Old Ass Oscars: The Bishop’s Wife

By  · Published on February 21st, 2010

Every Sunday in February, Film School Rejects presents an Oscar Nominee for Best Picture that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

After taking a look at The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane, I wanted to shift gears a bit and look at a Best Picture nominee that’s not nearly as iconic and well-loved. Criticize away, but it’s the same reason I go for the scruffy mutt with the slightly lazy eye at the pound every single time. I love an underdog – they are usually the ones that need more care and appreciation.

The Bishop’s Wife is one of those underdogs for reasons that are beyond me. A fantastic romantic comedy, it’s probably the only one of its kind considering that it features an angel putting the moves on a human so that she’ll remember how much she loves her husband. The 40s were a strange time.

Dudley (a far too handsome angel played by Cary Grant) drops down to earth for a bit to help out Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) who is in the midst of raising a sacrilegious amount of money to construct a new church. Instead of helping directly with that, Dudley charms old ladies into donating money to the poor, flirts with Brougham’s wife Julia (Loretta Young), and finds himself oddly attracted to the gorgeous, young mortal.

If you were looking for a prototype to build a romantic comedy on, this is it. Despite not fitting into the mold that would later be created (or at least featuring a third act that doesn’t fit that mold), it has all the elements that make lighthearted comedies work. The main character is a fantastic example of humanity and endearing as all hell. It doesn’t hurt that he’s played by Grant, but still, the character is written to win hearts. The female love interest is sweet and their chemistry works. The only difference here is that instead of making the Other Man a hapless rube (or far too perfect to be faithful), David Niven gets a turn as a hapless rube that’s actually really likable. He’s a man doing what he thinks is best despite being misguided. Despite the misleading title, it’s actually the Bishop’s movie because Brougham is the one who has to change or face the serious consequences of losing his marriage and his parishioners.

I was introduced to this flick years ago and have seen it on many occasions since – almost every time at the side of my mother who beams as the opening scene lights up and wildly grins every time Grant does anything swoonable. Every single time, the movie gets me. It hits me with how well a movie can be made, how humane each character can be while being just a bit better than what we aspire to, how heavy something lighthearted can be.

In a lot of ways, it’s a different version of It’s A Wonderful Life, but instead of the main character going on a journey to see what life would be like without him, the kindly angel is guiding him toward the loving thing to do in real time.

And flirting with his wife on the side.

However, as fantastic and sweet as this film is, it probably would have been drowned out by negative expectations had the internet existed back in 1947. The production was a bumpy one that saw two major personnel changes: prolific (yet not terribly talented) director William Seiter was replaced by Henry Koster (who directed fellow Best Picture losers, One Hundred Men and a Girl, and Three Smart Girls), and Robert Sherwood (who had written Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives) had his screenwriting work re-done by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.

If you want to consider it yet another personnel change, Cary Grant was originally cast to play the Bishop with David Niven as the helpful angel, but during filming, Grant had so many problems with Sherwood’s script that he opted to change roles. This, as per the end result, was the right call.

Unfortunately, the production also dealt with massive ego-clashing between Loretta Young and Grant who somehow, miraculously turned out convincing romance and flirtation despite butting heads continually throughout shooting. Beyond the normal drama, and as a great testament to the caliber of talent on-screen, Niven had just lost his wife in a tragic “Sardines” accident (you can’t make this stuff up), and Grant was bereft at close friend Howard Hughes being hospitalized after a plane crash.

But you’d never know any of it to see the finished product. Beautifully shot, carefully crafted and full of holiday cheer, The Bishop’s Wife evokes classic Hollywood while delivering something that every modern romantic comedy has attempted to recapture (to varying degrees of success) for years. Especially be on the lookout for Dudley’s scene with the cranky old widow Mrs. Hamilton and Niven’s delivery of the final sermon of the film. Goosebump-inducing stuff that earns a smile every time.

Sure, it may be sweet and lack the gravity of other Oscar nominees, but it is a film not to be missed, and it demands far more love than it gets.

Feel free to show more love to our other Old Ass Movies.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.