Classic Christmas Kitsch: ‘The Bishop’s Wife’

Original Poster. When nobody went to see the wretched picture, Goldwyn re-released it as 'Cary and the Bishop's Wife.' It worked.

Original Poster. When nobody went to see the wretched picture, Goldwyn re-released it under the nonsensical title,’Cary and the Bishop’s Wife.’ It worked.

[Author’s note: I have more received hate mail about this article than for anything else I’ve ever written. So if you’re a great fan of “The Bishop’s Wife” and a differing opinion is likely to make you fly into a rage, I respectfully ask you to read no further. Don’t send me hate mail: I’ll almost certainly never see it. I have no wish to upset anyone, but neither do I see why I should walk on eggshells when I choose to write about a Christmas picture from seventy years ago. I think “The Bishop’s Wife” is a terrible picture, and normally I don’t see the point in writing harshly about bad pictures. I find it much more interesting to write about movies that I think are great or, failing that, mediocre pictures that I get great pleasure from watching. “The Bishop’s Wife” falls into the latter category, and with a vengeance. Usually, when I like a bad picture, I can find plenty of reasons that it appeals to me, and that line of inquiry is a pleasure to write about. In the case of “The Bishop’s Wife,” I cannot deny that I enjoy it immensely, but I think it is very probably the worst picture that I genuinely like. I hoped that writing about it would help me understand what it is, exactly, that makes me like the picture as much as I do. But it turned out to be an even more vexing question than I supposed it would be, and by the time I finished writing about it, I was no closer to an answer than when I started: in fact, I was more bewildered than ever. What had been a riddle had become an insoluble mystery. Anyhow, this particular article represents a lot of work and frustration on my part, and the unhappy knowledge that I failed to solve the mystery that I hoped to solve. I am tired of receiving email from irate strangers who presume to psychoanalyze me and feel that their love for this sentimental picture entitles them to threaten me, to call me all sorts of ugly names, and to order me not to put my opinions in writing that nobody ever forced them to read.]

Let me say at once that “The Bishop’s Wife” (Samuel Goldwyn, 1947) is saccharine rubbish. If you look at it when you’re in a bad mood, you’ll probably find it intolerable. I like it enormously, but am at a loss to explain why. It’s a scornful pleasure that comes very close to being a guilty one, because a lot of it is very nearly beneath contempt. It’s muttonheaded Christmas kitsch; its several forays into religious instruction are so banal that they make Lloyd C. Douglas‘ poppycock seem like Thomas Aquinas by comparison. I also find it irresistibly entertaining and likable.

Episcopalian Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) plans to erect a new cathedral, but is hampered by a cantankerous society doyenne, Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper), who holds the purse-strings and rules the congregation with a rod of iron. She tells the Bishop plainly that “The church will be built according to my specifications or not at all.” Pushed to the verge of despair and fearing that his nerves are about to crack, the Bishop prays to God for guidance. His prayer is answered in the form of a dapper, smirking, incognito angel named Dudley (Cary Grant), who comes to work for him in the guise of an assistant. The action takes place during the Christmas season, in an unspecified city. The opening scene takes place on Madison Avenue, but it seems unlikely that we are to assume we’re in Manhattan.

The Simpering Angel

When Dudley reports to work on his first day, the Bishop’s flinty secretary (Sara Haden, in a quietly broad performance) and long-suffering housemaid (Elsa Lanchester, in a noisily broad performance) fall all over themselves in the slippery slickness of his charm.

Julia, the Bishop’s wife (Loretta Young), also falls for Dudley; so does Cindy, the Bishop’s daughter (Karolyn Grimes); so, indeed, does everybody else who crosses Dudley’s path. In this clip, the leader of the gang is Bobby Anderson, who played the young George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Robert E. Sherwood co-wrote the script . . . “We’ve bwoken their mowale!” Jesus God Almighty. That line bears the unmistakable imprint of Sherwood’s heavy hand. Was he this corny when he shared a tiny office with Dorothy Parker back in the twenties?

Even crusty old Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley, who is much, much better than usual and never once bares his ghastly teeth) cannot resist the heavenly visitor. He is reticent at first, but then Dudley does the old bastard two big favors: he gives the Professor an angle that allows him at last to start work on his long-planned history of Rome, and he puts an enchantment on the Professor’s bottle of sherry so that no matter how much the old boy drinks, the bottle never runs dry: “It warms, it stimulates, it inspires, but it never inebriates!” says the grateful academic tippler. (But I wonder: when Dudley’s mission is through, does Professor Wutheridge lose his all-you-can-drink privileges?)

