The Bishop’s Wife
1 hr. 49 mins. Comedy, Drama, Fantasy 1947 7.5 stars
Director: Henry Koster
Cast: Cary Grant - Dudley
Loretta Young - Julia Brougham
David Niven - Henry Brougham (the Bishop)
Monty Woolley - Professor Wutheridge
James Gleason - Sylvester
Gladys Cooper - Mrs. Hamilton
Elsa Lanchester - Matilda
Sara Haden - Mildred Cassaway
Karolyn Grimes - Debby Brougham
Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie
The Professor Consoling Julia
It’s Christmas time and the snow is falling all over the city, the ideal setting for this season. People are out doing their Christmas shopping and walking among them is a man who is doing random acts of kindness. We will soon learn that his name is Dudley.
Next we see a woman, Julia, who is the Bishop’s wife after whom the movie is named. She is looking to buy a Christmas tree. She meets an old friend at the tree shop, and old professor. Julia is a little melancholic as she remembers happy times in this her old neighborhood. She had moved away some time ago. The cold air is no match for the warmth of her old friend.
Dudley observes all this with great interest from his vantage out on the sidewalk. After Julia leaves, Dudley walks up to the professor and pretends that they too were old acquaintances, but the professor is confused; he doesn’t ever remember meeting Dudley before.
The next scene is back at the Brougham home. Julia has returned and Henry (the Bishop) starts an argument with her. Here the major conflict of the movie is set up. As bishop, Henry has gotten immersed in the politics of the church. He has stepped away from his pastoral role and stepped into more of a management type of role. He has a great dream to build a large cathedral and is finding himself tangled up in the financial aspects of this dream, in particular fundraising. He is so busy that he is neglecting his wife and daughter, not to mention other professional duties. He goes into his office right there in the house and prays for help. After praying he turns around to see Dudley standing there. Henry asks him to make an appointment with his secretary. It is now that Dudley introduces himself as the answer to Henry’s prayer. He’s an angel! Naturally Henry is very skeptical. When Julia walks into the office Dudley introduces himself as Henry’s new assistant.
The next morning Dudley arrives to start his work. He meets the household staff and greets them all by name though they have never met before. He helps Henry’s daughter in a snowball fight. He takes Julia to lunch and meets several other ladies from the church.
Dudley then goes with Julia to see the old professor. This professor has been working on an in-depth history of ancient Rome, but he has long been stalled in his writing. Dudley tells him things no one could have known such as the origin of an old Roman coin he has and subsequently the professor feels re-inspired and has a new sense of ambition.
After Dudley spent what amounted to a whole day with Julia, Henry was no further along in his fundraising efforts, but Julia was much less melancholic. Dudley sat down with little Debbie and told her a bible story about David, a background tale to the writing of the 23rd Psalm. The entire household witnesses this and everyone is amazed and impressed.
Dudley Tells Debby a Bible Story
Dudley Tells Debby a Bible Story
Henry leaves to go visit Mrs. Hamilton a rich widow who has many demands upon the cathedral that will be built. Henry and Mrs. Hamilton have argued back and forth about the plans multiple times. Henry however had previously agreed to go back to his old parish church in a poor section of the city to hear their boys’ choir rehearsal. However, in his mind the meeting with Mrs. Hamilton took a higher priority than these lowly parishioners so Dudley went as his representative along with Julia. The choir sang wonderfully and it is abundantly clear that most of the boys would not have even shown up, but that somehow Dudley miraculously summoned them. Not surprisingly Dudley knows the name and voice part of each boy.
Meanwhile Henry is discussing the cathedral plans with Mrs. Hamilton and giving into all her demands, really compromising the entire purpose of the cathedral from that of an edifice to the glory of God to that of a memorial to Mrs. Hamilton’s deceased husband. When all is agreed upon Henry attempts to depart but can’t get free of the chair he is seated in! Mrs. Hamilton is very embarrassed by this and doesn’t know what to do.
In the meantime Dudley takes Julia ice skating and invited the cab driver, Sylvester, to join them. Dudley makes is possible for Julia and Sylvester to be proficient skaters. They have the time of their lives!
Eventually Henry is able to free himself from Mrs. Hamilton’s chair by changing pants. He goes home and awaits Dudley and Julia. When they arrive much later Henry is very angry. He strongly suspects that Dudley was responsible for the chair mishap. And he is not happy that Dudley is showing Julia a good time. Henry attempts to dismiss Dudley but is unsuccessful as Dudley’s work is not yet done.
The Miraculous Singing of the Boys' Choir
It’s Christmas Eve, Henry and Julia go off to make social calls. Dudley gives Mildred the night off and completely re-writes Henry’s sermon for later that night. Dudley then decorates the tree and does a masterful job, but then again he’s an angel.
