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Tag Archives: David Niven

The Bishop’s Wife (Dec. 9, 1947)

Some people will tell you that movies made by committee are what’s wrong with Hollywood.

They’re wrong. Movies made by committee have always been around, and like everything else made by committee, they occasionally turn out just fine.

Henry Koster’s The Bishop’s Wife, for instance, is a sweet little Christmas confection. It won’t fill you up, and it will possibly leave you wanting more, but for what it is, it’s delicious.

The original director was William A. Seiter, but producer Samuel Goldwyn didn’t care for what he came up with, so he replaced him with Henry Koster. (Koster’s version had its own problems, so Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett made some uncredited revisions to the script.)

The biggest change from Seiter’s version was that David Niven and Cary Grant switched roles, but there were several other changes. For one, Teresa Wright — who originally played the bishop’s wife — was replaced by Loretta Young.

But Niven and Grant’s role-switching is the big change that everyone talks about, and with good reason.

The priggish but always likable Niven is perfect as Henry Brougham, the Episcopal bishop whose cathedral-building project is destroying his personal life, and Grant is perfect as Dudley, the angel who’s sent to put Henry back on the right track.

It’s as difficult for me to imagine anyone but the ageless and effortlessly charming Grant as Dudley as it is for me to imagine anyone but Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.

Dudley shows up on earth in answer to Henry’s prayer for guidance, but he’s not an unearthly angel who waves a magic wand that sets everything right. While he can move objects with his mind, stop busy traffic on Madison Avenue while helping a blind man cross the street, and presumably do pretty much anything he wants, he mostly just puts ideas in people’s minds … good ideas that they end up thinking are their own.

Dudley is also not an ethereal, androgynous angel whose feet never touch the ground. He’s Cary Freakin’ Grant, and his good lucks and charm have quite an effect on Henry’s neglected wife Julia (Loretta Young). One afternoon — after Henry’s forced to cancel yet another date with his wife due to his work on the cathedral — Dudley takes her to lunch at Michel’s, the French restaurant where Henry proposed to her.

After Dudley orders, Julia tells him, “You speak French beautifully.”

“I’ve had quite a bit of work to do in Paris,” Dudley responds.

And when Dudley takes Julia’s hand to read her palm, oh how the old bluenose biddies tut-tut.

The Bishop’s Wife takes place around Christmas, and it’s a wonderful holiday film. It’s also an excellent comedy, even though its broadly humorous moments are rare. Mostly its just a heartwarming, romantic, and delightful film.

And the scene in which Dudley takes Julia ice-skating and uses his magical powers to make them both glide around the ice like Olympic champions is one of the most enjoyable bits I’ve seen in a long, long time.

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The Other Love (May 14, 1947)

Director André de Toth is mostly associated with hairy-chested genres like westerns and war movies. The Other Love, which is based on a short story by All Quiet on the Western Front author Erich Maria Remarque, is a rare example of de Toth making a “women’s picture,” and it’s not a bad one. It’s also not a great one, so if you’re expecting Dark Victory (1939) or Now, Voyager (1942), don’t bother. But if you’re a fan of well-acted weepers, The Other Love is worth seeking out.

Karen Duncan (Barbara Stanwyck) is a world-renowned concert pianist who is gravely ill. She arrives at Mount Vierge, a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps, unaware of the seriousness of her condition. On her first night in the sanitarium her physician, Dr. Anthony Stanton (David Niven), insists she have dinner with him. He tells the nurse to have the kitchen prepare the “Grade A stimulation diet” and have it sent to Room 17.

Someone sends Karen a white orchid corsage before her “date” with Dr. Stanton, but it wasn’t he. It turns out there is a standing order to have white orchids delivered nightly to Room 17. The order came from a man who died months earlier, and was for a woman who died the day before Karen arrived, but Dr. Stanton insists this is just a rumor, and that they were both cured and moved away. Karen doesn’t believe him.

The second day, Karen has to quit smoking. The patients in Mount Vierge all seem to be on rest cures, which means convalescing outdoors on chaise longues while wrapped snugly in blankets. Karen befriends another patient, Celestine Miller (Joan Lorring), who claims she’s only there to make her philandering husband jealous, but is in fact quite ill, even though she doesn’t know it.

Karen bristles under Dr. Stanton’s inflexibility. When he stops her from playing the piano after she gets too worked up while performing a piece, she shouts, “Is everything forbidden here?” Yes, he tells her. Everything except hope. But a month of bed rest? Being treated like a child? Yes, he tells her. Until she’s well.

Despite being forbidden from practicing her art, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol, Karen is apparently allowed to drive a horse and carriage all by herself on twisting mountain roads, which is how she meets the handsome and exciting auto racer Paul Clermont (Richard Conte). When he and his buddy Pete (Jimmy Horne) come tearing around a corner in their roadster, Karen’s horse rears up, and Paul comes to her aid after deliberately driving his car into a tree to avoid her.

Paul is in the Alps for an upcoming road race, and he and Karen are instantly attracted to each other, but Dr. Stanton refuses to let her go into the village again after learning of her affaire de cœur with Paul. Why must he take every bit of joy from her? “Too much excitement for one day,” the doctor says, simply.