Monty Woolley: The broken-down scholar finds new purpose, a magic bottle of sherry and a warm place to sleep it off.

Monty Woolley as Professor Wutheridge: Thanks to Dudley, a broken-down old scholar finds new purpose, a magic bottle of sherry and a warm place to sleep it off. All he needs now is a catamite.

The only person who remains impervious to Dudley’s suave flippancy is the Bishop himself, whom the beautifully tailored angel has come to help. David Niven was originally cast as the angel, and Grant as Bishop Brougham. But when Grant read the script, he said he’d play Dudley or withdraw from the project. Niven was a good sport about it, but it must have irked him. As it is, Niven doesn’t do much with the part, other than look put out. Eleven years later, when he appeared in “Separate Tables” with Gladys Cooper (who once again was cast as his tormentor), he won an Oscar for his troubles. (He’s awfully good in that one; so is she.)

Twinkle, Twinkle, Cary Grant:
Can you con me? No you can’t.

It’s just possible that I’m the only person on earth who doesn’t find Cary Grant (nee Archibald Leach) irresistibly charming. I sure do like the idea of him; he’s very handsome and looks swell in a suit, but he twinkles too much; he never stops making faces and doing comic double- and even triple-takes. It seems he was too big a star for any director to tell him, “Aw, fer chrissake, Archie, will ya just say the fuckin’ lines?” He did his best work for Hitchcock, but he starred in a lot of second and third rate comedies and was never, ever better than the bum material he apparently preferred to act in. He was at his worst in the only picture he did for Frank Capra (“Arsenic and Old Lace”), but he’s scarcely better in this one. Still, it’s an amusing conceit to cast the flippant, debonair Cary Grant as a celestial being — and he’s far less excruciating as Dudley the Angel than is, say, Henry Travers as Clarence Oddbody, AS2. Here he is twinkling away like mad in the scene that follows the rigged snowball fight. The birdlike biddy who says “He’s holding her hand” is the estimable (always funny, nearly always underused) Almira Sessions. (There’s an abrupt cut in this clip, where I edited out about half a minute of syrup. You’re welcome.)

There’s the faux-folksy voice of Robert E. Sherwood again, loud and clear . . . “The world changes, but two things remain constant: Truth and Beauty: y’know, they’re really one and the same thing” . . . “The only people who grow old were born old to begin with.” Aw, go shit in yer hat!

Robert Nathan, cousin to Emma Lazarus and Benjamin Cardozo, and writer of sentimental kitsch novels with metaphysical/spiritual overtones (e.g., “Portrait of Jennie”), was the author of the novel on which this picture was based, but I don’t know whether it was he or Sherwood who conceived of the personification of Divine Intervention as a combination of busybody, cop on the beat, benevolent bureaucrat and drummer for the liquor lobby. In this story, Dudley’s allusions to Heaven give the distinct impression that the place is a vast, mid-twentieth century bureaucratic corporate beehive. (O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!) And was it Nathan or Sherwood who befuddled the biddies with stingers? At any rate, it’s awful.

The Maxwell House Connection

The only thing in the picture that’s busier and more bustling than Cary Grant’s performance is Hugo Friedhofer’s score. The whimsical angel theme never fails to remind me of the old Maxwell House “boo-boo-boo BOOP-boop” jingle. (If you’re unfamiliar with it, you can find it on YouTube.) “The Bishop’s Wife” preceded Maxwell House’s percolator theme by fourteen years; the two themes are not identical, but they both have that signature leap of a major ninth, which is a highly unusual interval in pop music. (I can think of only one pop tune that features it: “I’m Telling You Now” sung by Freddie and the Dreamers in 1965; Harold Rome also used the interval to good effect in a ballad from “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” but how many people — with the possible exceptions of Elliott Gould and Barbra Streisand — remember that score? Marilyn Cooper, who sang the tune, is dead.) Friedhofer uses the motive so often throughout the picture that I think of the score (quite unfairly) as Rhapsody on a Jingle for Maxwell House. Paradoxically, this strikes me as a good thing: without the lousy music, the entire picture would be no better than grotesque kitsch; with the lousy music, it’s appealingly nutty . . . especially when the Maxwell House Variations are at odds with the spiritual uplift of the scenes they underscore. At least, I think so. But you and your ears may have to squint to see and hear it my way. I have to be in the right mood for it (i.e., dead tired, with my defenses down), because it’s awfully sticky and so sugary that it often hurts my teeth. Unlike Maxwell House, which is alleged to be Good to the Last Drop, “The Bishop’s Wife” is goop to the last drip.

