Thursday, December 21, 2017

70 Years of The Bishop's Wife (1947)

The Bishop's Wife (1947) numbers among the best loved Christmas movies of all time. In fact, it often tops polls of individuals' favourite holiday films, alongside such heavyweights as It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). The movie just turned 70 years old this month, having premiered on December 9 1947 in New York City. Surprisingly for a film now considered a classic, The Bishop's Wife's path to the big screen was not a smooth one.

For those of you who have never seen it, The Bishop's Wife featured David Niven as a bishop, Henry Brougham, who is having trouble getting funds to build a new cathedral. In answer to a prayer for guidance, the angel Dudley (played by Cary Grant) arrives. While Henry is obsessed with getting the new cathedral funded, however, Dudley insists on helping Henry with his life in general, as well as the lives of those around him. Among these people is Henry's beautiful wife Julia (played by Loretta Young), who became quite fond of Dudley (never realising that he is an angel), as well as his old friend Professor Wutheridge (played by Monty Woolley).

The Bishop's Wife was based on the 1928 novel of the same name by Robert Nathan. Primarily known for his fantasy fiction, Robert Nathan's most famous novel was probably Portrait of Jennie, which would be adapted as the highly successful film Portrait of Jennie (1948). Reportedly Samuel Goldwyn bought the film rights to The Bishop's Wife for $200,000, with an eye to it being his next big film.

To adapt the novel as a screenplay, Samuel Goldwyn hired Leonardo Bercovici, who had previously wrote the screenplays for such films as Racket Busters (1938) and The Lost Moment (1947). Mr. Goldwyn was not satisfied with Mr. Bercovici's work, feeling that it lacked the whimsy of the novel. To help with the project, Samuel Goldwyn looked to director and screenwriter William Wyler, who had worked with the producer on several films, including Dodsworth (1936), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). William Wyler turned Samuel Goldwyn down, and instead joined Frank Capra's new production company, Liberty Films. To direct The Bishop's Wife Samuel Goldwyn then brought in director William A. Seiter, who had begun his career as a stunt double and bit player at Keystone and went on to direct such films as Sons of the Desert (1933), Roberta (1935), and Room Service (1938).

Even casting The Bishop's Wife would not always go smoothly. According to news in The Hollywood Reporter at the time, David Niven was to play the angel Dudley, while Cary Grant was to play Bishop Henry Brougham. Obviously this changed. According to the biography David Niven: The Man Behind the Balloon by Michael Munn, Cary Grant decided that he was better suited for the role of the angel Dudley. David Niven was not happy that he would not be playing the bishop, but Cary Grant was the bigger star and so the two of them switched roles. The roles of Dudley and the bishop would not be the only ones that would be recast. Initially Teresa Wright, now best known for her roles in Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), was cast in the title role of the bishop's wife, Julia. She remained in the role for as long as William A. Seither remained the director, which would not be long.

Quite simply, the film had only been shooting for about a week when Samuel A. Goldwyn decided he was unhappy with William A. Seiter's direction and fired him as director. At about the same time, Samuel Goldwyn then hired screenwriter and playwright Robert E. Sherwood to rework the script. Mr. Sherwood already had a sterling record as a screenwriter, having written such films as Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) and Rebecca, to improve the script. He had already worked with Samuel Goldwyn, having written the screenplays for such films as The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) and Mr. Goldwyn's big hit The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). It was also at this time that Samuel A. Goldwyn decided that the sets for the bishop's residence had to be redone, and so the sets were entirely rebuilt. In all, both the delay in shooting and building new sets cost Samuel Goldwyn around $700,000 to $800, 000.

The delay would result in changes to the cast, with various supporting actors having to leave the production because of prior commitments. Among these was Elsa Lancaster, who played the Broughams' housekeeper, Mathilda. She was replaced by Edit Angold. Fortunately, the delay was long enough that Miss Lancaster was able to complete her other commitment and return to The Bishop's Wife to play Mathilda. The biggest change in the cast would be with regards to the leading lady. During the delay Teresa Wright learned that she was pregnant and would not be able to appear in The Bishop's Wife. She was replaced by Loretta Young, who was already one of the biggest names in the business. Of course, The Bishop's Wife would also have a new director. Henry Koster had directed such films as Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939) and It Started with Eve (1941).