Dr. Stanton tells her that she must never get overexcited. That she must be an automaton. “You haven’t got a free will anymore,” he tells her. She wants to live! He loves her! She doesn’t believe him! “Believe what you want,” he says. “But you’ve got to get well for your music! The world deserves your music!”

Karen runs away to the village for brandy and a cigarette with Paul. She gets into his car with him and reveals that she is Karen Duncan. Yes, THE Karen Duncan. “If Chopin could see me now,” he quips, and they go away to the Hotel Monaco together.

For most of the film the nature of Karen’s illness is as mysterious to the audience as it is to her. Once out of the crisp, dry air of the mountains, however, it quickly becomes clear that she’s consumptive, and she breaks down in coughing fits in the heavy air and rain of the low altitudes where Paul and she relax and play as only two well-dressed Hollywood actors in a mid-century film can play.

One way to see Karen’s disease in The Other Love is as part of a symbolic representation of the two men in her life. To follow Dr. Stanton’s dictates means a life of convalescence, but also one of security and contentment. To run around the world with Paul means a life of excitement and glamor, but also one of early death and frequent danger (represented quite literally by an amorous croupier, played by Gilbert “Cisco Kid” Roland, who tries to rape Karen in a doorway when she’s drunk and ill).

On the other hand, Dr. Stanton’s treatment of Karen hearkens back so strongly to the medical profession’s patronizing and deceitful treatment of women in less enlightened times that their “romance” is often more creepy than it is romantic. His refusal to reveal to her the seriousness of her illness — a subject he discusses freely with Karen’s mentor, Professor Linnaker (Richard Hale) — seems more like condescension than compassion.

The Other Love may be a “women’s picture,” but it’s certainly not a feminist one. (The Yellow Wallpaper this story is not.) But it’s a well-acted, well-directed, and beautifully staged film, so I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of any of the principal actors, or fans of André de Toth who want to see what he could do behind the camera without Joel McCrea blowing someone away with a shotgun in front of it.

A Matter of Life and Death (Dec. 25, 1946)

Stairway to Heaven
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The Archers / Eagle-Lion / Universal Pictures

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s brilliant fantasy A Matter of Life and Death premiered in the United Kingdom on November 1, 1946, and later that year in New York City, on Christmas day, retitled Stairway to Heaven. (After World War II, the word “death” was verboten in film titles for awhile in the United States.)

The film begins with the following statement: “This is a story of two worlds — the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental.” It’s a playful opening, and can be interpreted in more than one way. “The Archers” (the name Powell and Pressburger used for their partnership) had a light touch, and were able to weave magical realism into their stories without ever seeming childish or silly.

After a cheeky narrated tour through the cosmos, we see Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven), his Lancaster bomber in flames and about to crash. Peter’s parachute is shot too full of holes to function properly, and he is desperately trying to reach someone on the radio. Next to him lies the body of Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote). Peter manages to get in touch with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, and pours out his heart to her. Finally, he professes his love before leaping out of the bomber without a parachute.

The scene in which Niven wakes up in the pounding surf and believes himself in the afterlife is a masterpiece of subtle humor. He stands, breathes deeply, and walks toward the beach with a beatific gaze, shedding his earthly raiments. The first person he sees is a boy playing a pipe, tending sheep, so why wouldn’t he think he’s passed on to his final reward?

Meanwhile, his mate Bob finds himself in the “other place,” an otherworldly bureacracy in which angel wings arrive en masse on long runners, ready to be attached to newly arrived bodies, and businesslike clerks take names and hand out assignments. Bob is told that there was a clerical error that caused Peter to fall through the cracks, and that he’ll need to be collected forthwith.

The scenes on terra firma are filmed in beautiful Technicolor, while the scenes in the afterlife are filmed in black and white. (Technically it’s “monochrome Technicolor,” not proper black and white, but since I’m not as big of a film nerd as Martin Scorsese, I couldn’t tell the difference.) It’s a simple but brilliant stylistic choice, and it’s way ahead of its time. Films in the ’30s or ’40s that mixed black and white with color film invariably depicted the fantastical world in color and the prosaic world in black and white. To do it the other way around looks forward to the ’80s, when black and white was coming back into vogue, and filmmakers like Scorsese and David Lynch showed just how surreal and otherworldly black and white film could look.

Kim Hunter and David Niven

June and Peter fall in love, but for Peter, time occasionally stops all around him while a ridiculous French aristocrat from the other world known as “Conductor 71” (Marius Goring), pays him visits.

June’s friend Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) believes that Peter’s visions aren’t supernatural, but symptoms of a brain injury. Eventually this “matter of life and death” comes to a head as Peter is operated on in our world while simultaneously facing trial in the other.

A Matter of Life and Death is a fantastic film that is satisfying on both a technical level and an emotional level. The performances are all wonderful, and Powell and Pressburger are masterful filmmakers.

Incidentally, in a 2004 poll of 25 film critics in Britain’s Total Film magazine, A Matter of Life and Death was named the second greatest British film of all time, sandwiched between Get Carter (#1) and Trainspotting (#3).