Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Connections Between It's a Wonderful Life & The Bishops Wife

The Forties were a bit of a Golden Age for Yuletide movies. In fact, a good number of classic Christmas films we still watch today were made during the decade. The years 1946 and 1947 seem to have been a particularly good time for holiday movies, with no less than four films considered among the very best released in those years. It's a Wonderful Life (1946), It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and The Bishop's Wife (1947) number among classic movie fans' favourites from the era. Indeed, It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop's Wife often rank at the top of any list of the greatest Christmas movies ever made.

It should then come as no surprise that many of these films have a good deal in common. In particular, there are a number of connections between It's a Wonderful Life and The Bishop's Wife, more than many people may realise. Some would be obvious to those who have seen both films. Others might only be obvious to classic film buffs. Yet others might only known to those familiar with the history of the films. I thought then I would list some of the connections between It's a Wonderful Life and The Bishop's Wife.

Both Films Centre Upon Angels Helping Mortals

This is one of the more obvious things that It's a Wonderful Life and The Bishop's Wife share in common. In It's a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey (played by James Stewart) contemplates suicide, it is the angel Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) who comes to George's rescue. In The Bishop's Wife, when Bishop Henry Brougham (played by David Niven) prays for guidance, it is the angel Dudley who comes to assist him. Here it must be pointed out that it is The Bishop's Wife that is more accurate in its portrayal of angels with regards to Judaeo-Christian theology. In Judaeo-Christian theology an angel is a spiritual being who is more powerful than humans, but less powerful than God. They serve as intermediaries between God and humans. This describes Dudley in The Bishop's Wife perfectly. On the other hand, in It's a Wonderful Life Clarence is a mortal who died and went to heaven. According to Judaeo-Christian theology, then, Clarence would not be an angel, but simply a ghost or more precisely, the helpful dead of folklore.

Cary Grant Almost Starred in What Would Become It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life was based on the story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern. Unable to sell the story, Mr. Stern had 200 copies of the story printed and sent out as a Christmas card during the holiday season of 1943. One of these cards would find its way into the hands of RKO producer David Hempstead. It was then in 1944 that RKO bought the screen rights to "The Greatest Gift" as the source for a possible vehicle for Cary Grant. Three failed drafts of the screenplay were written before RKO abandoned the project. It was RKO head Charles Koerner who interested Frank Capra in "The Greatest Gift". It was then in 1945 that RKO sold the rights to the story to Mr. Capra's production company Liberty Films.

Of course, Cary Grant would go onto star in The Bishop's Wife. Here it must be pointed out that prior to making It's a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra was looking at another property that would also become a Christmas classic. In 1945 Frank Capra acquired the rights to the story "It Happened on Fifth Avenue" by Herbert Clyde Lewis and Frederick Stephani with the intent of making a film based on the story. When Frank Capra read "The Greatest Gift", he abandoned plans for a movie based on "It Happened on Fifth Avenue" and made It's a Wonderful Life instead. He sold the rights to "It Happened on Fifth Avenue" to Monogram Pictures, who made the film It Happened on Fifth Avenue .  It was the first film released by new unit Allied Artists.

It's a Wonderful Life and The Bishop's Wife Shared Cast Members in Common

Most classic film buffs know that Karolyn Grimes played both George and Mary Bailey's daughter Zuzu in  It's a Wonderful Life and Henry and Julia Brougham's daughter Debbie in The Bishop's Wife. That having been said, the two films have more cast members in common than just Karolyn Grimes. Bobby Anderson, who played 12 year old George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, played the captain of the team of boys defending a snow fort in a snowball fight in The Bishop's Wife. Quite simply, in The Bishop's Wife we then have an actor who played George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life engaging in snowball fight with the actress who played his daughter in It's a Wonderful Life!

Two minor roles in The Bishop's Wife were filled by two actresses who played minor roles in It's a Wonderful Life. Sarah Edwards, who played Mary's mother Mrs. Hatch in It's a Wonderful Life, played Mrs. Duffy, the organist at St Timothy's Church, in The Bishop's Wife. Almira Sessions, who played Mr. Potter's secretary in It's a Wonderful Life, appeared as one of the ladies in the restaurant Michel's in The Bishop's Wife.

Both Films Were Nominated for Academy Awards

While neither Its a Wonderful Life nor The Bishop's Wife did particularly well at the box office (It's a Wonderful Life actually did better, with $3.3 million to The Bishop's Wife's $3 million), both received recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It's a Wonderful Life was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (for Frank Capra), Best Actor (for James Stewart), Best Film Editing (for William Hornbeck), and Best Sound Recording (for John Aalberg). While it won none of them, it did win a  a Technical Achievement Award for the development of a brand new method of faking snow on movie sets. The Bishop's Wife also received its share of Oscar nominations. It was nominated for Best Picture; Best Director (for Henry Koster), Best Film Editing (for Monica Collingwood), and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (for Hugo Friedhofer). It won the Oscar for Best Sound, Recording for Gordon Sawyer.

Of course, beyond these things in common, It's a Wonderful Life and The Bishop's Wife are both films that are regarded among the greatest Christmas films ever made. While neither was exactly a smash at the box office, over the years their reputations would grow, particularly through repeat showings on television. Indeed, it is often the case that if for some reason It's a Wonderful Life does not top a list of the greatest holiday films ever made, it is only because it has been beaten by The Bishop's Wife. It would seem that when it comes to Christmas movies, audiences prefer those where angels tread.


Caftan Woman said...

A lovely look at the similarities in films that touch us deeply.

Julie said...