We watched “The Bishop’s Wife” at our house the other night. Some years at Christmas we hang a wreath from the kitchen door, and some years we decorate a tree. But we always find an evening to watch “The Bishop’s Wife.” The camera hovers in the night over a lamp-lit city and descends onto its snow-fallen streets, which are thick with Christmas. Then comes Cary Grant, playing an angel named Dudley, the rather oblique answer to David Niven’s — the bishop’s — prayers. I suppose it is only natural for an angel in 1947, the year “The Bishop’s Wife” was released, to be supremely well tailored and to say, as a token of his celestial nature, that he never “uses” a hat. ...You can never have enough angels at Christmas. Besides, as I learned from my mother many, many years ago, what could be better at Christmas than Cary Grant and David Niven, gift wrapped?
Most Christmas movies are tales of redemptive hysteria — witness the stuttering ecstasy of Alastair Sim in “A Christmas Carol” or Jimmy Stewart’s desperate happiness in the last scenes of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I always wonder how the world looked to them a few weeks later, once the giddiness wore off. But “The Bishop’s Wife” is not about redemption. It is about understanding your choices or, perhaps, knowing the true implications of your desires. It alludes to the past but does not depend on recovering it. It looks around this grim world and sees that what it needs is not a cathedral but charity.
This is a modest movie, but it has its exaltations. One is a choir practice at an inner city church directed, angelically, by Dudley, a rehearsal that is as much a symphony in late-1940s plaids, worn by the choirboys, as it is a heralding of salvation. And I am always struck, every year, by the quiet way this movie addresses the atheism of an old history professor, played by the great character actor Monty Woolley. In the end, of course, he is led to church, but he enters quizzically, standing on the steps of St. Timothy’s in the falling snow and looking round as if to wonder what impulse could have brought him there.
December 24, 2006
Christmas Eve: In appreciation of Dudley
(as well as Clarence) at Christmas, from Verlyn Klinkenborg, in today's Times,