss. Equally perplexing, after Dudley has finally begun to explicitly proposition Julia in front of the Christmas tree and she rebuffs him, he confesses to Henry in the next room that he has encountered a vague “danger signal” and knows he has to leave. But does the danger signal mean that he has endangered the family, or is he in danger from Henry, who makes it clear in the same scene that he is ready to fight for his wife—or is he in danger from God? The movie leaves the issue unresolved, but it is clear that while in virtually any other story we might expect as a given that heavenly figures are sources of impeccable moral authority, here Dudley’s danger signal indicates instead that he is recognizably (to Henry, to us, and finally to himself) corrupted. We might wonder if the angel feels remorse, or if heaven is collectively blushing because it dispatched him, but there is no accompanying expression of regret from above for having sent him down and set him loose on a path of transgression.

At least he can pull back and vanish in time to save the couple’s marriage, but it is clear that he has done damage to both Julia and Henry. Only by eradicating any memories of himself is he able to reunite them, making the best of Julia’s newfound sense that she is appreciated (without the guilt of having dallied with Dudley) and Henry’s awakening to the need for him to nourish his marriage (without the anger he feels towards Dudley and the knowledge that his wife has acted inappropriately). The movie that we have watched, therefore, in a sense does not exist, as its events are not remembered by anyone whom we see during its two-hour running time.

If Christmas for many people is about memorable traditions, The Bishop’s Wife has revoked the idea of memory from the holiday it depicts. It presents us instead with something of a contradiction: to its characters, the story we see is an influential and memorable non-memory that shapes their lives and saves their marriage despite the events of the film being, in the end, unknown to them. It therefore correlates with the paradoxical nature of the Christmas miracle (the virgin who gives birth, the god who becomes human). In a peculiar way, the conclusion infuses the movie with this rhetoric, which we know shares something in common with the motifs of the central Christian story, even though the characters are unaware of it, and even while elsewhere the movie (although Christmas-centric) is light on theological details. This final twist is not enough to make The Bishop’s Wife feel more profoundly religious or to rescue it from its flaws. But it does make for an intriguing (although admittedly, somewhat bewildering) cap to a twisted story about heaven and humans and the way they intersect. The fact that the intersection we see is covered in snow and tinsel, packed full of ice skating and singing boy choristers, studded with twinkling shop lights, and marked with borderline adultery just makes it more wonderfully weird.