Julia: “You seem to be able to make me feel as if everything’s going to be alright.”
Dudley: “Well it could be if people could only learn to behave like human beings.”
I love the holidays. In particular, I love the feeling of hope that they engender on everyone – that things will turn out okay after all. This time of year, there’s also this warmth and affection that we seem to have a little extra of, and we project it towards everyone around us. I predict that we’re all going to feel that spirit this year stronger than we’ve ever felt it. We definitely need it after how taxing 2020 has been on all of us. I hope that over the next few days and weeks we are kinder to one another – listen to each other more – and work together to make a better world for everyone. Everything’s going to be alright.
Two weeks before Christmas Day in the late 1980s, while living in NYC, I stumbled into a movie theatre on West 57th Street that showed old movies. They were running a double feature of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947). I wasn’t familiar with the latter – and I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it, but soon I found myself totally enchanted by it. Its nostalgic opening scene of a bustling Madison Avenue – with carolers and holiday windows – instantly warmed me over. Now, it has become one of my favorite yuletide movies. The film was remade in 1996 as “The Preacher’s Wife” – starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston, directed by Penny Marshall. Stick to the original.
Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is consumed by trying to raise funds for a cathedral – to the disadvantage of his family life. Agnes Hamilton, a major patron who was instrumental in him being named to his current position is making him compromise his values by demanding that he builds this monumental edifice in the name of her late husband. “You will build this cathedral as I want it or you won’t build it at all,” she insists. As his faith falters and realizing the toll his ambitions are taking on his wife Julia (a luminous Loretta Young) and young daughter, he prays for guidance. “God can you help me?” he asks. His supplication is answered by the visit of an angel named Dudley (Cary Grant).
Henry is the only one who is allowed to know where he’s come from. Dudley introduces himself to everyone as the Bishop’s assistant. His mission is not to help with the construction of the cathedral, but to spiritually guide Henry and those around him. Julia misses the days in which she and her husband were falling in love – taking time for lunches – and doing spontaneous things. “Henry, what’s happened to us?” she asks Henry. “We used to have fun.”
Dudley’s presence starts to rub Henry the wrong way for Dudley starts to take over the family duties that Henry had long forsaken. He encourages Debby – the daughter – to have the courage to play with other kids. “Don’t you think she’ll get hurt?” Julia wonders. “Probably, but she’ll like it,” Dudley answers. A close friend of the family, Professor Wutheridge has not fulfilled his early promise to write a history book – and Dudley restores his confidence. The angel doesn’t perform major miracles but nudges all around him to remember their original loves and passions – to regain faith in each other. In one of the loveliest scenes, Julia and he take a taxi cab and meet its driver, Sylvester. They drive by an ice-skating rink and Dudley makes them stop encouraging both Julia and Sylvester to join him on the ice. They all experience childlike joy. “My pockets are bulging with coins of self-satisfaction,” utters Sylvester. “Because you and the little lady have restored my faith in human nature.”
The movie is gently directed by Henry Koster who was nominated for the Oscar for Best Director. He works with one of my favorite cinematographers Greg Tolland – whom I’ve previously spoken about – he of the deep focus photography. His hand can be felt on that opening scene with the rich black and white street scene. There’s one sequence that is breathtaking. Late in the film a troubled Bishop goes to visit the Professor. Notice as he’s walking on the street enveloped in darkness and as he’s in front of the address – light shines on him.
The casting is superb. Grant is so casually sexy in this – understated and kind. Young has this gorgeous arc as her youth and love for life start to return. It’s a gorgeous transformation. Niven plays puzzled and irritated well. The terrific Elsa Lanchester (“Bride of Frankenstein,” “Witness for the Prosecution”) is charming in the small role of the maid who develops a crush on Dudley.
This is a film about restoring our faith – and it’s utterly romantic and delightful.
Bishop Henry: “All the stockings are filled… all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we are celebrating. Don’t ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most… and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime, The Roku Channel, Tubi and Pluto TV. Available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Vudu and Microsoft.
Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici
Based on the novel by Robert Nathan
Directed by Henry Koster
Starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven
Bringing “The Bishop’s Wife” from Page to Screen
1947 was, by all accounts, Samuel Goldwyn’s peak year. Although the legendary producer had by this period amassed an array of impressive hits (and interesting misses), the jewel in his crown had been the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1946, “The Best Years of Our Lives.” The worldwide acclaim and mega-box office receipts of “Best Years” enhanced Goldwyn’s already considerable reputation in Hollywood but how do you top what many critics were calling the “finest motion picture ever made”? Taking his cue from one of RKO’s biggest hits of 1945, “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (Leo McCarey’s smash sequel to 1944’s “Going My Way”), he decided he would make a picture that was heartwarming and inspirational with a background Christmas setting. For his source material, Goldwyn optioned “The Bishop’s Wife,” a popular novel by Robert Nathan whose other fantasy romance, “Portrait of Jennie,” would eclipse Bishop as both a literary work, and, as a 1948 Selznick movie…In an odd move, the producer next hired writer Robert Sherwood, who had done such a splendid job on “Best Years,” to pen the script; Goldwyn figured Sherwood could do no wrong. Sherwood, whose take on the reality of post-war America was dead-on, was not equipped to handle the lighthearted whimsical narrative concerning a heavenly being sent to mend a shaky mortal marriage. It was the second of many mistakes. William A. Seiter, a fine comedy director who had guided everyone from Laurel and Hardy (“Sons of the Desert,” 1933) and the Marx Brothers (“Room Service,” 1938) to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (“Roberta,” 1935), was set to direct after William Wyler turned the picture down.
Next came the casting. Loretta Young (whom Goldwyn would constantly refer to as “Laurette Taylor,” a famous actress who had recently died) and Cary Grant would be paired as the troubled couple with David Niven, ending his contract with the producer, slated as the angel, Dudley. From day one, Grant voiced his problems with the script, and stipulated re-writes. Soon, he realized that he had the wrong part: he should be the angel with Niven relegated to the title character’s husband. Shortly after this casting change went into effect, Grant had new doubts about his decision and wondered if perhaps he should have stuck with his original role. But Goldwyn had other problems to contend with according to co-star David Niven in his biography, “Bring on the Empty Horses:” “The day before shooting was to start, Goldwyn decided that the interiors of the Bishop’s house were not ecclesiastical enough and ordered several sets to be torn down, redesigned and rebuilt. For three weeks, while this was going on, production was halted, then, two days after the cameras finally had a chance to turn, Goldwyn decided that Seiter’s hand was a little too heavy on the tiller: he was removed, paid his full salary and after a week, Goldwyn hired Henry Koster to start again from scratch – with another two weeks of rehearsal. All this must have cost Goldwyn several hundred thousand dollars….” Almost before Koster could cry his first “Action!,” problems arose between Grant and Young – due primarily to Grant’s notorious perfectionism. Off screen, the star was going through a rash of personal problems underlined by the near-death of his close friend Howard Hughes, who was hospitalized in critical condition after a plane crash. But on the set, Grant’s obsessive attention to small details often irritated Young, who could be quite headstrong in her own working methods.
The Making of “The Bishop’s Wife”
According to Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein in the biography, “Loretta Young: An Extraordinary Life,” “Loretta and Cary were shooting a scene when Grant stopped abruptly, declaring, “If it’s supposed to be cold outside, and the house is nice and warm inside, why isn’t there any frost on the windows?” This was the kind of detail that was rarely overlooked at the Goldwyn studio, and everything stopped until the proper frost effect was accomplished by the propmen.” It was just one of many incidents that encouraged Young to assert her own ego during production. The fact that the two leads had gotten along famously when they co-starred in “Born to be Bad” (1934) was apparently long forgotten when it came time to photograph them both in profile – from the same side – for a romantic scene. “Neither actor had ever objected to being shot in profile,” wrote Charles Higham and Roy Moseley in “Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart.” “But now Cary said he looked better from his left side, and Loretta said that she also looked better from that side. In despair, Koster said, “How can I direct what is, in essence, a love scene if both of you are looking the same way?” Eventually, Koster worked out the blocking for the scene that pleased both actors but the completed scene angered Goldwyn who later confronted Grant and Young and warned them, “From now on, both of you guys get only half your salary if I can only use half your faces.” Usually, Grant and Young would have turned to their co-star David Niven for comfort. The renowned wit and raconteur was a great pal of Cary’s since the mid-1930s when he officially joined the Hollywood colony of expatriate British actors living there; furthermore, he and Loretta were good friends, having worked together four times previously. But the usually cheerful Niven was going through his own private hell. Prior to production on “The Bishop’s Wife,” the actor’s beloved wife Primmie suffered a fatal head injury; it occurred during a party game of “sardines” at Tyrone Power’s house. She thought she was running into a closet, but instead took a long fall down the cellar stairs and died of complications days later.
