The transformative powers of guardian angels have been well documented throughout Hollywood history in a number of fine films, but without question, the most famous and durable example of divine intervention is Henry Travers' benevolent Clarence helping James Stewart's tortured George Bailey thwart suicide and appreciate his existence in the perennial Christmas classic, 'It's A Wonderful Life.' Though Frank Capra's tale of redemption and renewal would eventually achieve iconic status, it didn't perform particularly well at the box office during its initial theatrical run. Such disappointing returns, however, didn't deter independent producer Samuel Goldwyn - still basking in the glow of the multiple Oscars won by 'The Best Years of Our Lives' - from riding the film's celestial coattails and mounting an adaptation of Robert Nathan's early novel, 'The Bishop's Wife,' which traverses similar territory. A mere trifle compared to Capra's emotionally wrenching drama, this mystical yuletide yarn possesses plenty of whimsy and enough seasonal cheer to rank among the elite holiday movies of the Golden Age. And even if it didn't, it still outclasses its insipid and misguided remake, 'The Preacher's Wife,' by a heavenly mile.
If your only experience with the story of a do-right angel named Dudley who floats down to Earth to answer the desperate prayers of a beleaguered minister is the version starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston, then you owe it to yourself to examine the 1947 original, which possesses a far more genuine and intimate feel, and transmits the messages of hope, faith, and rejuvenation with subtlety and grace. Directed with a gentle touch by Henry Koster ('The Robe') and acted to perfection by Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven, 'The Bishop's Wife' deftly blends light comedy with the vagaries of human emotion to create a warm-hearted holiday brew that's pungent and sweet, yet thankfully eschews a saccharine aftertaste. Nathan, whose poetic prose and sensitive explorations of romantic relationships distinguish such novels as 'Portrait of Jennie' and such films as 'The Clock,' cuts to the heart of every situation, uncovering nuggets of identifiable, resonating truth, and the adaptation by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert E. Sherwood ('The Petrified Forest') and Leonardo Bercovici - with uncredited tweaking by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett - retains the author's intonation and enviable ability to seamlessly entwine real and metaphysical worlds.
Those worlds collide when the dashing Dudley (Grant) comes to the aid of New York City bishop Henry Brougham (Niven), who prays for guidance when he sees his dream of constructing a cathedral slipping away due to lack of funds and the selfish demands of a bitter dowager who will only help finance the project if it becomes a monument to her late husband. Henry, of course, tries to quash such an outrageous demand, yet his obsession with this herculean project spawns a crisis of faith and puts a strain on his marriage to Julia (Young), who bemoans their lost intimacy and beseeches him to help revitalize their relationship. Dudley, who reveals his true identity only to Henry, immediately hits it off with Julia, and through a series of festive outings infuses her with the happiness she's sorely missed. Their involvement, however, throws Henry into a jealous pique, and despite Dudley's good intentions and eagerness to help Henry acknowledge the blessings in his life, the bishop can't wait until his guardian angel guards him no more.
Swallowing a fanciful story like 'The Bishop's Wife' requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief, but Grant, here at his polished and debonair best, makes his angel so human, we often forget his heavenly association. The result is an airy fantasy that's grounded just enough in reality to be palatable, and features a surprising amount of romantic tension. The comfortable interplay between the three leads further fuels the narrative engine, and top-flight supporting work from a stellar cast that includes Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Gladys Cooper, and Elsa Lanchester immerses us deeper into the drama while adding to the sense of high-spirited fun that's such a vital component of the film. And if comparisons to 'It's A Wonderful Life' aren't blatant enough, eagle eyes will also spot a couple of crossover actors: Karolyn Grimes, who won our collective hearts playing little Zuzu Bailey, is Debby, the adorable daughter of Young and Niven; and Bobby Anderson, who made a striking impression as the juvenile George Bailey, appears here as the head honcho of a local playground gang.
Young won the 1947 Best Actress Oscar for her work in another light comedy, 'The Farmer's Daughter,' but there's little doubt her natural, at times luminous, performance in 'The Bishop's Wife' contributed to her victory. Niven brings his usual dry and droll sense of humor to the proceedings (a few of his reaction shots are priceless), along with a poignancy one can only attribute to the grief he was feeling over the tragic and untimely death of his first wife, which occurred at a Hollywood party only a few months before production commenced. As the Scrooge-like society matron eventually enlightened by Dudley, Cooper is appropriately arch and icy (much like the domineering mother she played in 'Now, Voyager'), while Woolley engenders sympathy as a rueful professor who also benefits from Dudley's "meddling."
