There are so many films that I consider “must-watch” material during the holidays. Recently, I have developed a real soft spot for The Bishop’s Wife (1947 version), starring Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young (an early supporter of Family Theater).
The Bishop’s Wife is about a protestant bishop who thinks he is praying for the funds to finish his cathedral but eventually finds that his prayer was for something much more important. Bishop Henry Brougham, in his efforts to appease the big money donors and get his cathedral built, has neglected his faith, his wife, Julia (Loretta Young) and his daughter (Karolyn Grimes, who played “Zuzu” in It’s a Wonderful Life). His prayer is answered with a visit from an angel named Dudley. Dudley helps Henry to see all of the things he is missing in his life and the effect that all of his misguided attention towards the cathedral is having on the people around him; his family, friends and colleagues (the pastor of Henry’s old church). The gag though, is that only Henry knows that Dudley is an angel – which gives the film a slapstick sort of tool. In the end, Henry realizes that he was never praying for a solution to the cathedral’s financial problems, but for guidance – which he receives. [Spoiler Alert] We are treated to a very happy Hollywood holiday ending, to be sure.
The real magic in this film is the transformation that occurs in the ancillary characters as a result of Dudley’s interaction. The first to experience the Angel’e effects are the Bishop’s staff. He takes the time to talk to them and compliment them, in contrast to the Bishop interacts with them as minimally as possible. Agnes Hamilton, plays an old grouch who envisions the cathedral as a monument to her long dead husband. She withholds her donation and so also holds up other large donations to the cathedral fund until Henry acquiesces to her demands. Then she meets Dudley. He helps her to see more clearly why she is the way she is, and helps to melt her icy façade.
The ultimate transformation is Professor Wutheridge (Monty Wooley), “The Professor,” a bitter old man who misses both Henry and Julia – two dear old friends. The Professor has no faith to speak of and considers his Christmas tree to be a bit of nostalgia. But that is the only spark that the Spirit needs to start a conversion – in this case, through Dudley and Julia, the bishop’s wife. The final scene of the film has Dudley watching intently as the professor enters Dudley’s church for services, though the old scholar is not sure why he is doing so.
This shows how the Spirit works: rarely works with only one person’s influence at a time. Rather the Spirit takes a multi-fronted approach to the business of saving souls. In this movie, the Spirit affected every character that Dudley interacts with, from a bunch of school kids having a snowball fight, to the owner of a French restaurant, to Henry and his family. But I think the most profound moment of the film is the Professor walking into that church, to the point where one might think that this was the true reason for Dudley being there in the first place! A man of little or no faith at the outset of the film comes to his faith through the Spirit working through him and his friends. Perhaps it is the change in Henry or Julia that sparks this conversion, but in the long run, it was the beckoning of the Spirit through Dudley that brings this wise old professor to God. So, as we enter this beautiful season of Christmas my advice would be to be careful what you pray for…you might just get it!
How about you, what is you favorite holiday film?