Meanwhile, Goldwyn focused his energies on improving the script. With key sequences in crucial need of tweaking, Sam sent out an A.P.B. for the writing/directing/producing team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. During a frantic Friday meeting and rough-cut screening, Goldwyn offered the formidable scribes $25,000 for doctoring three crucial scenes on the proviso that they be ready for the cameras by Monday. The duo agreed and worked round the clock, handing in the newly scripted scenes with no time to spare. However, Wilder and Brackett had a proviso of their own: Since the 25 grand would ultimately cause them more trouble than it was worth (due to the strict California tax laws), Wilder told Goldwyn, ‘Sam, about that $25,000 you were going to pay us for those three scenes. We’ve decided we don’t need the money.’ ‘Funny,’ replied Sam, ‘I had just come to the same conclusion myself.’ Surprisingly, despite all the problems encountered during filming, “The Bishop’s Wife” emerged unscathed to excellent reviews…Goldwyn himself was shocked at how well the picture turned out. He even went as far as to predict that Loretta Young would win the Best Actress Oscar for 1947! Of her performance, Young later said, “I thought of the wife as a frustrated little thing, rather lonely and rather thwarted….This was the hardest part I’d ever played.” In all, “The Bishop’s Wife” picked up five Academy nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as Best Sound Recording, Best Editing and Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. But Goldwyn would only take home one statuette – for Best Sound. As for his prediction, it proved to be an ironic example of “Don’t wish so hard for something, you just might get it.” Loretta Young did indeed win the Best Actress Oscar that year – for The Farmer’s Daughter, produced through RKO by David O. Selznick! (tcm.com)
About Co-Screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood
Robert E. Sherwood moved to DC to help with the war effort during WWII, working as a speechwriter and consultant for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and as Director of the Office of War Information. He lived in the Willard Hotel, maintaining a regular suite there from 1940 to 1945. He is author of one of the first World War II memoirs, “Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History” (1948) that recounts his DC years, and which was awarded the Bancroft Prize for distinguished writing in American history and a Pulitzer Prize in Biography. Sherwood is better known, however, as a playwright, movie critic, and one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table. He was close friends with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woolcott and Edna Ferber. During the 1920s, he worked as drama editor for Vanity Fair and editor of Life. In 1938 he co-founded the Playwrights’ Company, a major production house. Sherwood was awarded four Pulitzer Prizes: one for biography and three for dramatic writing, and eight of his plays were adapted for movies, making him the most popular and successful dramatic writer of his era. His 15 plays include: “The Love Nest” (1927), “Waterloo Bridge” (1930), “The Petrified Forest” (1925), “Idiot’s Delight” (1936), “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1938), “There Shall Be No Night” (1940), “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946, winner of an Oscar for Best Screenplay), and the musical “Miss Liberty” (1949, with a score by Irving Berlin). He also worked as a Hollywood screenwriter, adapting his Pulitzer winning play “Abe Lincoln” in Illinois (1938) and collaborating with Alfred Hitchock on “Rebecca” (1940) among other films. “To be able to write a play,” Sherwood wrote, “a man must be sensitive, imaginative, naïve, gullible, passionate; he must be something of an imbecile, something of a poet, something of a liar, something of a damn fool.” (dcwritershomes.wdchumanities.org)
About Co-Screenwriter Leonardo Bercovici
Leonardo Bercovici, 87, veteran screenwriter and educator who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Bercovici, who worked for the film division of the Office of War Information during World War II, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. He denied that he was a Communist, but refused to state whether he had ever been involved in the party. He lost his U.S. passport, regaining it in 1956, and moved to Europe for several years. Among Bercovici’s screenplays were “The Bishop’s Wife” in 1947, starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven, and “Portrait of Jennie,” in 1949, starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten. His other films included “Racket Busters” in 1938, “Chasing Danger” in 1939, “Monsoon” in 1953, and two foreign films that he produced and directed as well as wrote, “Square of Violence” in 1963 and “Story of a Woman” in 1970. Bercovici later became a respected teacher of writing at UCLA and the American Film Institute, work that he continued until shortly before his death… (latimes.com)
About Author Robert Nathan
