The merriest of Christmases to you and yours! I thought that I would close out this series of admittedly wondrous blog posts with a doozy of a Christmas movie. Once again, I have received inspiration from my family and as they are watching the My Little Pony: A Very Minty Christmas special, I have been spurred to take pen to computer screen and write.
And just as a forewarning, I am not going to follow my admittedly beauteous bride’s sage advice and write about A Very Minty Christmas. Not this year. I know it is what you were all clamoring for, but aside from its value as a great children distractor, I have no real investment in this undeniably goofy special. If you want to go back to the series that aired when you were a 1980s/90s kid, the one where you felt you were being smothered in cotton candy while doing nothing but eating butter cream frosting as you tried on yet another pair of knit leggings in various shades of pink in-between tea parties, then Minty Christmas is just right for you. I think. After all, at the time I was far too busy watching M.A.S.K. and Go-Bots to really care about such things.
But no, I won’t subject you to that type of Christmas special today. After all, this is Christmas Eve! And yeah, for that matter, why are you reading this? I have crappy My Little Pony specials distracting my family right now, but you should be doing stuff with your family and friends instead reading this. At the very least, you should be engaging in some healthy drinking.
Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful and appreciate the readership taking some time out of a hectic holiday schedule to peruse this missive. But please take a moment to look away from your computer screen and soak in the winter landscape, so you can at the very least describe it in all the gory details to your family members in Arizona and other parts south. So often we get caught up in what surrounds the Christmas holiday, that we don’t sit back and take stock of what makes the holiday great.
With that as a mawkish lead-in, I wanted to talk about not only my favorite Christmas movie, but easily is one of my favorite movies across all genres. You might have your holiday go-to movie or show that you must watch every year around this time. For some it is A Christmas Story or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Others enjoy the myriad of versions of A Christmas Carol or Home Alone or Elf. But there’s one Christmas film that stands above all the rest for me.
The years of 1946-1947 were an incredible time for holiday film classics. The end of 1946 of course, saw the release of It’s A Wonderful Life. I’ve been clear in my dislike of this movie, which indeed has some great work by Jimmy Stewart and the assemblage of character actors. However, the movie just doesn’t gel with me. I do like the Potterville section of the movie because there’s some real fun being had with the dark mirror universe Bedford Falls part of the story, but the overall film’s plot could have certainly happened regardless of Christmas being in there or not. And outside of the facts that the networks wanted to air something that was not only public domain but was also low maintenance during the otherwise hectic holiday broadcasting schedule, I don’t know if the general public would’ve latched onto this film the way they have.
Then in 1947, came a far better holiday classic: Miracle on 34th Street. Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood, and wealth of fantastic character actors produced some wonderful performances. Gwenn became the definitive Santa for an entire generation, and it is easy to see why. His overall honest charm in the role is truly something to behold. Gwenn was rewarded for his work with an Academy Award, probably because the Academy members didn’t want to end up on Santa’s naughty list.
The one curiosity I have about 34th Street is that it was released in the summer of 1947. For a movie so steeped in the winter holiday season, I find it odd that one had to escape to an air-conditioned theater to see it upon release.
Then again, Die Hard and Die Hard 2, which both clearly take place during the Christmas holiday, were also both released in the summer for some weird reason. The yuletide fare of Lethal Weapon came out in March 1987. (And after meticulous checking and research on my part, Christmas 1986 was not delayed until March 1987.) Another Christmas classic, Batman Returns, was released in June 1992, so what do I know? (Well, what do I know beyond the obvious point that Michael Keaton was the best cinematic Batman, of course.)
Then at the tail end of 1947, another Christmas standard was released. Finally, I can mention the movie I wanted to speak about. The one, the original, the greatest: The Bishop’s Wife. The story itself is a simple one: a bishop, distracted by the business of trying to build a cathedral, starts to lose sight of what is truly important, namely his family, his friends, and especially his wife. After the bishop prays for help, an angel is sent to help guide him. Along the way, the angel brings holiday spirit, joy, and love into all the lives he touches and I’m starting to sound like the syrupy DVD case description of any Hallmark movie, so I’ll stop right here before I find myself in a Canadian location with Candace Cameron Bure suddenly appearing before me.
