One of my three favorite Christmas Movies and the last one I’ll blog about this season (I did the other two–It’s A Wonderful Life and The Snowman last year) is The Bishop’s Wife. Don’t mistake this for the inferior remake entitled The Deacon’s Wife with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. Nope, ask for the original with Cary Grant, David Niven, and Loretta Young.
Grant plays an angel named Dudley who has come down to help out David Niven, the Bishop of the title. The Bishop is seeking funding for a great cathedral he is building for God. He’s run into a bit of a roadblock in the name of Mrs. Hamilton, a rich woman who won’t pony up her million unless her late husband is prominent in all the plans–making this more of a memorial than a cathedral.
What I like about this film–even though it is obvious that this film came after It’s a Wonderful Life and borrows a few tricks (and actors) from it–is that Cary Grant plays the angel as a very inclusive, open minded angel. In fact, he seems to want to show us a God that is less condemning and more loving.
Dudley becomes good friends with an atheist professor–who finally, yes, does darken the church door, but it’s not because Dudley has prompted him. In fact, Dudley seems to have fun turning the professor’s sherry into an endless bottle of sherry (recalling Christ’s miracle of the water into wine….”and good sherry at that!”). Dudley also sees a palm reader, and instead of condemning her, he tries a little palm reading on the Bishop’s Wife. Dudley knows Santa Claus and tells people. In fact, Dudley seems to embrace all people where they are in belief, without sacrificing his angelic qualities. And he’s not embarrassed by them. He certainly doesn’t shun them.
Dudley even plays a bit devilish with the Bishop, by purposely dating the Bishop’s Wife to anger the Bishop into realizing what he’s got. He basically gives the Bishop a choice–he can either represent the Bishop in these “important” funding meetings, or represent him with his wife. Since the Bishop refuses to let the angel represent him at the meetings, naturally Dudley takes up with Loretta Young. And they go out to the restaurants, and skate on the pond, and shop together…and the Bishop’s Wife loves it. She blossoms. She does not fall in love with Dudley. In fact, Dudley almost plays the gay best friend here—almost a non-sexual male counterpart, who is nonetheless, doing all the romantic things that the Bishop should be doing, but isn’t. The Bishop doesn’t see him as a threat, at first. Until Dudley makes a pass….
Some great lines: “No one expects him to be normal! He’s a bishop,” says the maid.
“The only people who grow old are the ones who were old to begin with,” Dudley to the Bishop’s Wife.
And Dudley’s quote about mankind is really interesting and makes my point about his inclusiveness: “We all come from our own little planets. We’re all different. That’s what makes life interesting.” He loves the atheist professor, Santa, the palmist, the Bishop, the maid, everyone he meets–equally. He thinks no more highly of the Bishop for being a bishop than he does the professor or the maid. He has no judgment, no arrogance, no religiosity. He is an angel outside of our religion. And that may speak to a host of borders, boundaries, and restrictions that we put on our version of God. And yet, Dudley’s fully believable as an angel of the God I know of.
It’s just unusual to see on screen–a lovable Christian man without all the harumph, all the damnation, all the trying-to-be-good. He just is. And that’s a bigger point than what David Niven learns.
If you get a chance, rent and watch The Bishop’s Wife. It’s an under-appreciated Christmas Classic.