Silent Night, Creepy Night

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

When The Bishop’s Wife didn’t generate sufficient box office, Goldwyn and RKO altered the title to suggest shenanigans.

There’s a tremendous distinction between Christmas and the day after Christmas. Ever since I was a kid the day after Christmas was cast in black and white; a drab, depressing, downer of a day. I say this because most of you will be reading this after the Big Day and the impact will be lessened, but Christmas morning is the first chance I’ve had to sit down and contribute to my own column of late, so, here we are.

I’ve tried to get in the spirit this year, really I have, but it’s been no-go. I sampled the usual holiday pictures, those touchstones that help us orient ourselves in time-of-year. I wanted to watch It’s a Wonderful Life the other night on NBC because it’s so key to the plot of my almost-completed book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, but I walked in after it had begun and endured 5 minutes of commercials, at which point I bailed. I did sit through The Bishop’s Wife last evening, which is a picture I used to love but which, over the years, began to produce creepy feelings in me, and now I watch it the same way I do Silent Night, Evil Night, just to feel my skin crawl.

It’s been a while since you’ve been mad at me, so I think it’s time I reveal my feelings for this beloved holiday classic. For those of you who have never seen Samuel Goldwyn’s Christmas story, The Bishop’s Wife, you really owe it to yourself to spend two hours with Cary Grant as an angel sent to earth to guide the bishop, played by David Niven, his wife Loretta Young, and curmudgeon professor Monty Woolley. I now would like to go on record to describe these actors portraying these characters as creepy, creepy, creepy, and creepy.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The three stars, Cary Grant, David Niven, and Loretta Young.

First the no-brainer. Monty Woolley is supposed to be playing a charming old curmudgeon but somewhere in his backstory I feel like there’s a molestation or two. Everything about him is a little too dark, from his hoarder apartment to his writer’s block to his drinking problem. But then I’m not now and never was a Monty Woolley fan. To give you a comparison, if you were to offer me the choice of an hour with Woolley or with Thomas Mitchell (see previous columns), I’ll take Mitchell every time.

Loretta Young by this point in her career had acquired a hard, stretched, unnatural look that belies her tender age of 34. I never thought about it but she screams plastic surgery in this picture and her very appearance and particularly that hideous hat she dons in reel two and forces us to endure through the end of the picture make this woman utterly unappealing to at least one heterosexual male.

David Niven as a bishop?? Come on, need I say more. Errol Flynn’s drunken pal David Niven, playing 1000-percent against type as a man of God is just too much for me. What denomination are you again, your holiness? And what is it exactly you need help from an angel for, anyway? You are trying to build a church of some sort, and there isn’t enough money…or something? That’s the murkiest part for me, trying to figure out why the angel has come to earth. Because the reverend isn’t paying enough attention to his wife? Because he’s not building his temple? Or is it just because he’s depressed at the holidays? If that’s the case, I’d think there were better candidates for angelic visitation than a guy with a job, a big house, a wife, kid, servants, and dog.

And here’s where I speak genuine heresy. I find Cary Grant as Dudley the angel to be the creepiest thing of all about The Bishop’s Wife. Let’s compare him to Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life for just a moment. Clarence is an innocent. He’s ingenuous, earnest, and so lovable we want him to earn those wings. Dudley skulks, comes around corners to startle people, has a seductiveness about him that drives the maid wild, and all but seduces the bishop’s wife. I mean, really, when he finally propositions her it’s anti-climactic because of all that’s come before. He’s an angel who seems to me like he’d be much more comfortable in Kevin Smith’s Dogma than he is in a 1947 Goldwyn picture.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Is it just me or do you prefer your angels just a little less lustful than Cary Grant’s Dudley, who seems to be eyeing up the bishop’s wife like a Thanksgiving turkey.

Now, all this is on the one hand. On the other hand, there are classic moments as well, thanks mostly to the character actors populating The Bishop’s Wife. James Gleason does his usual thing as a cab driver who is unnecessary to the plot, but character actors have to eat like everybody else. Elsa Lanchester is gently wonderful as the maid in love with Dudley. Regis Toomey should have played the bishop because he’s such a good guy by nature and that energy always shows through onscreen. Don’t you want Regis Toomey to overcome whatever obstacle he’s facing in whatever picture? There’s not a creepy bone in Regis Toomey’s body.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The darkest aspect of all: that hideous hat, which I’ll be seeing in my nightmares.

Then there’s Gladys Cooper, who steals the show as Mrs. Hamilton, the bitchy old rich lady who hamstrings the bishop with demands for recognition in exchange for her money to build whatever church it is the plot centers around. The scene where Dudley unlocks the awful secret tainting Mrs. Hamilton’s heart is beautifully played by Cary Grant and Gladys Cooper, but once again I get a little uneasy because the secret involves a wild love affair between the lady and a composer who died young. She’s still carrying a torch for the guy 45 years later and never loved her rich, dead husband—although she married him anyway and did all right for herself. I’m all for love, don’t get me wrong, and torch-carrying, but there’s something oppressive about this storyline in this instance for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on.

