I just watched "The Bishop's Wife," a light-hearted Christmas flick from 1947 starring Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young, and found it surprisingly moving on several levels. The bullet: David Niven is Bishop Henry Brougham, straining under the burden of trying to raise money for a grand cathedral, Loretta Young is his devoted wife Julia, standing by her man even as she looks back at happier times, and Cary Grant is Dudley, a debonair (shocking, I know) angel who responds to the Bishop's prayer for assistance in an unexpected way.
So why'd I find it so moving? (Lots of spoilers follow, so if you plan to see it, might as well stop reading now.)
1) My current job essentially revolves around fundraising, and, like the Bishop, I've found the task a stressful one. But thanks to Dudley's intercession, a wealthy old widow comes through--not for the cathedral, which is characterized not as a noble undertaking but as a white elephant and a monument to the widow's late husband. Instead, the money will go to food and shelter for the needy, with the Bishop overseeing its disbursement. It sounds a little trite on the page, but in the context of my own professional frustrations, it's a hopeful and encouraging story.
2) Dudley represents both a somewhat challenging and a deeply reassuring spirituality. Even though he appeared in response to the Bishop's prayer, Dudley doesn't simply snap his fingers and grant wishes. In fact, his primary goal is to thwart the Bishop's plans and prevent the construction of the cathedral. The Bishop and the widow don't really want to glorify God with the cathedral--they want to satisfy their own egos, to glorify themselves. Dudley challenges their vision of what's worthwhile and helps them to see that God cares little for monuments--He much prefers small acts of kindness and charity. At the same time, Dudley's a source of comfort to many other characters, in great and small ways--he restores a cab driver's faith in humanity, and he helps the Bishop's daughter win a snowball fight. OK, I realize that Dudley's an angel walking around in a well-tailored suit, so we're not exactly talking Reinhold Niebuhr here. But I've been grappling with my own belief and disbelief lately, and I was affected by the movie's portrayal of a God who comforts the afflicted and (mildly) afflicts the comfortable.
3) The nameless (I think) town is a classically schmaltzy '40s-movie setting. There's St. Timothy's, the sad little church where the bishop got his start and where the choir of urchins sing like, uh, angels. There's the semi-cosmopolitan downtown, with a French restaurant that serves stingers at lunchtime, and the semi-rural rest of town, with a pond-turned-skating-rink. And there's an assortament of neighbors and local characters, led by Prof. Wutheridge, a cheerful, tippling old scholar delightfully portrayed by the ever-reliable Monty Woolley. (Speaking of tippling, when was the last time you saw drinking portrayed in a positive light in a movie or TV show? I'm not suggesting we should gloss over alcoholism as Falstaffian excess, but most people are not alcoholics--they drink responsibly and have a wonderful time doing it. Well, since one of Dudley's minor miracles is a self-filling sherry bottle, I'm going to interpret "The Bishop's Wife" as evidence that the grape is just another of God's creations and was meant to be enjoyed as such.) The sum effect is to root Henry and Julia in a community, where they share a life with people who care about them. Having spent the last 14 years in one neighborhood in San Francisco, I sometimes feel that way, like the other day when our local grocer shared a few brandy-soaked cherries he and a friend had made--and I sometimes feel like just another anonymous worker bee in the modern urban hive.
All in all, one of those great old holiday flicks that does exactly what it was intended to do--lift your spirits while encouraging you to hold yourself (and the world) to a higher moral standard.