Sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread.

Cary Grant as an angel … well, if that’s not the most obvious casting ever.

And yet initally, our favorite dreamboat was actually cast in the role of a despairing bishop in the 1948 film The Bishop’s Wife. It wasn’t until filming was already underway that Grant realized he was more suited for the angelic part, thereafter switching roles with costar David Niven. The resulting film is a heartwarming holiday trifle, one that has maintained a steady popularity throughout the years.

Grant plays Dudley, an angel sent to Earth to help Bishop Henry Brougham (Niven), who spends his days soliciting funds to build a grand new cathedral. His constant fundraising leaves him at odds with his wife, Julia (Loretta Young), who feels neglected and unhappy in the wake of her husband’s dedication to the project. Dudley reveals himself to Henry and explains that he has come to help the bishop in answer to the bishop’s own prayer. But while a suspicious and increasingly jealous Henry believes that Dudley means to get the cathedral built, Dudley’s true purpose is merely to guide Henry into realizing that his marriage and his family are more important than the project. Dudley’s plans are somewhat set awry, however, when the angel finds himself falling in love with the bishop’s wife.

As angelic as Grant may appear onscreen, he and Young reportedly clashed several times throughout the filming of the movie. Grant, a persnickety actor under ordinary circumstances, was particularly exacting while making this film, which greatly annoyed Young. But there is little hint of this conflict on the screen. Throughout the movie, Grant and Young actually share more chemistry than Young and Niven–the former pair’s scenes virtually light up the film, while the latter pairing seems rather pallid in comparison.

The overwhelmingly bright spot in the movie is the appearance of Monty Woolley as the Brougham’s agnostic friend, Professor Wutheridge. Woolley, so brilliant in another perennial Christmas classic, 1942’s The Man Who Came to Dinner, almost steals the film from his costars during his few appearances. The scene in which Dudley continually refills Wutheridge’s depleted sherry features a particularly deft bit of comedy on Woolley’s part, as he repeatedly looks down and finds that his glass has magically replenished itself. His expressions are utterly priceless.

The movie was remade in 1998 as The Preacher’s Wife, with Denzel Washington as the angel and Whitney Houston in the title role. Having never seen it, I can’t make a recommendation as to whether or not it’s worth a viewing. But I can tell you that the original film most decidedly is. If you’ve never seen it, catch it this week on TCM–it’s airing on Christmas Eve. It’s a great one to watch with the family!

4 thoughts on “Sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread.

  1. Cary Grant as an angel…no stretch there! This is one of the handful of holiday films I try to watch every year. It is light, but it’s enchanting. Can’t imagine how the movie could possibly have worked had Grant not insisted on switching roles with David Niven…other great supporting performers in the cast: Gladys Cooper, James Gleason, Elsa Lanchester and Sara Haden. Love the bit of business in which Lanchester (the maid) and Haden (the secretary), who don’t like each other, are gazing upon Dudley, both of them bewitched. Then each notices the other, frowns, and quickly turns away.

  2. This is one of the perennial Christmas classics I came to late, but it has become one of my favorites. Cary Grant is my favorite actor of all time, and this is in my top 10 performances by him. He gives an otherworldliness and childlike amazement to the part that is unlike anything I’ve seen him do elsewhere. At her worst, Loretta Young can be just too precious, but she is quite charming here. If you watch closely, you can tell that Cary, not a stuntman, was actually doing his own skating in the ice skating scenes. When you know that the role of the husband was intended for Grant, it becomes quite interesting to watch David Niven doing Grant’s trademark double-takes over and over. And you and Eve are so right about all those great supporting character actors. It reminds you how important people like them were to entertainments of this kind.

    • Very well put! I look at this film as a throwback to some of the things Cary Grant did in the 30s–Holiday comes to mind–with that innocent spirit to which you referred. When he was “on,” there was no one better in Hollywood.

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