Friday, December 23, 2011

The Bishop's / Preacher's Wife (1947 / 1996)

Sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread
Christmas is upon us and that means it's time to gather the family around and bask in television's warm glowing warming glow while all the favorite holiday flicks and specials play. Not very many holiday movies have been remade through the years, but Christmas only comes once a year, so AotR is okay for awhile. I suppose the reason why more Christmas movies don't get remade is because any film good enough to be considered a holiday classic automatically becomes off-limits for reinterpretation, lest the treasured tale be sullied. But a few bold fools have rushed in where angels fear to tread and, appropriately enough, these particular films are about an angel. 

The Story
Dudley in most unlikely fashion is the angel's name. He is sent to earth in answer to Bshp/Rev Henry Brougham/Bigg's prayer for help (the title and name are changed for obvious ethnic reasons). But Dudley is not necessarily here to provide the help Henry was asking for. You see, in obsessing over the needs of his church, Henry has let the needs of his wife, Julia, slip out of mind.

Understandably, Henry is skeptical of Dudley's divine nature, but Dudley inserts himself into the pastor's life anyway as an "assistant"--not a complete falsehood. Everyone else is quite taken with Dudley due to his charm and attractiveness. Of course the catch is, only Henry knows that Dudley is an angel, so he reluctantly goes along with the charade. 

Still, Henry continues stubbornly to pour all his energies into the church, leaving Dudley to fill in for him at home, accompanying Julia and their child on all their Christmastime outings. The consequence of this is that Julia starts to develop feelings for Dudley, and vice-versa. This arouses Henry to the trouble he has allowed to brew at home and he immediately resumes his role as husband and father. At this, Dudley turns his attentions to the church, and quite handily wraps everything up in a fashion better than anyone imagined.

"Feel good" is the appropriate description for both films. And why shouldn't it be? They are Christmas movies after all. The original is light and whimsical with a bit of cinema magic thrown in for spectacle. The remake, while more serious, never gets so heavy as to lose its sense of holiday cheer. These films are about the characters more than anything else, so let's just do a simple head-to-head comparison on that basis.


Dudley is an angel with of a number of very worldly charms. He is handsome, charming, always a hit with the ladies. So it makes sense that he should be cast alternately as Cary Grant and Denzel Washington, both very much charmers in their own right. The original Dudley doesn't come with a backstory, but the newer  character tosses out hints about a life before he was taken in his prime, as he puts it. Because of this, it is almost ironic that Washington's Dudley seems possessive of a greater innocence and sincerity. True, both versions are playful and in certain ways na├»ve, they get excited by snowball fights and pizza. But there is something about the haphazard and nonchalant approach that Washington brings which makes Grant seem almost a lech in comparison. Putting that aside, both men handsomely fill their roles and inspire grins from start to finish. 


It seems a bit odd, but in the original film the titular character doesn't seem much like a main character. I suppose in a strict literary sense, she isn't. It is her husband, Henry, who faces the catharsis in both versions. But in the original, she seems like little more than a plot device rather than a driver of anything. To be sure, Loretta Young is beautiful in the role, matching Grant's grace and charm in all their shared scenes. But at the end of the film, one isn't left with much besides that. It certainly is no comparison to the role filled by Whitney Houston. In some ways, the remake was a vehicle for her singing, though the story stands up well besides. Unlike her black-and-white counterpart, Houston's Julia is deeply involved in the church, leading the choir and shouldering a sizable chunk of its burdens as well.

Additionally, Houston's portrayal enjoys some character growth that Young's does not. While Young is charming and sweet from the first frame she appears in to the last, Houston give us a range of emotions that a stressed pastor's wife might actually experience. (To be fair, the original Henry and Julia had a cook and a maid whereas the newer couple have only visiting grandmother for the holidays.) And while the onus is clearly on Henry to make the greatest changes, Houston's Julia finds opportunity to soften her demeanor, as well.


Henry is sort of the reason for the story, so he really can't change much from version to version. That and there are only so many ways to play the emotion of "harried." Through no fault of his acting, but rather some poor scripting decisions, David Niven is rather less sympathetic than Courtney B. Vance. This is because, while the latter is the preacher for a struggling inner-city congregation just trying to keep the boiler working one more winter, the former is set up in a parish mansion and his stress stems from trying to raise funds for an elaborate and seemingly needless cathedral. I know we all have our problems, but Niven's somehow seem less "righteous" in the comparison.

Everybody Else

In actuality, there is nobody else to compare. Besides the three main characters the cast is entirely different. Even the couple's child changes from daughter to son. Oddly, this doesn't affect the story all that much, but it allows each film to shine in different ways.

One gem from the original is the character of  Professor Wutheridge played by Monty Woolley. Throughout the film, the Bishop is prevented from revealing Dudley's true identity, but in the end he finds himself able to do so to the Professor. This holds some irony as the Professor is a confirmed atheist, only his encounter with Dudley leaves him open-minded.

While no counterpart for the Professor exists in the remake, it is the child son of the preacher that shares Dudley's secret. A nice addition to the remake is that the child provides some simple bookend narration revealing he is the only one who remembers Dudley at all in retrospect. It also sets a bright and innocent tone to a movie that actually takes some rather dark turns but turns out all right in the end.

A Couple of Misses

The Bishop's / Preacher's Wife really functions best as a story about people, which is probably why the original was a feel-good classic worth the remake. So it makes sense that the few places where the films fall down are actually outside of the characters.

In the original, I would have to criticize most of the effects sequences where Dudley uses his heavenly powers to magically complete a task. Except for one point involving a precisely pitched snowball, they are gaudy and unnecessary. We've already established that Dudley is an angel and quite an endearing fellow to-boot. The effects sequences only offer distraction from the story being told.

In the remake, the magic tricks are all but eliminated except for a couple instances of comic effect. Instead, the fall-down moment is when Whitney Houston conveniently has to fill in for Mary in the children's Christmas pageant. It was just an awkward moment that screams, "buy the soundtrack to this movie." Incidentally, that soundtrack remains the best-selling gospel album of all time to this day.

Final Thoughts

Of all the remakes I've seen, and I'm including all those not yet reviewed on this site, this is probably one of the most faithful retellings I've ever seen while still making bold departures from the original. I honestly cannot recommend one over the other on any grounds. I'm not sure how much care was taken to make the original as charming and memorable as it clearly is, but remake demonstrates utmost respect for that legacy while finding its own place.In simpler terms, each is a perfectly enjoyable film in its own right while just happening to tell the same story as the other. Both renditions rightfully and independently deserve to stand as Christmas classics.

Yuletide Trivia: Karolyn Grimes, more famously known as Zuzu Bailey, also played Debby Brougham, the Bishop's daughter in the 1947 film. 

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