'The Bishop's Wife' doesn't wield tremendous impact, but remains an intimate, affecting film that quietly inspires its audience to cherish life's pleasures and the people who enhance our existence. The simple message rings true any time of year, but carries more weight at Christmas, and this sincere, elegant motion picture will certainly brighten everyone's holiday season this year and beyond.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Bishop's Wife' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Aside from one jarring and perplexing snafu (described below), 'The Bishop's Wife' benefits from a superior transfer that spotlights the beauty and depth of Gregg Toland's lush black-and-white photography. Warner's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering at times errs a tad toward the dark side, but marvelous gray scale variance, excellent clarity, and well-pitched contrast nullify any adverse effects. A mild layer of grain maintains the film-like feel yet never overpowers the image, and any age-related imperfections, such as specks, scratches, and reel-change markers, have been meticulously erased.
Black levels are deep and inky, with Henry's pastoral robes and Dudley's sport jackets adopting a lovely sheen, while bright and crisp whites highlight the ever-present snow without blooming. Background details show up especially well, with the wallpaper, wood carvings, and other ornate trimmings in Mrs. Hamilton's stately home exhibiting a wonderful sense of sharpness, along with palpable depth - a trademark of the estimable cinematography of Toland. Close-ups are equally fine, showcasing Young's lovely expressions of warmth and Grant's polished good looks, and no crush or noise creeps into the picture.
Now to the anomaly. At the 29:48 mark, just as Dudley begins to walk into Henry's office to magically file some index cards, a fleeting image of Dudley and Professor Wutheridge from earlier in the film - at the 9:31 mark - pops into view for a split second. The intrusion is jarring and off-putting, but the original scene quickly resumes and all is well for the balance of the movie. Luckily, the disruption does not occur during a critical narrative juncture, so it's easy to dismiss it, but I can't understand how such a glaring gaffe could escape Warner's notice. Does the error impinge upon one's ultimate enjoyment of the picture? Unless 'The Bishop's Wife' happens to be your all-time favorite film, I'd say no. The interruption, though extremely noticeable, is quite brief and innocuous, but it does destroy the movie's integrity, and so it should be rectified by WHV. Whether a disc replacement program will be enacted remains to be seen, as does whether this issue will effect sales. Though I like 'The Bishop's Wife' very much and am generally a stickler when it comes to getting things right, I doubt I will bother with replacing my disc should such an opportunity arise. To me, it's just not that big a deal, but that's merely my own personal opinion in this instance.
Though this glitch is unfortunate and annoying, it can't detract from the fine picture quality that's on constant display. Warner always takes great care of its enviable classics catalogue, and the image transfer here continues that enduring tradition. Although I haven't seen any previous home video editions of 'The Bishop's Wife,' I can't imagine this holiday favorite looking any better than it does on this Blu-ray disc. I just wish the company's quality control matched its commitment to film preservation. Warner "forgot" to include a vital supplement on the 'Easter Parade' disc, and while its responsiveness to the issue was swift, the solution to the problem was less than satisfying. Let's hope this snafu is addressed with equal alacrity and receives a happier ending.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies good quality sound, but is hampered by faint but consistent surface noise that's quite noticeable during quiet scenes. Pops are absent, yet audible crackles quite often rear their ugly heads, calling undue attention to the audio's vintage nature. On the plus side, the mono track remains nicely balanced throughout, and dialogue, which is often spoken in soft tones, is always clear and easy to comprehend.
The music of Hugo Friedhofer, who also wrote the marvelous, Oscar-winning score for 'The Best Years of Our Lives,' possesses fine tonal depth and fills the room with ease. The heavy strings resist distortion, and though the subwoofer is silent, warm bass accents enhance the soundscape. Though this is far from an active track, the audio is clear and pronounced. It's just a shame a little more clean-up work couldn't have been performed to smooth out those rough edges.
The original theatrical trailer for 'The Bishop's Wife' is the only extra on the disc, although it's not really a trailer at all. Grant, Young, and Niven are all on hand to hype the film, but the charming three-minute "preview" is all about the trio's struggle to get the trailer made, and at the end, they decide the film has so many surprises, any sort of preview would spoil it. Though such contrived offerings usually fall flat, this one succeeds, thanks to the vibrant, natural personalities of the three stars. A little restoration work would have perked up this rarity, but it's still a treat to see it included.
With so many holiday classics from which to choose, it's easy to overlook some small gems, but by all means don't let 'The Bishop's Wife' slip through the cracks. This mystical, romantic, and delicately told tale brims with Christmas warmth and cheer, thanks to a literate, whimsical screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici, and winning performances from Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. Combining elements of 'It's A Wonderful Life' with Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol,' 'The Bishop's Wife' inspires in the best sense of that oft-used word, and deserves to become a holiday tradition. Warner's Blu-ray presentation features a top-flight video transfer (save for one brief, maddening boo-boo), good audio, but is far too thin on supplements. Though this festive release may play best at Christmastime, it still earns an enthusiastic recommendation any season of the year. Of course, whether you want to wait and see if the video issue is rectified before purchasing this disc may determine whether you enjoy 'The Bishop's Wife' this Christmas or next.