Author of such revered books as “Portrait of Jennie,” “The Bishop’s Wife, Mr. Whittle and the Morning Star,” and “Stonecliff,” Robert Nathan was born in New York City in 1894 and was educated at private schools in the United States and Switzerland. While attending Harvard University where he was a classmate with E.E. Cummings, Nathan was an editor of the Harvard Monthly, in which his first stories and poems appeared. While at Cambridge, Nathan also found the time to become an accomplished cellist, a lightweight boxer, and Captain of the fencing team. After leaving college, Mr. Nathan devoted his time exclusively to writing until his passing in 1985. Early on, Nathan’s work strengthened his reputation with both the public and peers. F. Scott Fitzgerald once referred to Robert Nathan as his favorite writer. During this period, the legendary Louis B. Mayer contracted him to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. Nathan ultimately didn’t enjoy the experience, though the movie industry continually craved his work. Five of his novels have been made into films. The aforementioned “Portrait of Jennie” and “The Bishop’s Wife,” as well as “One More Spring,” “Wake Up and Dream” (from the novel “The Enchanted Voyage”) and “Color of Evening.” Robert Nathan was the author of over fifty volumes of novels, poetry, and plays, and from this body of distinguished work he acquired a reputation as a master of satiric fantasy unique in American Letters. In the twilight of his career he was known as “The Dean of Author’s,” since many prominent writers including Irving Stone and Irving Wallace sought out Nathan’s guidance. A member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters for fifty years, Mr. Nathan called both Cape Cod and California home. Happily, his last fifteen years were spent in the companionship of his wife, English born actress, Anna Lee. (authorrobertnathan.com)
About Director Henry Koster
Henry Koster was born Herman Kosterlitz in Berlin, Germany, on May 1, 1905. His maternal grandfather was a famous operatic tenor, Julius Salomon (who died of tuberculosis in the 1880s). His father was a salesman of ladies unmentionables who left the family while Henry was at a young age, leaving him to support the family. He still managed to finish gymnasium (high school) in Berlin while working as a short-story writer and cartoonist. He was introduced to movies in 1910 when his Uncle Richard opened a movie theater in Berlin and his mother went there every day to play the piano to accompany the films. Henry went with her, day care being nonexistent then, and he had to sit for a couple of hours a day staring at the movie screen. He achieved success as a short-story writer at age 17, resulting in his being hired by a Berlin movie company as a scenarist. He became an assistant to director Curtis Bernhardt. Bernhardt became sick one day and asked Henry to direct (this was around 1931 or 1932). He had directed two films in Berlin for Aafa when Adolf Hitler came to power. He was in the midst of directing a film, “Das Häßliche Mädchen,” at that point, and having already been the victim of anti-Semitism, he knew he had to leave Germany, and soon. Any hesitation he may have had about leaving the country was erased when, at a bank on his lunch hour one day, a Nazi SA officer insulted him, and Henry hit the Nazi so hard he knocked him out. He proceeded to go directly to the railroad station and took a train for France. Upon arriving in France he was rehired by Bernhardt (who had left earlier). Eventually Henry went to Budapest and met and married Kato Kiraly (1934). It was there he met producer Joe Pasternak, who represented Universal Pictures in Europe, and directed four films for him.
In 1936 he was signed to a contract with Universal and brought to Hollywood with Pasternak, several other refugees and his wife. At first he had some troubles at the studio (he didn’t speak English), but eventually convinced Universal to let him make “Three Smart Girls” (1936) with Deanna Durbin and coached Durbin, who was 14 years old. The picture was a huge success and pulled Universal from the verge of bankruptcy. His second film, “One Hundred Men and a Girl” (1937) with Durbin and Leopold Stokowski, put Universal, Durbin, Pasternak and himself on top. He went on to do numerous musicals and family comedies during the late 1930s and early 1940s, many with Betty Grable, Durbin and other musical stars of the era. He stayed at Universal until 1941 or so, then worked for MGM and around 1948 moved over to 20th Century-Fox. He was nominated for an Academy Award for “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947). In 1950 he directed what was his biggest success to date, the James Stewart comedy “Harvey” (1950)…He directed the first American film in which Richard Burton appeared, “My Cousin Rachel” (1952), then was assigned by 20th Century-Fox to direct its first CinemaScope picture, “The Robe” (1953), also with Burton, which was a tremendous success. He directed a few more costume dramas, such as “Desirée,” then went back to family comedies and musicals, such as “Flower Drum Song” (1961) for Universal. After he finished “The Singing Nun” (1966) he retired from the film business to Leisure Village, Camarillo, California, to indulge his lifelong interest in painting. He did a series of portraits of the movie stars with whom he worked. Henry Koster was a founding member of the European Film Fund. (pbs.org)