The Bishop’s Wife is available to rent, buy or stream now.
Following in the footsteps of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Henry Koster’s The Bishop’s Wife is another example of a classic Christmas miracle fantasy film. Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) has a mission to raise funds for a new cathedral in town. However, his obsession is all-encompassing, leading him to neglect his wife, Julia (Loretta Young) and daughter (Karolyn Grimes). While Henry prays for guidance, he suddenly finds his prayers answered by an angel, Dudley (Cary Grant). But the heavenly Dudley only reveals his true identity to Henry while charming everyone else around him, much to Henry’s annoyance. To add to the confusion, Dudley also finds himself strongly attracted to Julia; yep, that’s right, the angel has the hots for the Bishop’s Wife!
Rumour has it that Niven was cast as Dudley and Grant as Henry; their roles switched at the last minute. If true, it is quite possibly the best thing that could have happened to Koster’s film. But let me explain why; many knew Cary Grant for his debonair leading roles in Hitchcock’s suspense-dramas. But these sophisticated roles were also complemented by his brilliant comic timing in screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). Here the role of Dudley allows The Bishop’s Wife to mix his two on-screen personas into a perfectly balanced concoction. The result is a sophisticated and intrinsically funny character that celebrates Grant’s range and on-screen magnetism.
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While finding critical success on release, Koster’s film failed to ignite the box office with many feeling it was overtly religious. Given its title, it’s no wonder many expected a religious story, yet, the actual film regularly overwrites that sentiment. For example, as Julia and Dudley slowly fall in love, Dudley indicates a willingness to stay on Earth and admits he envies the mortal. While the story never goes any further than this, the film suggests the angel is more than willing to abandon his mission for his own selfish reasons. What is more, it is Julia who reasons with him and changes his mind rather than any godly instruction of self-regulation. I think you will agree that this is a bold detour for a film that is apparently overly religious.
Producer Samuel Goldwyn was more than aware of this religious problem and therefore came up with the idea of re-titling the film – his suggestion, Cary and The Bishop’s Wife. Unbelievably this proved to be a huge success and saw the films popularity increase by 25% after its initial release. This only goes to show the sheer marketing power Cary Grant could wield, and one can’t help but wonder if any star of today would hold a similar ability.