Sex, greed, and death; yes sir, I always want these in my 1940s holiday classics. I find my own favorite Christmas movie, Die Hard, to be much less ambiguous than The Bishop’s Wife, but that’s just me. Isn’t it funny that three of our enduring holiday pictures, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop’s Wife were all made within two years of the end of WWII? And it’s no coincidence that all three have their dark aspects as a result.

There, I’ve had these feelings about The Bishop’s Wife locked up inside for too long and now I feel better for having revealed them, just like Mrs. Hamilton. Now maybe I’ll be nice too. Unlikely, but possible, in which case Dudley will have saved another one. Am I the only one who feels this way about this picture? Are there other holiday classics that everyone around you loves while you just don’t get it?

For those of you who happen to wander in within the next week, Happy Holidays! I have a feeling, a very strong feeling, that 2016 will be an exciting time, and I hope it will be a grand, healthy, successful year for each and every one of you.

19 comments

  1. Merry Christmas, Herr Matzen!
    Look, I could never endure” It’s a wonderful life”…always walked away from it. Love Old movies, but I can’t understand Capra. Maybe he is too North american?
    My Christmas favorite is “Scrooged” with Bill Murray…far more entertaining.

      1. Please, go and see it! There is a very grumpy Robert Mitchum, a very grumpy Bill Murray and David Johanson from New York Dolls!
        I love the blog and I also get a kick from reading the other visitors comments. It is very interesting to see how your projects come to life.

      2. A grumpy Mitchum and a grumpy Murray?? Where has this picture been hiding? It’s pretty sad that I’m sitting here on Christmas at midday writing about the devastating effects of the bombing of Germany, and I’m not sure I’m supposed to feel this way in a book about hero James Stewart, but boy do I feel sympathy for the German people and what they endured. It’s such a devastating story. And since history is written by the victors, everyday Germans are painted as villains when most were just caught in the middle.

        Now it’s time to celebrate Christmas. Thanks for reading, Priscila, and for enjoying the column.

  2. Probably a curse there somewhere in that “The Bishop’s Wife” follows by only a year and a half or two “It’s A Wonderful Life” in which an angel comes down to earth to do wonders. Hollywood re-inventing theft!

  3. I have always wondered about WWII, nazism and anti-semitism before I moved here. Then I got it. Germans are, for most part, nice, law abiding, hard working people. But there is a dark side, stuborness to it. See, they never cross streets unless there is a WALK sign on. Street is empty, no cars….no deal. One time it was obvious to me the sign was broken, but the poor people could not move.. Some were calling the company to check it out. I saw that! Needles to say, I crossed the street…you should have seen their faces!

  4. Merry Christmas and top o’ the Boxing Day morning to you all.

    I can’t say that I’m really a fan of any of the Christmas “classics” particularly. I grew up watching Alastair Sim as Scrooge (a magnificent performance, I admit), as well as Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald as a pair of priests. I can’t really see myself wanting to make many return visits to those films though, outside of snatching a few minutes here or there, perhaps.

    I tend to think of It’s a Wonderful Life as a great film but admit that it’s been a while since I actually sat through it. James Stewart’s depth as an actor in the film still astounds me, however, far more so than before his war service, showing, at times, a frightening darkness within his character. The scene at the bar in which George Bailey is at his rope’s end and starts talking to God in desperation as he also begins to weep is an extraordinary moment. In that scene Stewart so achingly represents all those who have faced a black pit of despair in their lives from which there seems no possible rescue.

    As far as The Bishop’s Wife is concerned, I am pleased to see your write up, Robert, for I, too, have never quite understood the “charm” of this film to which so many others sentimentally succumb at this time of year. I never found it creepy, so much as it was completely unemotionally involving to me.

    Excluding her early pre-code years as an actress, Loretta Young has always come across to me as a beautifully coiffed, impeccably attired plastic saint in the movies, and that very much extends to her performance here. David Niven is hilariously miscast as the bishop and denied the opportunity to demonstrate his, at times, considerable screen charm.

    And, speaking of lack of charm, there’s Cary Grant as the smug, in-the-know, ever smiling angel. Grant was, at his best, as we know, an actor of remarkable screen charm but there were times (his Cole Porter performance in Night and Day being a great example) in which he came across as strangely disingenuous and artificial as an actor. One of those “phoning it in” performances, as they like to say.

    In The Bishop’s Wife he’s got that plastic smile stuck on his face and that’s pretty well it. He plays the role like “Cary Grant, dream man,” charming those around him, I suppose, because of his debonair good looks, but there’s nothing beneath that stuck on, perfect teeth smile. Was there some kind of unwritten movie rule that said that anyone playing an angel on screen had to lack warmth and couldn’t show personality? If so, then Cary Grant got that message. We’re lucky, though, that Henry Travers didn’t receive the same message from Capra when he played cuddly Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life.

    The one scene in the film that does work for me is the ice rink scene with Jimmy Gleason as the cabbie who skates for the first time. That moment I do find charming (in a sentimental hokey sort of way), partially, I suppose, because I am a person who can’t find James Gleason doing many things wrong on screen.

