Saturday, July 10, 2021

Royal Film Performance Series: The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

King George VI (blurry), Queen Elizabeth, King Michael of Rumania, and Princess Margaret.

The movie shown at the second Royal Film Performance, like the first, had a religious tone to it. It was the now Christmas classic, The Bishop's Wife (1947) starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. It was held at the Odeon Theatre on November 25, 1947, just five days after the Royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. They understandably did not attend. 

While the newlyweds were not in attendance, the audience WAS treated to a 30 minute color film of the wedding. An Australian newspaper described the scene:

The King and Queen, with Princess Margaret, made a tortuous progress to the theatre while milling crowds choked the approaches and pressed against the steel crush barriers.

Mounted police had to force a route for cars bearing the Royal parties and film celebrities.

Several people fainted an had to be extricated by ambulance men. 

~ The Mercury, November 27, 1947

Another newspaper, The Daily News (November 26, 1947), shared this interesting tidbit:

The Film, The Bishop's Wife, is American. It comes under the new British tax and will not be generally distributed. 

Up to £A32/10/ were paid for seats near the Royal box. The show raised more than £A31,500 for the Cinematograph Trade Benevolent Fund. 

Click here to see the program (for sale on Ebay) 

CLICK HERE to watch a two minute British Pathe newsreel. 
I love how they describe the gowns.

And CLICK HERE for a six minute video of silent footage of stars and guests arriving.
British Pathe films have to be licensed, so I have removed them from my posts.

Loretta Young: An Extraordinary Life, by Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein, recounts the glamorous star's encounter with the royals:
Among their fellow passangers [on the Queen Mary] was Noel Coward, of whom an anxious Loretta asked, "When I curtsey to the queen how low shall I bow?" To which Coward replied, "To the floor, ducky"(260).

Loretta was not disappointed upon meeting the royal family. She later recalled, "As the big moment approached, I kept running around trying to find out whether I should wear my long white gloves. Everybody was so excited, and I was no exception. Although we had been well rehearsed for the event, we all just plain forgot. I was frantic, for suddenly the line began to move and my turn was coming. At the last minute I got a peek at the others and saw they had their gloves on. I never got gloves on so fast in my life"(261). 

David Niven, according to the authorized biography Niv by Graham Lord, reported to producer Sam Goldwyn, "The audience loved every second of it and the Queen and Princess Margaret told me afterwards and at great length how much they enjoyed it" (148). 


While a fantasy, there are no fantastic heavenly manifestations. There’s a humanness about the characters, even the angel, that beguiles full attention. Henry Koster’s sympathetic direction deftly gets over the warm humor supplied by the script, taken from Robert Nathan’s novel of the same title.

Cary Grant is the angel of the piece and has never appeared to greater advantage. Role, with the exception of a minor miracle or two, is potently pointed to indicate character could have been a flesh-and-blood person, a factor that embellishes sense of reality as the angel sets about answering the troubled prayers of Episcopalian bishop (David Niven).

 Plot, essentially, deals with Grant’s assignment to make people act like human beings. In great need of his help is Niven, a young bishop who has lost the common touch and marital happiness because of his dream of erecting a massive cathedral.

Loretta Young gives a moving performance as the wife whose life is touched by an angel without her knowledge of his heavenly origin. Niven’s cleric character is played straight but his anxieties and jealousy loosen much of the warm humor gracing the plot.


Emissaries from heaven are not conspicuously exceptional on the screen, the movies having coyly incarnated any number of these supernatural types, ordained by their fanciful creators to right the wrongs of this world (not to mention the bookkeeping errors that seem to occur up above). And certainly communion with angels is traditional at Christmastime, which is the season when most of us mortals need angelic reassurance anyhow. So there is nothing especially surprising about the miracle that occurs in Samuel Goldwyn's "The Bishop's Wife," which opened last night at the Astor—except that it is superb. And that is very surprising, in view of the realistic fact that it is a sentimental whimsy of the most delicate and dangerous sort. All of us know that angels don't walk the earth like natural men—and definitely not in the image of that debonair rascal, Gary Grant. And most of us have some dark misgivings about the tact of the makers of films when they barge into the private area of a man's communication with his God. But you need have no anxieties in the case of "The Bishop's Wife." It is as cheerful and respectful an invasion of the realm of conscience that we have seen. And it comes very close to being the most enchanting picture of the year — a judgment to which its many merits will shortly make a strong bid. That is because its incursion is on a comparatively simple and humble plane and its whimsy is sensitively syphoned from the more human and humorous frailties of the flesh. We are not going to make an analysis of the many subtle comments in this tale of a full-bodied guardian angel who answers a young bishop's prayer for guidance and spiritual comfort in the midst of a crisis in his life. We are not going to state any morals which this charmingly casual angel proves in drawing the bishop's wrought attention from a new cathedral to the richer services of life—and, particularly, to a fresh fulfillment of his family responsibilities. We are not going to mouth about these matters, because the picture itself refrains—and that is one of the most endearing of its many endearing young charms. In shaping this warm and winning fable from a Robert Nathan book, Robert Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici have written with beautiful belief that a point clearly made in performance doesn't have to be hit a dozen times nor a moral quietly manifested put into a hundred solemn words. And so there is no heavy pounding of the lesson of humanity, of the futility of ostentation, of the special possessiveness of a man's love. Nor is there any such pounding in Henry Koster's directorial style. Smoothly and with artful invention he has induced Mr. Grant to give one of his most fluent and beguiling performances as the angel, "Dudley," who fixes things. And he has got out of David Niven a deliciously dexterous and droll characterization of a sorely pressed young bishop who can't quite cotton to this messenger from on high. Elsa Lanchester, too, is encouraged in an exquisitely faceted role of a twitterly little housemaid who flirts with this angelic gent, and Monty Woolley is actually human as an old dodo who is morally re-inspired. James Gleason, Sara Haden and Gladys Cooper are rich in smaller parts. Weakness is only evident in Loretta Young's unctuousness as the bishop's wife. She is the one artificial, inconsistent and discordant note.Of course, there are probably some people who are going to say that this film encourages a futile illusion with its hope of miraculous aid. But they—if they do—will be missing its most warmly inspiring point which is—but wait a minute That's for you to recognize and enjoy. We cannot recommend you to a more delightful and appropriate Christmas show.

Next up in the Royal Film Performance Series: Scott of the Antarctic (1948).

Previous Film: A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

Lord, Graham. Niv: The Authorised Biography of David Niven. St. Martin's Press. 2003. 
Morella, Joe & Epstein, Edward Z. Loretta Young: An Extraordinary Life. Landmark Books. 1986.

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