Even with a new director, shooting on The Bishop's Wife would not always go smoothly. Cary Grant and Loretta Young had previously worked together on Born to Be Bad (1934) and gotten along well, but they did not always get along well on The Bishop's Wife. An example of this was one scene in which they were to be shot in profile and both actors insisted that his or her left side was his or her best side. Henry Koster eventually had to alter the scene in such away that would please both Cary Grant and Loretta Young. As to David Niven, shooting on The Bishop's Wife began not long after his wife, Primmie, had died from a fall that fractured her skull at the home of Mr. Niven's friend Tyrone Power. David Niven, then usually happy and cheerful, was then still in mourning while the film was being shot.

The film's problems would continue once it was previewed for audiences. At previews for The Bishop's Wife, audience's reactions to the movie were generally middling. Samuel Goldwyn then looked to Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett as to how to improve The Bishop's Wife. The two of them identified a few scenes and that should be reworked. They spent an entire weekend writing and the sequences were reshot that Monday. Samuel Goldwyn offered them $25,000 for their work, but given California's tax code at the time, they decided they would rather not be paid at all.

The Bishop's Wife premiered in New York City on December 9 1947. It opened in Boston, Massachusetts and Los Angeles, California on Christmas Day, December 25 1947. It opened across the United States on February 16 1948. Early in its run The Bishop's Wife did not do particularly well at the box office. Research showed that audiences apparently thought the film was a religious movie. To improve the box office take, then, in some markets posters and advertisements for The Bishop's Wife were changed to read Cary and The Bishop's Wife.  By adding Cary Grant's name to the title in promotional material, the box office was increased by 25% in some markets.

Ultimately, The Bishop's Wife would do fairly well at the box office, grossing $3,527,000. That having been said, I have not been able to determine if The Bishop's Wife actually made any money in its initial run as I was unable to find out what its budget was. That having been said, knowing what kind of money the delay  and building new sets cost Samuel Goldwyn (not to mention how much he paid for the novel's rights), I have to wonder if it made any money at all in its original run. Of course, The Bishop's Wife would still be shown in theatres into the Fifties, so that it probably made a tidy sum after its original run, even considering all the money that had spent to make it.

Regardless, The Bishop's Wife received generally good notices from critics. It also received several Oscar nominations, including nominations for Best Director; Best Film Editing; Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture; and Best Picture. It won the Academy Award for Best Sound for sound director Gordon Sawyer.

The Bishop's Wife would be adapted as a radio play several times. The Screen Guild Theatre aired a radio adaption of the movie on March 1 1948 with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven reprising their roles from the film. Lux Radio Theatre adapted the film three different times, the first being on December 19 1949 and the last on March 1 1955.

It was in the mid-Sixties that The Bishop's Wife began airing regularly on local television stations. If anything broadcasts of the film would increase in the Seventies, so that by the Eighties it was something of a holiday tradition for many television stations around the United States. While counted among the major classic Yuletide movies, interestingly enough TV stations sometimes showed The Bishop's Wife at other times of year than the holidays. Even in the Eighties it was sometimes shown at such odd times as February, March, and even September!

The continued popularity of The Bishop's Wife would lead to a remake in 1996. The Preacher's Wife  was directed by Penny Marshall and was released on December 13 1996.  The film received moderately positive reviews and made $48 million at the box office.

Of course, for many no remake could ever replace the original. It would appear that the various difficulties it took to make The Bishop's Wife were well worth. Playing in theatres well after its first run, the film would later become standard holiday fare on television. It has since become regarded as one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, to the point that it is often ranked alongside It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street in popularity. The Bishop's Wife may not have been a particularly easy film for Samuel Goldwyn to make, but it remains one of his best known.

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