“Musty” is the only word Pauline Kael used to describe The Bishop’s Wife in an aside within her essay about Cary Grant’s whole career entitled, “The Man from Dream City.” I’m reminded of when the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie playfully cursed Louis Armstrong for doing what he did better using only four notes. I’ll extricate as much as I can from this mawkish film, terrible and slippery as it is. But I doubt I’ll do better than just saying that it’s musty.
The establishing shots of The Bishop’s Wife figure weirdly into its motivation. Cary Grant wafts through the streets as Dudley, an angel from heaven, saving baby carriages and doling out sage advice. There’s a coldness to it rather like Robert Mitchum’s presence in Night of the Hunter and not at all like, say, Edmund Gwenn’s in Miracle on 34th Street. Grant has the ability to be instantly desirable, but part of this is a complimentary ability to never seem completely trustworthy. This element is what energized him in His Girl Friday and is also the small piece of his charisma that Hitchcock extracted and turned into a whole movie in Notorious. But as an angel, Grant gets the movie off on the wrong terms, like it's him we should be worshipping to begin with. If the twist of the movie was that he was actually the angel Lucifer, things would make more sense.
We’re invited into a small-town world that never quite believes in itself, as it would in a Frank Capra film. There’s a guffawing professor (Monty Woolley, playing a notion of himself that can’t quite believe he hasn’t done more with his acting), a withering dowager played by the prolific Dame Gladys Cooper, and a few nannies and secretaries and taxi drivers. They will not be recalled with the same glad tidings as the folks in the sleepy town of It’s a Wonderful Life, released two years prior. The Bishop’s Wife is full of people you can just sleep off.
I haven’t mentioned the main characters because I just read a story about them that helps me make sense of the stiff movement of emotions in The Bishop’s Wife (everyone is like those rotating music box dolls, gesturing when cued to do so). David Niven was originally cast to play the angel; his wife was to be played by Teresa Wright. Dana Andrews was brought in as the bishop. According to Wikipedia, Wright became pregnant, so Andrews was lent out to get Loretta Young as the bishop’s wife. Cary Grant was brought in to replace the bishop. But, and this is the important element that I think sets the film at its odd slant, Grant wanted to play the angel. This means that Niven, well-cast as a misery guts angel who doesn’t deserve the mortal pleasure of Cary Grant’s wife, is now the misery guts bishop who doesn’t deserve his own wife, when faced with the locomotive magnetism of a perfect man. Grant’s wish makes the film far more pleasurable at face value – or, the value of merely seeing this man rather than that one, cocking his brow at this city and this woman until he appears to own them – but it cripples it on analysis. All the faith in the world couldn't make you want to see Young end up with Niven.
And as far as we're concerned, she doesn’t. There isn’t a moment of romantic energy behind the interaction of Niven and Young in The Bishop’s Wife, and it isn’t merely because Niven’s straight-faced comic personality (which worked so well in The Pink Panther) is buried under so much bean-counting. Young is in a trance in this film, as she passes between suitors like the handing down of a precious artifact. It matches her character, who is totally uninhibited from spending 100 minutes romping around with Grant and yet completely unaware that her husband could have a problem with it.
Her passive desire for attention is amplified by Dudley’s indecipherable motives. Grant’s sensual playing around only makes things more confusing. At one point, Dudley stops the bishop from spending time with his wife by fastening him to a chair, with the intended lesson being that the bishop should spend time with his wife. Meanwhile, Dudley steals her away for the film’s romantic middle, luxuriously ignorant about what the audience might be feeling about all this. No, Grant doesn’t justify his predatory behavior (he gives her up in the end). But he does make predation seem in vogue.
Dudley wallows in his assessment that things would be alright “If people could only learn to behave like human beings.” This is as he steals a man’s wife from him, acting like he didn’t mean it. Did he intend to keep her? Audiences at the time didn’t seem to have an issue with it: the film has modest praise from its original viewers and a nomination for Best Picture. Dudley erases the couple's memories at the end of the film, to make them believe that it was actually they who were ice-skating and singing and having a wonderful Christmastime, while the bishop was working, and his wife was out with her dream man. From their point of view, I guess it works out. His charms seem to work on audiences too.
But what Christmassy satisfaction is there in seeing a nice couple kiss on each other for two hours and then break up in favor of a less nice one? Young would have needed twice as much charisma to have half of Grant’s; Niven was replaced and acts like it. The whole concept of an angel blocking a man’s affections to make him realize that he has them to begin with is moderate romance material, but it would rest entirely on the mechanics of its casting. And remember, The Bishop’s Wife was cast in a flurry of contracts and demands and desperation. Do they hope that they can buy us off with pretty things to make us forget our troubles? (Grant sparkles, I won’t deny it, but even he's holding something back, like at any moment he'll drop the act and reveal to the bishop's wife that he's really been Cary Grant all along.) If the angel could work any magic on us at all, he would have to restrain himself from special effects and settle for being wry; he would have had to convince us that musty is in right now. But he levitates cards, moves boxes, makes people disappear and reappear. This is just another contradiction we’re supposed to roll with. “I didn’t come down here to do silly tricks,” Dudley says. Yet, the only thing that would make him out of place in X-Men is his smile.
A movie like The Bishop’s Wife brings Frank Capra to my attention, not as a man who was good at adapting his era, but as a man who knew how much of it he should adapt. This period was full of silly mundanities in the way it saw itself, and often censored them out of its self-impression in the movies. This is how some of the biggest movies of the era seem so phony. Only Capra, it seems, saw the fantasy in them. It Happened One Night and It's a Wonderful Life never give the impression of someone’s idea of real life: they never pretend to be the real 1930s. They're made entirely out of the little inconveniences that make sharing such an idea so difficult, or Capra’s idea of what those things would look like if the era contained nothing else. The characters navigate their world like they’re laughing at it, like someone looking in and wondering if men and women really used to be like that. The Bishop’s Wife acts comedic, but when Grant proposes to Young, when the film acts on its romantic ambitions, it becomes solemn and unfunny and completely stale. When she reunites with the bishop it has all the passion of an exchange at a returns desk. This is an era failing to know itself, and a bunch of critics living it too predictably to notice. Never was dream city less restorative.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Robert E. Sherwood
Billy Wilder (uncredited)
Charles Brackett (uncredited)
Robert Nathan (book)
|Julia Brougham||Loretta Young|
|Bishop Henry Brougham||David Niven|
|Professor Wutheridge||Monty Woolley|
|Mrs. Agnes Hamilton||Gladys Cooper|