Next Dudley goes to visit Mrs. Hamilton. In a way that only Dudley could do he endears himself to her and they talk. She is so taken with Dudley that she makes a drastic financial decision. Julia and Henry arrive to visit Mrs. Hamilton and she informs them of Dudley’s visit, though by now Dudley has left. She tells Henry that she is going to withdraw her support for the cathedral and instead donate her vast sum of money to ministries helping the poor and downtrodden. She wants Henry to direct the distribution. Pleased by Mrs. Hamilton’s change of heart, but disappointed at how that dashes his dreams of building a cathedral he leaves and walks the streets thinking. He arrives at the professor’s house where the professor shows him the book he is now working on after many years of inactivity. He shows Henry many other things that Dudley has done. Henry shares that he suspects that Dudley is in love with Julia and that Dudley is really an angel! Henry notes that this is the only time in which he was not prohibited from saying that. The professor encourages Henry to fight back; after all he has the advantage of being a man. Henry comes home and confronts Dudley about his seeming affections for Julia. But when Henry shows his willingness to stand up for his marriage and fight for Julia Dudley smiles in a way that indicates that his work is done here. He tells Henry that he will be leaving and after he goes no one will have any recollection of him at all.
In the final scene Henry is delivering his Christmas Eve sermon at St. Timothy’s, and the professor is in attendance. Dudley is standing out on the street watching as many parishioners enter the church. Dudley’s work is complete in that community and he walks away.
Henry Stuck in Mrs. Hamilton's Chair
Dudley Telling Julia's Fortune
This movie is an expansion of that well known Bible verse, Hebrews 13:2 “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.” (KJV)
Dudley’s mission was not to help Henry build a cathedral, but to help Henry get his life together by restoring a proper set of priorities. But Dudley’s work was really multifaceted; he did many other things including revitalizing the professor’s ambition, touching Mrs. Hamilton’s heart long corrupted by her vast wealth and restoring Sylvester, the cab driver’s sense of joy in the world. For Henry the cathedral should not have been the top priority Julia should have been! And of course Dudley did many other wonderful things here and there throughout the movie like saving a baby in a runaway stroller and assisting a blind man across a busy street. Dudley is a fantastic character as his deeds reach through the movie and touch our hearts as well. A Christmas movie which warms the hearts of the audience is not unusual and certainly this one belongs in that number.
Dudley is obviously the central character of the movie. It is Henry’s prayer which invites him, but it is Julia who is the main object of his work. This is seen when Dudley first notices her in the opening scenes as she Christmas shops on the snowy streets of her old impoverished neighborhood in New York. Dudley is not omniscient but he serves a God who is, so he will look for a clue about what he is to do in any given circumstance. For instance when he goes to Mrs. Hamilton’s house and is awaiting her in the parlor he looks around for what he is supposed to do and finds a box to open. He looks as if being directed by an invisible entity. In addition the harp plucks itself as a further indication about what Dudley is to do. The box contains music composed by Mrs. Hamilton’s young true love which music Dudley plays on the harp. This scene opens up for us Dudley’s communication with and direction from powers above him. As he says when he first meets Henry, he is not one of the important angels. When Dudley tells a Bible story to Debby about David he says that angels put ideas into people’s heads which they then think are their own idea. This explains to us, the audience, the modus operandi that Dudley employs when dealing with others throughout the movie
Julia and Dudley Skating
Dudley Goes Skating with Julia and Sylvester
When Dudley announces that he will be leaving, Henry asks him if he would return if prayed for to which Dudley emphatically declares that he would ask to be sent to the other side of the universe. He states that it’s a red flag when an angel begins to envy the mortals he is working with. Of course that is a theological faux pas as angels would not have the nature to envy. You might say that this is Hollywood stepping in where angels fear to tread because they want to inject a hint of romance into the picture. Also on this same topic Dudley unrealistically easily convinces Julia that he should never return and she agrees emphatically.
I’m always disappointed when a story includes a memory erasure at the end. Dudley states that after he leaves there will be no recollection of him at all. Why? I would think that it would be very helpful in life to realize that you were touched by an angel – most lives need that sort of encouragement. Instead all of the characters will be left with an unexplainable simultaneous set of heart and attitude changes. I wrote a review of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir a few years ago and they had that same memory erasure device in that movie a well. It leaves a sour taste. Memory erasure is probably why Dudley did not prevent Henry from telling the professor that he was an angel. Of course on the other hand the memory erasure leaves open the concept that we may have been thus visited and simply can’t remember it. Intriguing.
One of the best lines comes from Sylvester, the cab driver when he shares his opinion of people in our society, and it is truer now than it was then! “There are too many people who don’t know where they’re going and they want to get there fast”. Amen.
Another great line is spoken by Dudley (and alluded to a few paragraphs above) is a misquote of Alexander Pope’s famous idiom: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, although in this instance Dudley reverses it and says, “Angels rush in where fools fear to tread.” It’s very clever and the meaning is unmistakable. He, Dudley, is going to do the work that Henry should be doing. It may very well have also been said, “You can’t send a man to do an angel’s job”. Of course Henry could have done all these things if his priorities were right. Dudley is constantly correcting Henry’s mis-prioritizations, but gently and often by example. Dudley’s statement then could very well sum up his entire task in this movie.
This movie should be watched by all. It is a heartwarming feel-good tale to go along with the Christmas season.
The entire movie can be see (free with commercials - tons of them) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sIL1sQv_l8&t=5945s