Journalists love using anniversaries to write about their favorite things—bonus points if that anniversary is divisible by 25. All of this is to say, I’m fully aware of the stereotype I’m fulfilling in taking advantage of the 75th anniversary of The Bishop’s Wife.
TBW was released a year after It’s a Wonderful Life to a similarly muted response at the box office. But while Jimmy Stewart’s Christmas film eventually became a classic, The Bishop’s Wife has faded from public memory. Featuring some of the biggest stars in Hollywood history—Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven all in the same film!—and receiving almost universally positive reviews, this heartwarming, anti-materialist, for-the-whole-family Christmas flick fell short of financial expectations because it was explicitly religious.
Niven plays the bishop, Henry Brougham, and Young plays his wife, Julia. The Broughams’ marriage has been on the rocks since Henry was promoted to bishop and turned his attention to fundraising for a new cathedral. Henry prays for help—expecting that help to be for the cathedral—and God sends an angel in the form of Dudley (Cary Grant). Dudley is handsome and charming and much more interested in repairing the state of the Broughams’ relationship than in helping Henry persuade the wealthy widow Mrs. Agnes Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) to donate to the cathedral fund. Hijinks occur, lessons are learned, and a merry Christmas is had by all. An atheist even converts!
And yet, the word “bishop” appeared in the title, and audiences stayed away, thinking it was a “religious film”—an amusing challenge to those who paint the era as a time of unified Christian nationalism.) Ticket sales increased only when the film was renamed Cary and the Bishop’s Wife and salaciously advertised with lines like “Have you heard about Cary and the bishop’s wife?” But the damage was already done, and the movie was not widely viewed.