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12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS FILMS | Day 8: "The Bishop's Wife" (1947)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Henry Koster, The Bishop's Wife (1947) concerns the tribulations of Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) and his increasingly desperate attempts to raise money from his wealthy parishioners for a new cathedral. To do so, he ignores everything and everyone else, including his beautiful wife Julia (Loretta Young). His prayers are literally answered by a charming angel named Dudley (Cary Grant), who reveals his identity only to Henry. However, Dudley's mission is not to help construct a cathedral, but to guide spiritually Henry and the people around him. While Henry is annoyed by Dudley's presence, the angel soon charms everyone, including the Broughams' maid Matilda (Elsa Lanchester) and even the non-religious Professor Wutheridge (Monty Wolley).

In the days that follow, Dudley persuades the wealthy parishioners, particularly widowed Agnes Hamilton (Gladys Cooper), to contribute the needed funds not to build the cathedral, but to help the needy instead, much to Henry's dismay. In between, Dudley redecorates the Broughams' Christmas tree, saves an old church by restoring interest in the local boys' choir and dictates to a typewriter to magically produce Henry's new sermon (without the bishop's knowledge). During his time among the mortals, Dudley also dedicates himself to cheering up Julia and is surprised to find that he is strongly attracted to her. Sensing this, Henry becomes jealous and reveals Dudley's identity to Professor Wutheridge, who urges him to fight for the woman he loves. Dudley indicates that he is willing to stay in town, but Julia realizes what he means and tells him to leave. After Dudley confesses to Henry that it is rare for an angel to envy a mortal, the bishop asks him why his cathedral plans were sidetracked. Dudley promptly reminds him that he prayed for guidance, not a building. With his mission completed and sure that Julia loves Henry, Dudley leaves, promising never to return. All memory of him is erased and at midnight that Christmas Eve, Henry delivers the moving sermon that he believes he has written, while Dudley observes from the street, satisfied that his work is done.

Dudley: When an Immortal finds himself envying the Mortal he is entrusted to his care, it's a dangerous signal. Take her in her arms and hold her tight. Kiss her for me, you lucky Henry!

By all accounts, 1947 was the year of Samuel Goldwyn. Although the legendary independent producer had by this time accumulated an impressive collection of hits, his pièce de résistance had been the post-war drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), named Best Picture at the 19th Academy Awards. Inspired by the recent success of Leo McCarey's The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), the acclaimed sequel to the director's own Best Picture winner Going My Way (1944), Goldwyn decided he would follow The Best Years of Our Lives with a film that was both heartwarming and inspirational, one which would have a Christmas background setting. For his source material, Goldwyn purchased the rights to The Bishop's Wife, a popular novel written in 1928 by Robert Nathan, best remembered for his other fantasy novel, Portrait of Jennie, made into a film in 1948 by David O. Selznick, starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten.

To adapt The Bishop's Wife to the screen, Goldwyn hired Robert E. Sherwood, the Oscar-winning writer of The Best Years of Our Lives. Although his assessment on the reality of post-war America had been meticulously accurate and deeply humanizing, Sherwood was not equipped to handle the lighthearted whimsical narrative concerning an angel being sent to earth to mend a nearly-broken marriage between an ambitious bishop and his neglected wife. To assist Sherwood in writing the script, Goldwyn decided to sign Leonardo Bercovici, who had only five (unimpressive) pictures to his name, including Lloyd Bacon's crime drama Racket Busters (1938), starring Humphrey Bogart and George Brent, and Martin Gabel's melodrama The Lost Moment (1947), with Robert Cummings and Susan Hayward. The following year, Bercovici would be the first writer put in charge of the screen adaptation of Portrait of Jennie.

David Niven and Cary Grant
To helm The Bishop's Wife, Goldwyn initally approached his Best Days Academy Award-winning director William Wyler, but he turned down the project. Goldwyn then settled on William A. Seiter, a renowned comedy director who had worked with everyone from Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers to Jean Arthur and Ginger Rogers. When time came for casting, Goldwyn signed Dana Andrews as the bishop, Teresa Wright as his wife and David Niven as the angel. However, both Andrews and Wright were forced to withdraw from the production  he because of contractual issues and she due to pregnancy.

To replace Andrews, Goldwyn hired Cary Grant, whose salary in The Bishop's Wife ($500,000) was by far the most he had ever earned up front for a single film. Although Grant had intended his next picture to be George Cukor's A Double Life (1947), he agreed to do The Bishop's Wife, but on the condition that he play the angel instead. The notion of starring in a fantasy film appealed to Grant, who believed the genre was a particularly good one for actors, especially during the lucrative Christmas season. Since Grant was a bigger box-office star than Niven, whose career had not yet regain its pre-war momentum, Cary was ultimately cast as the charming romancer Dudley, while David was relegated to the humorless Bishop Henry Brougham. Niven was furious about this change in casting; when he complained about the new role he was given, Goldwyn threatened to fire him.

Loretta Young as Julia Brougham
After Wright bowed out, Goldwyn signed Loretta Young to take over the role of the bishop's neglected wife, Julia. Young had previously worked with Goldwyn in the romantic drama The Devil to Pay! (1930), which was not a happy experience for either party. At seventeen, Young had been out of her element, unable to master a British accent and still in awe of the star, Ronald Colman, who had been one of her "fantasy lovers." Initially, Goldwyn had no intention of rehiring Young, since he disliked both The Devil to Pay! and her performance in that film, but he had to admit that the actress had improved considerably since 1930.

