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1947 was, by all accounts, Samuel Goldwyn's peak year. Although the legendary producer had by this period amassed an array of impressive hits (and interesting misses), the jewel in his crown had been the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1946, The Best Years of Our Lives. The worldwide acclaim and mega-box office receipts of Best Years enhanced Goldwyn's already considerable reputation in Hollywood but how do you top what many critics were calling the "finest motion picture ever made"?
Taking his cue from one of RKO's biggest hits of 1945, The Bells of St. Mary's (Leo McCarey's smash sequel to 1944's Going My Way), he decided he would make a picture that was heartwarming and inspirational with a background Christmas setting. For his source material, Goldwyn optioned The Bishop's Wife, a popular novel by Robert Nathan whose other fantasy romance, Portrait of Jennie, would eclipse Bishop as both a literary work, and, as a 1948 Selznick movie. The fact that another RKO film, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, containing a similar earthbound angel storyline, flopped miserably the same year as Best Years, fell upon deaf ears.
In an odd move, the producer next hired writer Robert Sherwood, who had done such a splendid job on Best Years, to pen the script; Goldwyn figured Sherwood could do no wrong. Sherwood, whose take on the reality of post-war America was dead-on, was not equipped to handle the lighthearted whimsical narrative concerning a heavenly being sent to mend a shaky mortal marriage. It was the second of many mistakes. William A. Seiter, a fine comedy director who had guided everyone from Laurel and Hardy (Sons of the Desert, 1933) and the Marx Brothers (Room Service, 1938) to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (Roberta, 1935), was set to direct after William Wyler turned the picture down.
Next came the casting. Loretta Young (whom Goldwyn would constantly refer to as "Laurette Taylor," a famous actress who had recently died) and Cary Grant would be paired as the troubled couple with David Niven, ending his contract with the producer, slated as the angel, Dudley. From day one, Grant voiced his problems with the script, and stipulated re-writes. Soon, he realized that he had the wrong part: he should be the angel with Niven relegated to the title character's husband.
Shortly after this casting change went into effect, Grant had new doubts about his decision and wondered if perhaps he should have stuck with his original role. But Goldwyn had other problems to contend with according to co-star David Niven in his biography, Bring on the Empty Horses: "The day before shooting was to start, Goldwyn decided that the interiors of the Bishop's house were not ecclesiastical enough and ordered several sets to be torn down, redesigned and rebuilt. For three weeks, while this was going on, production was halted, then, two days after the cameras finally had a chance to turn, Goldwyn decided that Seiter's hand was a little too heavy on the tiller: he was removed, paid his full salary and after a week, Goldwyn hired Henry Koster to start again from scratch - with another two weeks of rehearsal. All this must have cost Goldwyn several hundred thousand dollars...."
Almost before Koster could cry his first "Action!," problems arose between Grant and Young - due primarily to Grant's notorious perfectionism. Off screen, the star was going through a rash of personal problems underlined by the near-death of his close friend Howard Hughes, who was hospitalized in critical condition after a plane crash. But on the set, Grant's obsessive attention to small details often irritated Young, who could be quite headstrong in her own working methods.
According to Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein in the biography, Loretta Young: An Extraordinary Life, "Loretta and Cary were shooting a scene when Grant stopped abruptly, declaring, "If it's supposed to be cold outside, and the house is nice and warm inside, why isn't there any frost on the windows?" This was the kind of detail that was rarely overlooked at the Goldwyn studio, and everything stopped until the proper frost effect was accomplished by the propmen." It was just one of many incidents that encouraged Young to assert her own ego during production. The fact that the two leads had gotten along famously when they co-starred in Born to be Bad (1934) was apparently long forgotten when it came time to photograph them both in profile - from the same side - for a romantic scene. "Neither actor had ever objected to being shot in profile," wrote Charles Higham and Roy Moseley in Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart. "But now Cary said he looked better from his left side, and Loretta said that she also looked better from that side. In despair, Koster said, "How can I direct what is, in essence, a love scene if both of you are looking the same way?" Eventually, Koster worked out the blocking for the scene that pleased both actors but the completed scene angered Goldwyn who later confronted Grant and Young and warned them, "From now on, both of you guys get only half your salary if I can only use half your faces."
Usually, Grant and Young would have turned to their co-star David Niven for comfort. The renowned wit and raconteur was a great pal of Cary's since the mid-1930s when he officially joined the Hollywood colony of expatriate British actors living there; furthermore, he and Loretta were good friends, having worked together four times previously. But the usually cheerful Niven was going through his own private hell. Prior to production on The Bishop's Wife, the actor's beloved wife Primmie suffered a fatal head injury; it occurred during a party game of "sardines" at Tyrone Power's house. She thought she was running into a closet, but instead took a long fall down the cellar stairs and died of complications days later.
Meanwhile, Goldwyn focused his energies on improving the script. With key sequences in crucial need of tweaking, Sam sent out an A.P.B. for the writing/directing/producing team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. During a frantic Friday meeting and rough-cut screening, Goldwyn offered the formidable scribes $25,000 for doctoring three crucial scenes on the proviso that they be ready for the cameras by Monday. The duo agreed and worked round the clock, handing in the newly scripted scenes with no time to spare. However, Wilder and Brackett had a proviso of their own: Since the 25 grand would ultimately cause them more trouble than it was worth (due to the strict California tax laws), Wilder told Goldwyn, 'Sam, about that $25,000 you were going to pay us for those three scenes. We've decided we don't need the money.' 'Funny,' replied Sam, 'I had just come to the same conclusion myself.'
Surprisingly, despite all the problems encountered during filming, The Bishop's Wife emerged unscathed to excellent reviews. While not coming close to rivaling Goldwyn's The Best Years of Our Lives, the comedy-fantasy took in more than respectable grosses, and has since become a perennial Yuletide classic. Goldwyn himself was shocked at how well the picture turned out. He even went as far as to predict that Loretta Young would win the Best Actress Oscar for 1947! Of her performance, Young later said, "I thought of the wife as a frustrated little thing, rather lonely and rather thwarted....This was the hardest part I'd ever played."
In all, The Bishop's Wife picked up five Academy nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as Best Sound Recording, Best Editing and Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. But Goldwyn would only take home one statuette - for Best Sound. As for his prediction, it proved to be an ironic example of "Don't wish so hard for something, you just might get it." Loretta Young did indeed win the Best Actress Oscar that year - for The Farmer's Daughter, produced through RKO by David O. Selznick!
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: Henry Koster
Screenplay: Leonardo Bercovici, Robert E. Sherwood, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder; based on the novel by Robert Nathan
Art Direction: Perry Ferguson, Charles Henderson, George Jenkins
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Editing: Monica Collingwood
Music: Hugo W. Friedhofer
Cast: Cary Grant (Dudley), Loretta Young (Julia Brougham), David Niven (Henry Brougham), Monty Woolley (Prof. Wutheridge), James Gleason (Sylvester), Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Hamilton).
BW-110m. Closed captioning.
by Mel Neuhaus