Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #12

Re: The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

I have a Christmas movie in my collection called The Bishop’s Wife with David Niven, Loretta Young and Gary Grant as an angel. Of course this is about a Episcopalian bishop. It is a very moral movie. But I am concerned about the fact the angel (Dudley) falls for the bishop’s wife Loretta Young at the end he banishes himself to the other end of the universe and he helps the bishop and his wife find out what’s most important. Do you think this trivializes or mocks angels? I haven’t watched in a while.

I caught The Bishop’s Wife on a network television broadcast some years ago. Although I’m probably almost completely alone in scrupling about this film, the idea of an angel falling in love with any human being, let alone a married woman, rubs me the wrong way.

This premise has yielded great art (Wings of Desire) as well as less-than-great (City of Angels), but it always bugs me in any form. The picture of angels forlornly on the outside looking in at human life and love seems to me to suffer from a deplorable lack of imagination — a kind of anthropomorphic imperialism in which angelic existence is reduced to privations of the goods of human existence.

Whether or not one believes in angels, one ought to imagine them having a rich, positive existence of their own, no more suffering by comparison with human life than dolphins suffer for not being groundhogs. Angelic freedom is different from human freedom; it is absolute and single-minded. Angels can’t be conflicted, distracted or regretful; those who rebelled against God never looked back, and those who chose to serve God had no second thoughts — their sole end and goal is serving and glorifying God.

At best, the anthropomorphic angels of such movies could serve as a sort of imaginative mirror of human concerns and struggles. This is precisely what The Last Temptation of Christ does with the Incarnation: reduces it to a metaphor for the duality of human experience. To make Jesus a mirror for ourselves is flat-out blasphemous; to do so with angels isn’t as bad, but it’s still problematic.

The Bishop’s Wife is widely regarded as a charming classic of Golden Age Hollywood, but I can’t share the love. Not only does Cary Grant’s angel fall in love with Loretta Young, who is married to David Niven, Grant actually makes a sort of overture toward Young, and uses the chemistry between them to spur Niven to jealousy and thus ultimately to salutary action. But it’s supposed to be all right, because he’s an angel.

A human hero who struggles with romantic attraction to another man’s wife, like the eponymous hero of Shane or Lancelot in Knights of the Round Table, is one thing. An angelic hero who seemingly encourages the wife’s attachment to him, and enjoys his own attachment to her while making the husband jealous supposedly for his own good, is another. Wings or not, it doesn’t fly with me.

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