' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Bishop's Wife

Friday, December 09, 2011

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Bishop's Wife

Many years ago in my confirmation class at Immanuel Lutheran Church our Pastor, as he often did (he was, like, you know, a Pastor), asked us to bow our heads in prayer. When the prayer was finished one of my confirmation-mates inquired as to why it was necessary to always bow our heads in prayer? The company line on this matter tends to be "respect for the Lord" or "humble adoration to God" or something of the sort and our Pastor mentioned all that but then he added something off-the-cuff and more remarkable - he said it was once suggested to him that if you looked up in the midst of prayer that you might, you just might, see an angel hovering above you. That I dug. And while I confess that I don't really pray that much anymore, whenever I do I sometimes find myself sneaking a peek to see if an angel is hovering above me. (I'm a corny, sentimental dude, after all.)


Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), in the midst of the mind-numbing ordeal of trying to get a new fancy-pants cathedral with all the fixings built only to find himself at the mercy of Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) - the sort who goes to church just to be seen - and her funds which she will only donate if things are done her way, finds himself saying a little prayer for guidance, except he doesn't merely look up to see an angel hovering, a frickin' angel appears. This would be Dudley.

Dudley, unlike "It's A Wonderful Life's" Clarence, appears to have already earned his wings, he's just not sporting them at the moment and instead comes to earth in the form of the decidedly dapper Cary Grant. Dudley also doesn't play coy with the Bishop and tells him straight-up that he's there to help and, thus, poses as the Bishop's "assistant". Except it would seem that very little assisting is going on. Why on his very first afternoon on the job, while the Bishop off is seeing to one detail or another, Dudley squires, ahem, The Bishop's Wife, Julia (Loretta Young, who unfortunately is the weak link in the production - it seems the role was originally set for Teresa Wright who might have been able to bring more of the necessary sparkle), around town and to lunch. In one passage meant for high comedy The Bishop has gone off to finalize Mrs. Hamilton's massive contribution and then meet up with his wife and Dudley at his older, smaller church downtown to hear a choir of kids sings. Except Dudley makes it so the Bishop gets stuck - literally - in the chair in which he's sitting and can't leave. This leaves Dudley and The Bishop's Wife alone to hear the choir - which, again, Dudley manipulates to sound like St. Olaf's finest - and then stop off afterwards for a bit of ice skating that magically transforms into the Ice Capades and, well, you wouldn't necessarily be wrong to wonder if there are a few sparks flying between Dudley and The Bishop's Wife.

That's what makes this film sort of strange and strangely refreshing. We all know what Dudley is up to right from the beginning - that is, he's merely attempting to show the Bishop how he has neglected both his wife and the Lord Himself in the name of the cathedral construction. But man, does Dudley draw it out to the point where you can't help but wonder if maybe he's gone rogue. So why does he get away without drawing our ire as the first angel in history to appear to be angling to potentially commit adultery?


Partially because he's played by Cary Grant. His smile - which feels omnipresent - is one part mischievous, one part earnest, one part longing, one part "I'm an angel, you know". There is a fantastic scene when Dudley, The Bishop and The Bishop's Wife are all crammed into the back of the taxi and at the precise moment The Bishop decides to call out Dudley as an "angel" in front of his wife the taxi hits a pothole, cutting him off. And the look Dudley sends him is just priceless - firmly funny, or maybe funnily firm.

Partially it's because, well, haven't you ever pined for a gal or a guy that was off limits? God knows full well I have. You don't do anything because you can't do anything, but you can just hang out and shoot the breeze - which often is reward enough itself - and wistfully think about what might happen if you could do something. Except, of course, when you wistfully have those thoughts they eventually just leave you forlorn. The end of "The Bishop's Wife" is technically a happy one, sure, and it is happy (and educational) for The Bishop and The Bishop's Wife, but you can't tell me that Cary Grant's face right there at the end isn't quiet regret.

Angels can do anything. Except get the girl.

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