There’s an unworldly charm and odd, innocent solemnity to this Christmas fantasy comedy from 1947, now on rerelease, directed by Henry Koster and starring Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young. Niven plays the sobersided Bishop Henry Brougham, a decent but now careworn man whose overwork has lately caused him to neglect the happiness of his sweet-natured wife Julia (Young) and infant daughter Debby (Karolyn Grimes). As the Christmas season approaches, the bishop is becoming a veritable Scrooge, a role he effectively shares with the wealthy widow Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper). She was instrumental in getting him the bishop’s job in the first place, and is now exhaustingly stringing him along with a promise to fund the building of a vainglorious new cathedral with which the bishop has become wholly obsessed – but only if it includes a vulgar monument to her late husband.
Julia never gets to see her husband or their old friends, like the genial, peppery old professor (Monty Woolley) who is working on his magnum opus about ancient Rome. Poor Henry, aware that things are amiss, prays for guidance, and out of the blue, a beautifully tailored angel descends: Dudley, played with an opaque and unreadable suavity by Grant. Dudley is going to give Henry what he needs, not what he wants.
Of course, Dudley has a shrewd, intimate knowledge of all these people, a little like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life (or the inspector in Priestley’s An Inspector Calls). But for me, this does not have the comic exuberance or passion of James Stewart’s Christmas classic – and I think it is basically because it is about a man of the cloth. For all its attractions, the film is sometimes a bit inhibited and sententious; perhaps Hollywood just didn’t want to be in any way irreverent about a clergyman. The coolly restrained bishop and the enigmatic angel Dudley are in fact not all that dissimilar. It would have been interesting to see the casting reversed.
Having said which, the question of Dudley falling in love with Julia is rather striking, especially as the film declines to acknowledge, almost until the very end, that there is indeed something scandalous in the bishop’s wife becoming so familiar with a handsome stranger. Dudley suggests that he is thinking of abandoning his angelic vocation in the cause of human love (a theme later taken up by Wim Wenders in Wings of Desire), which will mean breaking up a marriage. His character becomes potentially sadder, even tragic. But Grant does not emote any more than usual.
Well, there is a lot that’s beguiling in this fey and wayward piece with its very theatrical drawing room scenes. The skating sequence is a little gem. It’s classic yuletide comfort food.
• The Bishop’s Wife is released on 9 December in cinemas.