Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), troubled with funding the building of a new cathedral, prays for divine guidance. His plea is seemingly answered by a suave angel named Dudley (Cary Grant), who reveals his identity only to the clergyman.
However, Dudley's mission is not to help construct a cathedral, but to spiritually guide Henry and the people around him. Henry has become obsessed with raising funds, to the detriment of his family life. His relationships with Julia (Loretta Young) and their young daughter are strained by his focus on the cathedral.
Everyone, except for Henry, is charmed by Dudley, even the non-religious Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley). Dudley persuades the wealthy parishioners, particularly widowed Agnes Hamilton (Gladys Cooper), to contribute needed funds, but not to build the cathedral. He coaxes Mrs. Hamilton to donate her money to feed and clothe the needy — much to Henry's chagrin. To save time, Dudley also redecorates the Broughams' Christmas tree in a few seconds, saves an old church by restoring interest in the boys' choir, and dictates to a typewriter to magically produce Henry's new sermon — without Henry's knowledge.
When Dudley spends time cheering up Julia, though, an unexpected development occurs: Dudley finds himself strongly attracted to her. Sensing this, Henry becomes jealous and anxious for his unwelcome guest to finish and depart. He reveals Dudley's true identity to Professor Wutheridge, who urges him to stand up and fight for the woman he loves.
Dudley indicates a willingness to stay, but Julia, sensing what he means, tells Dudley it is time for him to leave. Dudley tells the bishop it is rare for an angel to envy a mortal. Henry wants to know why his cathedral plans were derailed. Dudley reminds the bishop he prayed for guidance, not a building.
With his mission completed and knowing that Julia loves her husband, Dudley leaves, promising never to return. All memory of him is erased, and later that Christmas Eve at midnight, Henry delivers the sermon that he believes he has written. Dudley observes from the street, satisfied that his work is done.
Niven was originally cast as the angel, Dana Andrews as the bishop, and Teresa Wright as his wife. However, Wright had to bow out due to pregnancy. According to Robert Osborne, Andrews was lent to RKO in order to obtain Loretta Young. Koster then brought in Cary Grant, but he wanted to play the angel, so the role of the bishop was given to Niven.
Production was not without troubles. Producer Samuel Goldwyn replaced director William A. Seiter with Henry Koster to create a completely new film. In early previews, audiences disliked the film, so Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett made uncredited rewrites. Even so, and even though the premiere of The Bishop's Wife was accompanied by critical success, the film didn't do very well at the box office at first. Market research showed that moviegoers avoided the film because they thought it was religious. So, Goldwyn decided to re-title it Cary and the Bishop's Wife for some US markets, while adding a black text box with the question "Have you heard about CARY AND THE BISHOP'S WIFE?" on posters in markets where the film kept the original title. By adding Grant's first name to the title the film's business increased by as much as 25 per cent.
Location filming was done in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the scene in which Dudley conducts the boys' choir, the Charles Gounod composition 'Noël: Montez à Dieu' ('O Sing to God') was performed by the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir. The "Lost April" song that features in the film had lyrics written for it with the song being recorded by Nat King Cole.
Karolyn Grimes also played the (later) famous daughter-role 'Zuzu' in It's a Wonderful Life, released a year earlier. Another actor who appeared in both movies was Bobby (or Bobbie) Anderson, who was billed as "Defense captain" (in the snowball fight) in The Bishop's Wife and who played young George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Sound (Gordon Sawyer), and was nominated for Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture and Best Picture.
2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
The Bishop's Wife was dramatized as a half-hour radio play on the March 1, 1948 broadcast of The Screen Guild Theater with Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven in their original film roles. It was also presented on Lux Radio Theater three times as an hour-long broadcast: first on December 19, 1949, with Tyrone Power and David Niven, second on May 11, 1953, with Cary Grant and Phyllis Thaxter and third on March 1, 1955, again with Grant and Thaxter.
The soundtrack has been released on compact disc.