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With Subtle Magic, It’s a Wonderful ‘Bishop’s Wife’

A man with a heart of gold who finds himself in the depths of despair nearly abandons his beliefs until an angel visits him several days before Christmas.

Sound like a familiar holiday classic?

You’re only partially right. It’s not “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but “The Bishop’s Wife.”

The two films do share many warm, Yuletide elements: whimsical characters, a strong religious theme and an anti-materialism moral. And, while “The Bishop’s Wife” falls short of delivering the emotional jolt of the Frank Capra classic, both succeed in lifting the spirit.

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But what really sets “The Bishop’s Wife” apart is its subtlety; it never resorts to “what-might-have-been” magic to convey its message.

Cary Grant stars as Dudley, an angel who has been sent to help Epsicopal Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) raise money for a new cathedral. But Dudley really has come to bring Brougham back in touch with his parishioners, to show him that what makes the church is the people, not the structure itself.

Brougham has grown obsessed with the cathedral plans, spending most of his time wooing a wealthy socialite for the money to build the structure. Catering to her every wish means missing chances to help a children’s choir or take his family out on the weekend.

So Dudley takes up the slack. He escorts Brougham’s wife, Julia (Loretta Young), to lunch, and they have a wonderful time. He meets the bishop’s old college mentor, Prof. Wutheridge (Monty Whoolley), and they hit it off. Even a taxi driver (James Gleason), is overcome by Dudley’s cherubic treatment when the angel gives him the skill of a championship skater on a park rink.

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Brougham, meanwhile, is growing jealous of all the attention Dudley is getting. And eventually, of course, he realizes that the most important things in life are family and friends, not a new cathedral.

Grant, as could be expected, plays Dudley as debonair. Yet, unlike many of his other roles, this character is not at all cynical. He’s likable--from greeting all strangers he meets with a smile and by their first name to directing the boy’s choir to perfection.

Niven shines in the film, lifting his character from a removed, scorning cleric, to a man whose true, caring self comes out in the end.

“The Bishop’s Wife” was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (it lost to “Miracle on 34th Street”) and won for best sound.

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“The Bishop’s Wife” (1947), directed by Henry Koster. 108 minutes. Not Rated.


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