Despite its lightness of touch, The Bishop's Wife was plagued by problems and setbacks from the beginning. Grant was offended after Goldwyn complained that he was not "sufficiently masculine" as the angel, while Young was upset when the producer told her she looked "too glamorous" for a bishop's wife and kept calling her Laurette Taylor. When told that Laurette Taylor (one of the greatest stage actress of the 20th century) had been dead for months, Goldwyn replied, "That's funny. I was talking to her only a few moments ago." Although Goldwyn had worked with Young once before, he never did get the leading lady's name right; the closest he came was in calling her "Miss Yeng." After two weeks of shooting The Bishop's Wife, Goldwyn "hated the early rushes, sacked the director, hired another, scrapped the script, ordered the set to be completely altered and started all over again at a cost said to be $900,000."

Things became even more complicated when Grant decided that he was dissatisfied with his role; he told Goldwyn he thought Dudley was "a rather conceited, imprudent, high-handed magician" and did not see what he could possibly do with him. He was equally unhappy with Henry Koster, the director whom Goldwyn had settled upon after firing Seiter, whose dismissal had caused the film to be shut down for six weeks. Grant argued with Koster constantly on the set, displeased with everything the director did, from the placement of the camera to the pace of the comedy sequences.

Grant and Young in a publicity still
Adding to Grant's overall frustation with The Bishop's Wife was the casting of Loretta Young as his leading lady. He had always considered her "overly vain"; in turn, she was irritated by his obsessive attention to small details. Although Grant and Young had gotten along well when they co-starred in Lowell Sherman's Born to be Bad (1934), they openly clashed on the set of The Bishop's Wife, particularly during the shooting of what was supposed to be a love scene between Dudley and Julia. When Young bridled at being photographed from the left side, Grant, completely fed up, refused to be shot from his left side, making it impossible for Koster to stage the two actors facing each other. As a result, Koster had to shoot the scene with them placed at a window, staring out at the stars, Grant stepping in behind her and placing his hands on her shoulders. Although the reworking of the scene pleased both Grant and Young, Goldwyn was furious when he saw the rushes, warning them, "From now on, both of you guys get only half your salary if I can only use half your face."

In normal circumstances, Grant and Young would have both turned to David Niven for comfort. The wisecracking storyteller was a close pal of Grant since the mid-1930s, when he officially joined the Hollywood community of exile British actors living there. Niven was also good friends with Young, with whom he worked three times before in Three Blind Mice (1938), Eternally Yours (1939) and, more recently, The Perfect Marriage (1947). They had even dated briefly in the mid-1930s. However, the usually cheerful Niven was going through a dark period in his life. A few months before The Bishop's Wife began production in February 1947, his beloved wife Primmie had suffered a fatal head injury during a party game of "sardines" at Tyrone Power's home in Beverly Hills. She thought she was running into a closet, but instead took a long fall down the cellar stairs and died of related complications a few days later, at age 28.

Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young
We got on very well, though he'd never talk much about himself or his background. He seemed to be terrified of boring or depressing you, felt he always to be an entertainer. He was more educated, I think more intelligent, than I was but you felt that was always something being held back. I admired him very much for going back and fighting for the war: that was a wonderful thing to have done. When he came back he seemed in some ways to have changed, but I think that may have been because of  that terrible accident to Primmie. He was still distraught about that when we were making The Bishop's Wife, and yet there was also still that urge to entertain, to tell stories, not always true stories maybe but marvelous rearrangements of the truth. He was a funny man and a brave man and a good man, and there were never too many of those around here.
(Cary Grant on David Niven)

After The Bishop's Wife previewed to unenthusiastic audience response, a frustrated and disappointed Goldwyn telephoned Billy Wilder and asked if he and his writing partner Charles Brackett could take a look at the film and at least identify the problem. The duo watched the picture and immediately pointed out a few sequences that needed adjustement. Goldwyn offered them $25,000 to "doctor" the scenes, which Koster reshot a few days later. The producer then asked Wilder and Brackett to lunch with him to discuss their compensation. On their way, the two writers realized that they would "have to pay ninety per cent of that money in taxes anyway, so why not just tell Goldwyn it was our pleasure?" When Wilder and Brackett informed Goldwyn that they did not want the money, the producer replied, "That's funny, I had just come to the same conclusion myself."

Cary Grant and Loretta Young

Despite all the problems encountered during production, The Bishop's Wife was a massive critical and commercial success upon its premiere at the Astor Theatre in New York on December 9, 1947. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times said that the film was "as cheerful and respectful an invasion of the realm of conscience that we have seen. And it comes very close to being the most enchanting picture of the year a judgment to which its many merits will shortly make a strong bid. That is because its incursion is on a comparatively simple and humble plane and its whimsey is sensitively syphoned from the more human and humorous frailties of the flesh [...] We cannot recommend you to a more delightful and appropriate Christmas show." Variety also approved of the picture, writing, "While a fantasy, there are no fantastic heavenly manifestations. There's a humanness about the characters, even the angel, that beguiles full attention."

Samuel Goldwyn himself was surprised at how well The Bishop's Wife turned out. He went as far as to predict that Loretta Young would win the Oscar for Best Actress of 1947. At the 20th Academy Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in March 1948, The Bishop's Wife garnered nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Dramatic or Comedy Score, eventually winning the statuette for Best Sound Recording. As it happened, Young did in fact received the Oscar for Best Actress that year for The Farmer's Daughter (1947), produced through RKO by David O. Selznick.

Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2009) | Goldwyn: A Biography by A. Scott Berg (1989) | Hollywood Madonna: Loretta Young by Bernard F. Dick (2011) | Niv: The Authorised Biography of David Niven by Graham Lord (2005) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review


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