As the Bishop’s wife, Loretta Young, with her heavy-lidded saucer eyes and eerily elongated Silly Putty face, looks more Disneyesque equine than ever. She was famously one of the best-dressed women in Hollywood, though most of her ensembles in this production are hideous. She gives literal meaning to the old cliché “clothes horse.” For the life of me, I can’t understand how she had a career. Marlene Dietrich once said of her, “Every time Loretta sins [i.e., has sex out of wedlock], she builds a church. That’s why there are so many Catholic churches in Hollywood.” She was a notorious Catholic scold, who used to institute a swear jar on the sets she worked on. Whenever she heard anyone use foul language, she’d demand that the offender pony up the fifty cent fine, which she’d send each week to the Bishop of Rome. Ethel Merman was told of this practice when she was visiting Celeste Holm on the set of “Come to the Stable.” Merman fished into her purse and pulled out a bill. “Here’s ten bucks, Loretta. Go fuck yourself!”

Dudley Conducts The Mitchell Boychoir

Somewhere in the middle of the picture, Dudley and Julia go to St. Timothy’s Church to hear a rehearsal of the boy’s choir. This is what happens.

The singers are all members of a group called The Robert Mitchell Boy Choir (in the credits, they’re listed as The Mitchell Boychoir). Most of these kids came from poor families; all of them attended a special school in Los Angeles that was established and run by choirmaster Robert Mitchell. They sang in several movies in the thirties and forties, including “Love Affair” and “Going My Way.” I like the way at least half of them look as if they have said “Please don’t send my brudduh tudduh chair” at some point in their lives. And I love the sound they make. I know the scene is corny, and I dislike Cary Grant’s hamming, but I find the underlying idea completely irresistible, especially when the descant kicks in.

The Hack Philosopher

James Gleason, ugh. He plays a cutesy-pie taxicab driver named Sylvester.

Cary Grant and Loretta Young listen to James Gleason gas on as Sylvester, the loquacious cabbie.

Cary Grant and Loretta Young listen to James Gleason gas on as Sylvester, the loquacious cabbie.

Gleason was a popular character actor in the thirties and forties; I can see why, but I don’t have to like it: you either enjoy his brand of corn or you don’t. He’s the urban male version of the Quaint Old Darling type that I find repellent. In “The Bishop’s Wife,” we meet him when Dudley and Julia climb into his taxi. After eavesdropping on their conversation, he unburdens himself of some half-baked Sherwood/Nathan palaver about “Ya know what duh trouble is widda woirld t’day?” — and nearly kills all three of them in a head-on collision with a truck while he’s gassing on and forgets to watch the road. (Dudley secretly intervenes and disaster is averted.) Then Sylvester goes ice-skating with them — a protracted comic/romantic interlude that brings the three of them closer together. It’s pretty dreadful stuff, but I enjoy the phoniness of it, especially the way that Dudley’s skating stunt double is so obviously not Cary Grant: he’s shorter and stockier, and his head (much larger than Grant’s) is kept in ludicrous shadow that follows him around like a negative spotlight. I wonder if audiences bought the effect back when the picture was released . . . Maybe it worked better when the picture was shown in movie theatres where the air was thick with cigarette smoke. The stunt doubles for Loretta Young and James Gleason are less obvious. She’s in an ostentatiously hideous hat, which partially disguises the deception. When the skating party is over and Sylvester delivers them at the Bishop’s residence, he refuses to accept money: “You two have restored my faith in yuman nature,” he says. Dudley watches him drive off and murmurs (with a twinkle in his voice), “Sylvester is a noble man. His children and his children’s children shall rise up and call him blessèd.” Something in me rises up, too, but it’s not a blessing.

Gladys Cooper Hears an Angel

Without the Bishop’s permission, Dudley decides to pay a call on the fierce Mrs Hamilton. Once there, he looks for clues about how to confront the aged tigress in her lair and stroke her till she purrs.

