The New York Times ran a brief “Appreciation” titled “‘The Bishop’s Wife’” at the bottom of its column of editorials on Christmas Eve. The author, Verlyn Klinkenborg, regularly appears in that space with a signed feature called “The Rural Life.” His reports from his farm in upstate New York are marvelous.

This short piece was not a pastoral hymn, however, but a wry tribute to the 1947 film The Bishop’s Wife, starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. Grant plays Dudley, an angel sent to a bishop (Niven) at Christmas in answer to his prayers for help in raising money to build a cathedral. Watching The Bishop’s Wife is a Christmas ritual in the Klinkenborg house, and he does a nice job of describing the movie’s anachronistic appeal. As it happens, watching The Bishop’s Wife is also a cherished Christmas ritual in the Baumann house. Klinkenborg’s confession to this guilty pleasure seemed a wonderful bit of serendipity to me.

With his exceptional physical grace, personal magnetism, and infallible comic timing, Cary Grant was often mistaken for an angel. One of the movie’s more amusing jokes is how the bishop’s maid, played by Elsa Lanchester, sighs whenever Grant walks into a room. She seems to speak for all women when in the presence of this near-angel of a man. Or as my wife likes to say, quoting Sophia Loren, “Cary Grant knows what love means to a woman.” Dudley clearly knows what love means to the bishop’s neglected wife, played with a martyr’s forbearance by Loretta Young.

Not to fret; this is an entirely chaste romance. With a wave of his hand, Grant restores and replenishes all he surveys, not least the bishop’s forlorn spouse. In this contest, Niven’s petulant and harried bishop is the perfect foil to Grant’s ethereally playful angel. Among the peculiar satisfactions of the movie are what Klinkenborg rightly calls its “unbelievably cheesy” special effects, which include some gymnastic ice skating and a bottomless bottle of sherry.

As Klinkenborg notes, the relationship between Dudley and an atheistic history professor, an old friend of the bishop’s family, is carried off with real subtlety. “In the end, of course,” Klinkenborg writes, “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.” I’m sure many people end up in church, at Christmas and other times, thanks to something of the same mixture of curiosity and longing.

When I expressed my delight with Klinkenborg’s praise for The Bishop’s Wife to a colleague, he noted that the piece struck him as snide in its attitude toward Christianity. I initially resisted this suggestion, but on rereading the essay I found my colleague was right. Klinkenborg notes that the theology behind the movie “defies imagination,” and that most popular Christmas movies “are tales of redemptive hysteria,” which is true enough. He also argues, with evident satisfaction, that “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 round this grim world and sees that what it needs is not a cathedral but charity.”

The importance of choice is, of course, the unquestioned dogma of our times, and this grim, reductionist reading of the film seems rather “cheesy” to me. It’s the sort of trite advice you’d get from a “life coach” or a motivational speaker. Actually, the old history professor does not come to a better understanding of his choices. Rather, he’s given the hope and faith to complete his book, a life’s work much postponed. As for the bishop, he comes to understand how in raising money to build the cathedral he lost track of why he wanted to build it in the first place. It is quite possible that the world needs both charity and cathedrals. In fact, the very idea of charity may lose its cogency in the absence of churches, each a place the poet Philip Larkin described as “a serious house on serious earth... / In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, / Are recognized, and robed as destinies.”

The Bishop’s Wife is about an angel: not a social worker, but a miracle worker. I’m not sure the instinct for charity can survive separated from the larger sense of transcendent gratitude that religion testifies to and teaches. Like life, The Bishop’s Wife is much more about givens than it is about choices, and I, for one, am grateful for being given this cinematic fairy tale every Christmas.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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Published in the 2007-01-26 issue: View Contents
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