The holidays are a time associated with fun, laughter, and plenty of seasonal stress. Between increasingly complicated decorations, parties to plan and attend, and of course the shopping rush, many of us are left wishing the season would end almost as soon as it’s begun. In the midst of our efforts to make the season just right, we all too often forget just what it is that we’re celebrating and even the people we’re celebrating with. The 1948 classic The Bishop’s Wife explores what happens when a bishop forgets that his church is more than just a building and that Christmas is more than a day for opening the presents under the tree.
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The story begins with title bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) collecting funds to build a new cathedral for his parish. In the midst of his pursuit of the funds, however, he has lost sight of what his parish really needs and finds himself in need of spiritual guidance. Desperate to raise the funds in time to build the cathedral, he prays for guidance and is stunned when his prayers are answered with the arrival of angel Dudley (Carey Grant). Rather than a robed heavenly being, however, Dudley, much to Henry’s disapproval, is a suave and sophisticated man who charms everyone he comes in contact with, particularly Henry’s neglected wife, Julia (Loretta Young). During his stay on earth Dudley sets about inspiring those around him to improve their lives, with a special focus upon donating to every worthy charity except Henry’s cathedral project. Complication ensue, however, when Dudley becomes conflicted between his divine mission and the all too human feelings he develops for Julia. By the film’s finish both men learn valuable lessons in the power of giving and the true meaning of Christmas.
Despite its heavenly hero, The Bishop’s Wife’s status as a classic is owed to its entirely human themes. While the characters are all presented as essentially decent people, the film portrays each of them as having flaws and weaknesses that they need to improve upon. In this way, the film ensures that viewers relate to the characters and their struggles, which are entirely reminiscent of our efforts to overcome our own shortcomings. Similarly, the film’s central conflicts between work and family and love and duty remain timeless as they continue to resonate with people from diverse walks of life today. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its ability to remind us that it truly is the small details that can make the greatest difference in our lives. Dudley’s actions don’t change the course of history, but through such simple efforts as encouraging a struggling writer to finish his book, renewing interest in the choir of a struggling church, and reminding a lonely woman that she is a person of worth and value, he alters the lives of those around him for the better. It is this refreshing emphasis upon the seemingly mundane moments in life that sheds light upon the ways both great and small that we can make a difference in our own lives as well as those of the people around us. With such a timeless tale to tell its hardly surprising that the film was successfully remade as the 1996 Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington hit The Preacher's Wife.
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The delightful cast brings the story to life with a charm and good cheer that are nothing short of infectious. The supporting performances add color and authenticity to the film’s portrayal of small town life with Monty Woolley and Elsa Lancaster earning particular note in their comic roles as a bombastic professor and a flirtatious housekeeper. David Niven successfully makes his stodgy bishop an endearing character who wins audiences over as the compassion that lies just beneath his strict exterior is revealed. Loretta Young is luminous in her role as Henry’s devoted wife, and makes Julia a truly vibrant woman who deserves far better than the secondary role that her husband relegates her to. Despite the uniformly strong ensemble performances, however, the film belongs entirely to Grant, who imbues Dudley with such an effervescent charm and natural optimism that he seems to embody the Christmas spirit at its most warm and welcoming.
Through its witty script, lively performances, and effortless charm The Bishop’s Wife pulls double duty as one of the finest in both romantic comedy and holiday films. Through its lessons in life, love, and the little things in life, the film is truly one with something for the whole family that will hold new charms for every age and generation. For a Christmas film that will resonate throughout the year join Dudley and The Bishop’s Wife.
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