Presumably Allan Cartwright, the composer of “Lost April,” also did the ornate calligraphy on the sheet music.

'Lost April' score.

‘Lost April’ score.

We’re expected to believe Allan Cartwright was in love with Agnes Hamilton, but if he wasn’t gay, I’ll eat my head. And take a hinge at the insipid lyrics: “Lost April, where did you [go?]” . . . Well, if nothing else, they’re of a piece with the rest of the picture. As soon as Dudley begins to play the tune on the harp, Mrs Hamilton appears at the top of the stairs and, transfixed by the music, she descends. I pick up the scene in the middle of the gushing tune.

“I never loved George Hamilton,” she says. Well, who does? Gladys Cooper rose to stardom as Sir Gerald du Maurier’s leading lady. Du Maurier was famous for underplaying and Miss Cooper followed her leading man’s example. (When George S. Kaufman was in London directing a show in the early thirties, he remarked to a friend, “I have a slight cold, caught while watching Sir Gerald du Maurier make love.”) In this scene, she represents her inner life with an artfully raised eyebrow while keeping absolutely still. Her performance is artificial as hell and I adore it. I also love the way she pronounces the name “Cartwright” as “KHAR-tritt.” Cooper couldn’t bear to act with unattractive men; perhaps that’s why she’s so wonderful in this scene. I’ve never seen her play such vulnerability in any other picture. Anyhow, I’m always glad to see Gladys Cooper act — mostly because her presentational style of performance provides a superb example of what early twentieth century stage acting looked like. And, frankly, her old-fashioned technique is not nearly as artificial as the stuff Method Actors came up with in the second half of the century, nor nearly so self-regarding and self-indulgent. Her style is more glamorous and charming. And it’s faster.

Henry Koster directed. The stupendously ugly production design is by Perry Ferguson and George Jenkins, who were responsible for the ugliness of several other Goldwyn pictures of the mid- to late-forties. I find their work immediately recognizable: vulgar, gloomy Victoriana. I believe it’s supposed to look expensive and cozy, but merely looks claustrophobic and kitsch.

6 thoughts on “Classic Christmas Kitsch: ‘The Bishop’s Wife’

  1. David Anderson

    Some of us who are now seniors remember an America that had the values that made it the great country it was. All of these old black and white movies of the 30s, 40s, and 50s celebrated those values and are to be treasured. The younger generations who don’t remember those times might resent them, but that’s their problem.

    Reply
  2. Frank Rahm

    For somebody who doesn’t like this movie, you seem to know it very well. I am sorry you don’t like it. It’s a personal favorite of mine and a Christmas tradition in my home.

    Reply
  3. Vic Camilleri

    Hello
    I screen free movies for the elderly and those having a disability under the name Vic’s Flicks. I have a website that explains what I do in more detail.
    I would like permission to use your poster of The Bishop’s Wife. It is the movie we are screen at Christmas.
    Could you please get back to me as soon as possible regarding this.

    Reply
  4. Vic Camilleri

    Hello
    I screen free movies for the elderly and those having a disability under the name Vic’s Flicks. I have a website that explains what I do in more detail.
    I would like permission to use your poster of The Bishop’s Wife. It is the movie we are screen at Christmas.
    Could you please get back to me as soon as possible regarding this.
    Thank you
    Vic

    Reply
  5. Gregory

    What a bitter, cynical, hateful commentary. Yes, it’s not a perfect movie, few are. Yes, it’s a bit dated and “saccharine”; so are thousands of other worthy classics, e.g., “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Part of loving movies, or painting, or literature, or music, requires setting our blinding prejudices aside, being willing to suspend our disbelief, and allowing ourselves to enter into the recognizable truth and tenderness in any story, whether it’s a Greek myth, a Medieval religious painting, or a sincerely wrought movie. Julia is a lovable and pure woman in an ambivalent marriage where she is not allowed to show her joy for life. Mrs. Hamilton’s angry demeanor is a brittle shield over the loss of her one true love early in her long life. Surely, these are timeless sorrows most of us can relate to, if we’ve had a life of any substance, and been bright enough to gain any insight. Your observations have no depth or compassion. Tearing other people and their creative efforts down, in some vain self-trumpeting attempt to sound clever and contemporary, is one of the worst of human traits. Please keep your profound ignorance of the human condition, and your complete failure of humor and imagination to yourself.

    Reply

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