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The Bishop’s Wife review – superbly understated Christmas comedy

Cary Grant is perfectly cast as an angel sent to aid a bishop in this elegant, sweetly observed 1947 classic, now on re-release

As far as studio-era Hollywood Christmas films in which an angel helps mere mortals to see the light are concerned, The Bishop’s Wife is no It’s a Wonderful Life, lacking that film’s existential catharsis and bursting melodrama. But that’s precisely where the charm lies: where It’s a Wonderful Life deals in big emotions, balancing both depression and ecstasy, The Bishop’s Wife is underplayed, dealing in “small” problems with a gentle ease and light touch.

Key to everything, as he always has been to cinema, is Cary Grant. As an angel, given the decidedly un-angelic name of Dudley, he intervenes in Bishop Henry’s (David Niven) prayers, struggling to raise funds for a cathedral, and in need of repairing his marriage with Julia (Loretta Young), which has long since taken a backseat to his work.

So goes a film that occasionally threatens to let its lead Deus Ex Machina his way through the script, but few actors could own the screen so single-handedly as Cary Grant: here he is delicately subtle and low-key. Sure, he’s still Cary Grant, able to set nitrate on fire with so much as a smile, but where he could play goofy slapstick or suave caddishness in other films, everything here feels tamped down and under control.

It all points towards the film’s humbleness and sweetness, itself undercut with a bittersweet taste: Niven’s bishop unable to focus on family; Loretta Young’s lonely housewife frustrated at the lack of romantic attention; Grant’s angel developing a twinge of feeling for the woman. These gentle conflicts aren’t resolved so much through Grant’s actions, but through moments of self-reflection on the part of the characters, captured in small moments of poetic melancholy – a warm close-up here, a little gesture there – leading to sparks of reconnection.

This melancholy is most strongly felt in the figure of Prof. Wutheridge (Monty Wooley), firmly part of the supporting cast, but perhaps the core of the film’s themes: an atheistic, impoverished lonely alcoholic historian, miserable with writer’s block, the script strongly hinting he’s a Jewish emigre who fled Austria when the Nazis took over and is now facing antisemitism in the US, too. He is lifted out of his gloom not so much by the presence of Cary Grant, but the re-emergence of community in his life, a reconnection with friends and meaningful relationships.

Given that the film’s director, Henry Koster, was a Berlin-born Jewish emigre who moved to the US in the ‘30s (and Billy Wilder, another German-speaking Jew who made his home in Hollywood, did an uncredited punch-up of the script), one senses a particularly personal resonance for those fleeing oppression, alone and away from home, finding solace in community. The role is very much in tune with the film’s focus on humanism and self-reflection as part of the meaning of Christmas – and despite one of the main characters being a bishop and the other an angel, there is very little heavy-handed Christian messaging here, ensuring the film has aged well in an increasingly secular world.

Combined with the elegant and entirely un-showy cinematography from Gregg Toland (he of Citizen Kane), The Bishop’s Wife remains a superbly understated and comparatively underseen Hollywood classic – a fine counterpoint to It’s a Wonderful Life and all the better for it.

The Bishop’s Wife is re-released in UK cinemas on 9 December.

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