The casting for The Bishop’s Wife is near perfect throughout. The original plan was to have David Niven play the angel. Fortunately, a better idea emerged when Cary Grant was cast. The roles were reversed, with Grant playing the angel and Niven portraying the bishop instead. Both actors clearly have a fine chemistry together. The properness of Niven contrasts quite well with the lithe charm of Grant throughout. Niven’s ability to portray a well-mannered gentleman is on full blast here and his character arc is natural and not forced. Niven’s light touch with humor is a definite boon here as well.
Speaking of a light touch with humor, Cary Grant is in full Cary Grant mode. They simply just don’t make stars like Cary Grant anymore. Being such a handsome leading man could have stymied him with typecasting throughout his career, but he proved otherwise time and time again. His natural charisma permeates The Bishop’s Wife and frankly the film couldn’t work without him. Being an angel in this film is a fine line to tread because it could come across as being either too preachy or too funny. Grant walks that line with such natural ease, I can only hope that if I ever meet an angel, they are just like him. (If for no other reason than to ask that angel to say, “Judy, Judy, Judy.” with Grant’s accent.)
So many other great character actors fill the cast, such as Monty Wooley as an old professor that is a friend of the bishop’s family and James Gleason as a cab driver that gets caught up in some impromptu ice skating with Grant and the bishop’s wife. Niven’s daughter in the movie is portrayed by Karolyn Grimes who also has the unique fact that she was also Zuzu in It’s A Wonderful Life. (Thankfully, she managed to get into a better Christmas movie with The Bishop’s Wife.) And the Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lancaster, plays the bishop’s household maid. With all these wonderful actors, there’s only one real casting problem that I have. And oddly enough, my issue is with the bishop’s wife herself.
Loretta Young seems to be a lock for portraying a bishop’s wife, a lovely and thoughtful woman that loves her family and husband. But therein lies the problem. There’s no real conflict or any character growth with her. Sure, she’s disappointed and sad in how her husband is getting distracted and becoming neglectful, but I never feel that Young would ever be anything else but Niven’s faithful and doting wife.
If there was even a blink of a moment where Young showed that she was slightly tempted by Grant, I would be more inclined to cut her some slack. But Young is just too goody two shoes for my liking. Her character could believably be tempted, it is Cary Grant after all, but Young never shows that as even being an inkling of a hint of a possibility.
But this is a minor quibble in the overall warmth that the movie brings. The moments of humor are also well placed. My favorite line in the film comes after Niven notices Grant going through the day’s mail:
Niven: “Are you expecting a letter?”
Grant: “One never knows, but if I should get one, the stamp will be worth saving!”
These moments make the film for me.
But my deeper connection to the movie is the fact that it was my mother’s favorite Christmas movie. There have now been twenty-two Christmases since she passed away. Back in the day, my mother always went out of her way to make Christmas for our family. The decorations had to be just right. After my dad threw the lights on the tree, she meticulously bedecked the tree with ornaments and tinsel. Her spritz cookies were a seasonal staple, which didn’t last long into the New Year, if they even made it that far.
Every time I watch The Bishop’s Wife, I remember these all these things and more and it brings a smile to my face. During this time of the year, a part of her always stays with me. Hopefully, I can reflect a bit of the love and holiday spirit that she showed me to the daughter-in-law and grandchildren that she never had a chance to meet.
My wife thankfully shares the same holiday attributes with my mom. She loves nothing more at Christmas than placing decorations around the house, putting ornaments on the tree, and wrapping gifts. That leaves me with the task of haphazardly getting Christmas cards out, baking Christmas spritz cookies, and of course, watching The Bishop’s Wife.
Now that certainly makes a very Merry Christmas indeed.