The Bishop’s Wife
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker

One doesn’t need to call lightning from the heavens to organize someone’s files, help someone across the street, or brighten a child’s day.

If you’re looking for an alternative to that classic of classics, It’s a Wonderful Life, we have another, lesser-known, film brimming with the spirit of Christmas. Cary Grant and Loretta Young star in The Bishop’s Wife, a fun film for the whole (even extended) family.

Henry Brougham (David Niven), a newly promoted bishop, struggles under the pressure of building a new cathedral. He wants the project fully financed before the end of the Christmas season, but the self-interest of private donors, the tireless hunt for money, and endless meetings are consuming him. He has no time to spend with his wife Julia (Loretta Young) and daughter who miss his attention. Just when Henry feels the fate of the cathedral is at its darkest, he prays for assistance. A charming man named Dudley (Cary Grant) soon comes into his life, declaring that he is an angel sent to answer his prayers.

Henry is unsure of how to react to this surprising turn of events. He knows a lot about angels, but never thought he would actually meet one! On top of this, he isn’t sure he likes Dudley. The angel keeps telling him what he doesn’t want to hear, especially at this crucial stage in the construction project.

The title character, Julia, is not the person most in need of change in this film. She stands serene in who she is, even though she also stands to suffer the most. We are led to believe that the story revolves around the bishop. The servants jump at his beck and call. The angel appears upon his prayer. And the success or failure of the cathedral hinges on his being able to draw in the donations. But Julia isn’t a peripheral character. It would be more accurate to describe her as the pivotal character. The heart of the story is about her prayer being answered. It is about her need to bring Henry back into the charity of the church, into the family, and into the marriage. Even Dudley, so unaffected by the world, becomes affected by her purity.

Sylvester the taxi driver: [The problem with this country is] that most people don’t know where they’re going and they’re in too much of a hurry to get there.

While it’s obvious that Henry has lost sight of where he’s going, part of the impending tragedy of the Brougham’s story is that he is driving his wife and daughter as well. Julia hasn’t forgotten where their destination is, but so long as Henry sits behind the wheel and refuses to discuss the matter, their detour will continue-especially since the destination requires the family to be together.

Dudley: It could be [okay], if people could just learn to behave like human beings.

Dudley comes into the Brougham’s lives to help Henry return to behaving like a caring person. The irony is that Dudley, the least human of all, must teach these people to behave like human beings. While Henry must re-learn his humanity before he loses it completely, the Professor, the Bishop’s secretary, and others whom Dudley helps also see what it means to behave like true human beings. They learn about faith and caring, about charity and hope. They even learn about each other.

Dudley: It will be difficult to help you, until I’m sure I know what you really want.

Part of Dudley’s challenge comes from the fact that Henry doesn’t know what he really wants. He struggles to accomplish the Herculean task of erecting a massive cathedral-a noble endeavor-but as he does, he loses sight of his true mission. “That was your gift,” Julia tells him at the beginning of the movie. “To make people happy.” But her words also sting. “You’re no financier. You’re no promoter.” And then she offers the real tragedy of the unfolding story, “What’s happened to our marriage?” Betraying his thoughts, Henry cries out, “What about my cathedral?”

Throughout the film, Henry believes that his mission is to construct the cathedral. While Mrs. Hamilton sees it as a monument to her late husband, Henry sees it as a monument to his success as a bishop. After all, what is a bishop without a cathedral? While he sells his ideals to construct the monument, the most meaningful parts of his life are crumbling around him. He no longer means anything to the people of his parish. He no longer sees his daughter. And he no longer puts his wife’s happiness first. Henry thinks he prayed for help in making the cathedral a reality, but what he really prayed for, in his words and in his heart, was the prayer the Lord answered: a plea for guidance.

Dudley (about Julia): There are a few people who know how to make a heaven on earth.

What could be more valuable in this world than creating a bit of heaven on earth? But what does it mean and how is it done? Is it the idyllic condition of sitting on a Roman couch without a care in the world as servants feed you peeled grapes? Clearly, not. Dudley would know what it means to experience heaven on earth, so his praise of Julia is high praise, indeed. Julia’s talent comes from knowing where to find true joy. She was never more happy than when she was spending a private lunch with her husband, enjoying the beautiful sounds of music, and refusing to be harried-or hurried-about worthless things.

Henry: Let us all ask what [Christ] would wish for most and all put in our share.

Christmas tends to be the best time of the year to refocus our commitment to behaving like human beings. So many of the lessons that Henry learns are lessons of perspective, faith, and humanity. This entertaining film also inspires us with the true power of daily Christianity. It is no accident that for all of Dudley’s miraculous powers, everything he does can be done by the lowliest human being. One doesn’t need to call lightning from the heavens to organize someone’s files, help someone across the street, or brighten a child’s day. Indeed the power of angels-charity-is within our grasp.

2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.