by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 25, 2019
This month I’ve watched two films about angels: The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and Wings of Desire (1987). I happen to be an atheist who enjoys movies about angels. Angels are a weird conceptual race of beings that constantly mutates for our fictional needs. In the old days, angels were not human or ever human and existed on another celestial sphere with God. They were God’s messengers in the Old Testament. Humans keep making up stories about angels changing them each time. In the forty years between The Bishop’s Wife and Wings of Desire, what the angels represent are starkly different.
Cary Grant plays Dudley in 1947. Bruno Ganz plays Damiel in 1987. By the way, Bruno Ganz died this year, so it was sad seeing Wings of Desire again. I believe this is the fourth or fifth time seeing The Bishop’s Wife.
With last night’s viewing, I started questioning Dudley’s role in the story. In modern times we think of angels as guardians. Dudley appears to Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) in answer to his prayer for help. Henry is troubled because he wants to build a cathedral and his primary doner wants to pull the plug unless Henry makes the cathedral a monument to her dead husband. Henry believes he’s doing divine work by building an edifice to God’s magnificent and doesn’t want it tarnished by such egotism.
But Dudley doesn’t seem interested in the cathedral. He’s interested in Julia (Loretta Young), the Bishop’s Wife. Last night, I began to wonder just how honest Dudley is in this film. He claims angels are the reason why people do good, implying they work behind us like puppeteers. But he also deceives humans. He arranges for Henry to get stuck to a chair so he can take Julia out. He tells Debby, Henry and Julia little girl, she can throw snowballs when she can’t, he makes boys magically show up for choir practice when they’ve obviously chosen to be elsewhere, and in the end, destroys Henry’s plans for the cathedral. Everywhere Dudley goes in this film, he pulls angelic wool over people’s eyes. Yes, they become happier, but they are still being deceived.
In the end, Dudley goes away and erases all memory of his visit. What has he changed? Will the happiness he arranged for Julia, Debby, and the old Professor continue in their life. Will Henry devote more time to Julia even though he’s been given another big job? Will Sylvestor the cab driver have as much fun with Julia and Henry as he did with Julia and Dudley?
Most of The Bishop’s Wife is depended on the charm of Cary Grant. Every last woman in this picture glows when Cary Grant is in the scene. We assume they feel the presence of an angel, but it appears they are all fawning over a hot guy.
For my last two viewings of The Bishop’s Wife, I’ve wished that David Niven played Dudley and Cary Grant played Henry. The casting was too obvious. They should have reversed the roles and made Grant and Niven act against type. The charm of the angel shouldn’t have been confused with physical beauty.
The Bishop’s Wife is a charming film if you don’t think about it too much. Basically, Hollywood puts two outstandingly beautiful humans together for us to watch. They added some Christmas decorations and an angel but in a philosophically iffy way. It’s not like It’s A Wonderful Life, where an angel merely shows George Baily how much good he accomplished in his life. I’m not sure we’re shown any human doing good in The Bishop’s Wife. Julie wants a husband that pays attention to her, the Old Professor wants to write his book. Henry wants to build a cathedral. None of the humans want to sacrifice for others, and the story implies we need an angel to give us what we want.
In Wings of Desire, the angels are all around us humans. We can’t see or hear them, except sometimes young children can. The angels are immortal and have been on Earth forever. They merely watch. In a way, the angels witness reality, and maybe even give it meaning by their observations. The angels feel great empathy for us and listen to our thoughts. And when they detect a particularly troubled human put a hand on the human’s shoulder. This seems to bring a slight sense of comfort, but that’s all. The angels don’t work magic. They just care.
Damiel eventually falls in love with Marion, a lonely trapeze artist and decides to become mortal. Marion has friends but can’t connect with them. However, this love story comes at the end of a long film, so most of the movie is about listening to people’s inner thoughts. Watching the movie makes us like the angels, we watch and listen, in other words, we get to be angels too. Wings of Desire is a very slow philosophical film. The film doesn’t work unless you have the empathy to feel for the suffering of the human characters.
Wings of Desire is a much more spiritual film than The Bishop’s Wife. However, it’s much harder to watch. I love The Bishop’s Wife because of nostalgia, but as a spiritual message, it is lacking. It leaves me unconsciously wishing I was Cary Grant scoring with Loretta Young. It makes me wish there was magic to solve any bothersome problem that might come up in life. The Bishop’s Wife feel-good nature comes from making us want to live out a Hollywood fantasy. It’s now making me question the value of a guardian angel. We should be better people from an inner drive and not an outer influence. Magic is corrupting. But then, we don’t see the evil of magic.