The Bishop’s Wife (1947) is a Christmas classic that demonstrates not only the enduring backdrop that Christmas can be to a story but it is also a peek back in time to an America that probably never will exist again.
The film landed smack in the middle of a critical period of both film making and of the history of the world. It perhaps could be considered one of the last great black and white films of Hollywood’s golden era.
The story revolves around three key characters: The Bishop, an Angel and the Bishop’s wife.
The Bishop is a driven, hard-working man on a quest to build a new church cathedral. His laser sharp focus and the trouble he faces in meeting his goal have caused him to neglect other parts of his life.
Desperate to overcome, he prays and is rewarded with the help of an angel.
The angel is not what anyone expects or can explain. He’s handsome, suave and prone to making every woman swoon – including the Bishop’s Wife, who is tortured over what has become of her marriage.
How does this all become a Christmas movie? That’s the magic and it is the reason why it is a Christmas classic.
Here are ten things you don’t know about the film:
1. The film is based on a book published in 1928 by author Robert Nathan. The book gets far more carried away with the relationship between the Angel and The Bishop’s Wife. The movie never caries it beyond flirtatious banter and wishful thinking. After all, in 1947 there were still film censors to please.
2. David Niven was never supposed to be the Bishop. He was cast at first to be Dudley, the angel. Roles were re-cast as Cary Grant came on board the project and he was not fond of the Bishop’s dialogue as written in the script. Being Cary Grant he saw the magic in the role of the angel and being Cary Grant he got his way. It was, in the end, an inspired choice.
3. The movie was made just a year after It’s A Wonderful Life – to which it has been compared for decades since. After all, it features an angel (without wings) and a central character fighting a miserly opponent and a bummer of a situation. Like It’s a Wonderful Life the movie is not expressly about Christmas – but has been considered a classic of Christmas for decades.
4. The movie was nominated for five Oscars and won one. It was not a big success at the box office. But like It’s A Wonderful Life it gained in popularity decades after it was made through constant Christmas-time replays on television. Working against The Bishop’s Wife at both the box office and in the Oscar race was another movie destined to become a Christmas classic: Miracle on 34th Street.
5. Cary Grant was a persnickety perfectionist on the set – and this clashed with an equally difficult-to-get-along with Loretta Young. In fact, they really couldn’t stand each other. It is a wonder that their chemistry bubbled up to the final film product. In one scene set in the Bishop’s office Cary grant stopped the filming when he declared that “since it’s supposed to be winter shouldn’t the windows look like it?” The cast had to wait to resume filming until the prop guys could quickly frost the windows.
6. Tragedy struck in the personal lives of both Niven and Grant just before film began. Cary Grant was famously close to the wealthy Howard Hughes, who at this time was hospitalized and not expected to live (he survived). But Niven’s task in filming came on the heels of even greater tragedy having lost his young wife unexpectedly due to an accident at a Hollywood party, leaving him a widower with two young children.
7. The film has strong Christian messaging and is considered by some to be the Protestant answer to the Catholic leaning films of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s. In fact, The Bishop’s Wife quotes scripture as Dudley tells of the 23rd Psalm and the Bishop’s closing sermon is frequently used even today in many churches for its moving text:
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 on Christmas trees, with the sound of bells, and with gifts.
But especially with gifts. You give me a book, I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry can do with a new pipe. For we forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that.
Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.
8. The film features two child actors who also were credited in It’s a Wonderful Life. Karolyn Grimes, who plays young Debby in The Bishop’s Wife, was Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life. And Bobby Anderson, who played the young George Bailey who was slapped by the pharmacist in It’s a Wonderful Life, plays what is labeled in the script as “the captain of the snowball fight” in The Bishop’s Wife. Incidentally, David Niven, perhaps driven by his grief and dramatic change in his personal life, wanted nothing to do with children on the set of The Bishop’s Wife and asked to have them kept away from him. Cary Grant was welcoming to the kids and is known for pulling Grimes on a sled while he skated on the ice on the set of the movie.
9. Cary Grant could ice skate just fine. All but the most difficult moves were filmed by Grant and it is easily seen when a stunt double has taken his place. He was able to don the skates after learning proficiency as a child.
10. The film suffered at the box offices and endured several last minute re-writes. In some areas of the country the film was perceived as being “too religious” and was retitled “Cary and the Bishop’s Wife”. The more scandalous title increased box office receipts in some areas by as much as 25%.
What makes The Bishop’s Wife work as a Christmas movie is not only the Christmas backdrop but as well the cast of extemporaneous characters whose job it is to interact with The Bishop, the Angel and The Bishop’s Wife.
Plus there’s no shortage of good humor in the film. Niven was a bit put out by being re-cast as the Bishop but nobody could have pulled off the dismay he did in finding his trousers welded to a newly varnished chair (a trick that was somewhat cruelly imposed on him by Dudley).
And nobody else could pull off a debonaire angel like Cary Grant.
The Bishop’s Wife is a Christmas classic for a reason and should continue to enjoy immense popularity for generations to come.