The Bishop’s Wife: The third best Christmas film ever

The 1947 film is loaded with Hollywood greats

The Bishop's Wife
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Director: Henry Koster
Cert: G
Starring: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Monty Woolley, Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester
Running Time: 1 hr 49 mins

The welcome restoration of this lovely film from Hollywood’s golden age – in the week of Avatar, most other new films have gone a-running – suggests that a long, long journey of reappraisal has finally reached its destination.

The Bishop’s Wife, first released in 1947, has long provided background noise at the Christmas season. The neatness of its high concept was confirmed as long ago as 1996 when Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington appeared in a remake titled The Preacher’s Wife. But it has generally lagged behind worthy classics such as Miracle on 34th Street and indestructible pabulum such as White Christmas.

“What an idea for a picture!” an early tag line read. Well, quite. It was such a good idea that parts of it were used a year earlier for the (then only modestly successful) It’s A Wonderful Life.

The incomparable David Niven, no less charming in clerical robes, plays a harried bishop, struggling to find the funds for a new cathedral. This being the season, his prayers deliver an angel in human form. Dudley, the supernatural assistant, could hardly contrast more sharply with Henry Travers’s befuddled Clarence in the Frank Capra picture. It is Cary Grant and, though the bishop is unimpressed, everyone else in the locale – including, crucially, his lovely wife (Loretta Young) – falls under the newcomer’s persuasive spell.


The thing is loaded with Hollywood greats. Monty Wooley, best known as The Man Who Came to Dinner, plays an intellectual pal of the bishop. Elsa Lanchester, The Bride of Frankenstein herself, is the cleric’s housekeeper. Rather neatly, Karolyn Grimes (still with us at 82), who plays the couple’s daughter, was the charming Zuzu Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.

You could hardly imagine a better example of the Hollywood machine in fluid, engaging action. Based on a novella by Robert Nathan, the script touches on all the wholesome tropes of the Christmas movie without dipping too deeply into schmaltz. Dudley helps locals ice skate. He magically redecorates a Christmas tree. But, as was often the case with films made during the era of the production code, there are hints of something more dangerous beneath the surface. What exactly are Dudley’s intentions towards the Bishop’s Wife? The polished Cary Grant persona never entirely concealed the promise of nocturnal transportation. Thank uncredited script work by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.

In short, the third best Christmas film ever. I will be answering no further questions at this time.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist