Friday, December 19, 2008

Quintessentially Christmas

TCM is airing the warm Christmas-themed romantic fantasy The Bishop's Wife tonight at 8:00 PM ET. It's a simple but excellent movie that's suitable for the entire family.

There's not a whole lot to the story: David Niven plays Episcopalian Bishop Henry Brougham, a man whose life has hit a bit of a snag. He's so worried about getting the new cathedral built -- essentially, out of hubris, as a monument to his tenure as a bishop -- that he hasn't been paying enough attention to his own wife (Loretta Young) and daughter. What's needed is a bit of divine intervention, which God suitably provides in the form of the angelic Dudley, played by Cary Grant.

Dudley's job is to reinvigorate the bishop's faith, and get him to see the things that really matter in life -- and if he does that, he might just realize he doesn't really need that cathedral, as the money can be better used elsewhere. It's a straightforward enough task for Dudley, who quickly becomes the bishop's assistant (and in a few humorous special effects scenes uses his divine powers). However, along the way, Dudley doesn't just help the Rev. Brougham and Mrs. Brougham, but the rest of the townsfolk as well.

And what a town this is! There's the tipsy professor of ancient history, for whom Dudley is an actual eyewitness to those ancient events, played by Monty Woolley. The Broughams' maid is well-played by Elsa Lanchester. Gladys Cooper, who is probably best known for playing Bette Davis' possessive mother in Now, Voyager, appears here as the rich woman who only wants to donate to the cathedral if she can get part of it named after her late husband. You can only imagine what Dudley has to say to her. Another veteran character actor, James Gleason, shows up as a jaded taxi driver.

The Bishop's Wife is, for whatever reason, overlooked today, compared to some of the other holiday classics from the 1940s: Meet John Doe, It's a Wonderful Life, or Miracle on 34th Street. That's really a shame, since The Bishop's Wife is a classy movie that also has the virtue of displaying good Christian values (for those who are concerned about that, especially in a family movie), without being preachy (good news for the more secular viewers). In addition to tonight's airing, it's on again at 6:00 PM ET on Christmas Eve, and available on DVD too.

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