    So you would rather spend time with Thomas Mitchell than Monty Woolley, Robert. Whoa, knowing your deep aversion to all scenes Mitchellized on screen, you really do dislike old Monty, don’t you!

    Glad to see you’re a Die Hard fan. Me too. My favourite action hero movie by far. Saw it at the show when it was originally released and I’ve loved it ever since. If that film does qualify as a Christmas movie, then it, too, would be the one that I would choose to spend a little Yuletide time with. Certainly not the movie with Cary Grant with that fixed, creepy (heh, maybe you’re right about the use of that word, after all) smile on his face all the time.

    1. Yes, Tom, yes! I’m not the only one! I was afraid I’d be chased into the mountains by villagers with torches for saying these things about The Bishop’s Wife. Thanks for letting me know I might not be crazy–or at least I’m not the only crazy one.

  5. I just returned from vacationing in Montreal and was delighted to read this blog, which provoked quite a few chuckles and memories of a naughty and irreverent Christmas play my husband and I saw last year in Boston at a rather notorious drag bar/theater. The title of this show was called “Jesus Christ, It’s Christmas!”, and the play was a scene-for-scene retelling of The Bishop’s Wife, except instead of Cary Grant as the angel, the wife is visited by JC himself, resplendent and buff in a golden loin cloth. Jesus turns out to be a pretty cool guy, compared to the dull and prestige-obsessed bishop, who spends most of the time with the wealthy female patron and the board (or bored) of trustees. What finally put me into stitches was that the wealthy matron ( a guy in drag with a gray wig) looked exactly like the wealthy patroness who funded the organ and church reconstruction in my own Episcopal parish when we had a similarly upwardly climbing pastor! The ice skating scene with Jesus in his skivvies also was pretty funny. By the way, the Monty Wooley character was an openly gay bookshop owner/failed author, and the antics he was up to with any comely young chap who wandered by were unsubtly suggested. The bishop and his wife also had a daughter who was the spitting image of Liza Minelli, which ultimately inspired a drag queen production number to wrap up the show. I will probably spend quite a few years in purgatory for enjoying this spectacle of satire and bad taste, but the Higher Power can always add them to the impure thoughts I always harbored when I hoped an angel in the image of Cary Grant would pay me a divine visitation…

    Or maybe I’ll go straight to hell and have a few cocktails with Errol Flynn.

  6. A propos to one’s vision of hell: A man died and ended up in heaven, and when he was hungry, all he was offered was a tuna fish sandwich. He asked St. Peter, “Is this all I get to eat? What do the other people get?” St. Peter showed him the folks down below, who were chowing down at a huge buffet. The man said, “So why do I get just a sandwich?” God then replied, “What — you expect me to cook a big meal just for you and Mother Teresa?”

    1. Well I sure am glad I took the time to check your blog today! This movie was never one of my favorites as I felt that Dudley was actually the devil (who is also an angel – in the fallen category)
      just having some fun. My favorite holiday movie was “Holiday Inn” with Bing and Fred Astaire. Errol Flynn would have made a great Dudley!

      1. I’m with you, Maria. I love Holiday Inn and was sorry I didn’t get to see it this year. Oh, Errol as Dudley would have been perfect, and just what his career needed at that time.

  7. Speaking of Holiday Inn, what about Holiday, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn? Not exactly a Christmas movie, but the two leads at their best. The past few years my holiday favorite is Remember the Night with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, a bittersweet romantic comedy in which MacMurray, an assistant DA, takes Barbara, a shoplifter, home for the holidays.

    1. Does it blow my credibility to say I never saw Holiday with Grand and Hepburn? I tend to shy away from her pictures because I never liked her. OK, does that blow my credibility? Good call on Remember the Night as a solid Christmas movie. I saw it not long ago and liked it. People tend to underestimate the young MacMurray but he was very good, just like he was good in his pictures with Lombard.

  8. I always tear up during the scene of the bitter reunion between Barbara Stanwyck’s character and her mother in Remember the Night — it’s one of her finer performances — angry and vulnerable at the same time. MacMurray holds his own nicely with her; I’m not a fan of his, but I kind of fall for him in this one.

    If you dislike Hepburn, Holiday is probably one of her easier films to watch because she less mannered and more subdued. Grant is outstanding and surprisingly, Lew Ayres is a standout. It’s more of a New Year’s Eve picture because several of the major scenes are around New Year’s Eve party.

  9. Yes, all three stars of Holiday are quite outstanding, I agree. It’s an intelligent comedy with commentary about individualism in a conformist society. Lew Ayres touches me in this film. Whlle the film is generally quite up beat, for the most part, Ayres’ character drinks and the actor brings more than a hint of sadness to him. He’s not a cartoon comedy drunk, by any means.

    Truth is, I’ve always enjoyed this Hepburn-Grant filmization of a Philip Barry stage hit considerably more than the more famous and legendary Philadelphia Story (sorry, Robert, I know this one has Jimmy in it).

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