Not Rated | 1h 49min | Comedy, Drama, Fantasy | 16 February 1948 (USA)
Christmas is not only a time of joyousness but also for moral and spiritual reflection. In that regard, although director Henry Koster’s 1948 Christmas tale “The Bishop’s Wife” contains plenty of whimsy and comic notes, there is also an undercurrent of moral meditations and virtuous musings that one might say even verge on the divine.
The film begins with tall, dapper angel Dudley (Cary Grant) walking through the urban streets of an unnamed city. It’s snowing and everyone—both young and old—is caught up in the Christmas spirit. As Dudley roams about, he performs various good deeds, such as helping a blind man across a busy street and saving a baby stroller and its occupant from rolling into the path of a speeding truck.
Dudley suddenly sees Julia Brougham (Loretta Young) as she is window shopping and is instantly drawn to her beautiful yet sad countenance. Before he can approach her, she walks off across a busy street and into a shop selling Christmas trees. There she sees her old friend, Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley), who is also shopping for a tree.
After witnessing Julia’s interaction with the professor, Dudley later approaches Wutheridge and slyly manages to find out more about her, including the fact that she’s married to Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven). Wutheridge also reveals that Henry now keeps company with the “vulgar rich” of society—including Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper), who had the professor fired from his teaching job under false pretenses.
Julia returns home to find Henry consulting with Mrs. Hamilton, along with her cadre of wealthy, elderly sycophants. She and the bishop are discussing the design of a new cathedral in which she has plans to have Henry installed. Henry gently points out that the cathedral should be for the benefit of all people. However, Mrs. Hamilton immediately admonishes him—she’s funding the entire operation and wants the cathedral to be a monument to her late husband. With that, Mrs. Hamilton and her associates depart.
Henry, stressed out about the new cathedral project, retreats to his office and in a beautiful scene, prays for God’s help. In answer to his prayer, Dudley appears and asks how he can be of service. The angel says that he’s assigned to Henry’s “district.” Dudley tells Henry to keep his otherworldly identity a secret, and therefore Henry introduces him to the household as his new assistant.
After meeting Dudley and spending some time around him, Julia and the Broughams’ young daughter Debby (Karolyn Grimes) grow increasingly fond of him. Meanwhile, Henry becomes fanatically consumed with arranging for and planning out the cathedral’s construction. It quickly becomes apparent that he is simply too busy to interact with his family. It’s a matter of his priorities.
Despite Dudley’s offer to help with the cathedral plans, Henry stubbornly insists on taking care of most matters on his own, even though he knows he is neglecting his beloved wife.
Dudley, concerned about Julia’s loneliness, takes her out about town, as well as lunching at a fine eatery. And, in one famous scene, Dudley takes Julia and their leathery old cab driver Sylvester (James Gleason) out on an ice skating excursion. As Sylvester comically struggles to stay upright on the sidelines, Dudley and Julia glide over the ice gracefully together. Compassionately, Dudley (with the touch of an angel) manages to get Sylvester out on the ice, and the trio end the evening gleefully together.
As time goes on, the more Dudley shows Julia attention, the more jealous Henry becomes until a great rift grows between the Henry and Dudley. But how will the bishop deal with the divine guest that he himself prayed for? Will Henry realize that, in his quest for fame in building a great cathedral, he may lose the things that are most precious to him?
“The Bishop’s Wife” is an enchanting film with some delightful performances by its stars Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, and brilliant character actor Monty Woolley. One of the things that is most ingenious about this film is that, while it touches on some timeless biblical themes, it never comes off as preachy or pretentious. Instead, the must-see holiday classic is a heartwarming, family-friendly tale about the meaning and celebration of Christmas.