Family Values: 1940’s Propaganda in THE BISHOP’S WIFE

1 December 2013

The setting: America, 1947.  World War II is over and the American economy is booming, nothing like the pre-war depression.  With money flowing, advancements in technology and industry are all around.  It is a prosperous and prominent time for America.

But, is America moving too quickly?  Has the country suddenly become full of “too many people who don’t know where they are going and they want to get there too fast”?  People who, even without a sense of direction, are in a hurry to get there because a booming economy feels like success and exudes excitement?  According to the cynical Sylvester, the taxi cab drive from The Bishop’s Wife, who begrudgingly makes this statement, this is what is wrong with America and its people in 1947.


So, if Sylvester is right, and people are racing forward without direction, is that problematic for Americans?  If economy is thriving and people of the free world have prosperous industry, and, with it, financial success, and that industry and success are motivators to continue moving forward, even if the direction is hazy, what is the big deal?

According to The Bishop’s Wife, the big deal is career and financial pursuits in a booming economy jeopardize the family unit, a major American ideal.  Like most films of the 1940s (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, all films), The Bishop’s Wife is propaganda.  During WWII, films like Tender Comrade (1943) and The Hollywood Canteen (1944) told Americans to persevere in the face of adversity and built moral.  Immediately after the war, films like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) told Americans how to rebuild as victors.  The Bishop’s Wife, like its contemporaries of the late 1940s, told audiences that, although wildly different from pre-war America, post-war America must keep up its values, and family is at the top of the list.   Moreover, although opportunities for careers, financial gain, and glory are more readily accessible, it is not acceptable to put these materialistic gains ahead of the family unit in the value system.


At the start of The Bishop’s Wife a family unit is fractured.  The Brougham family, consisting of Bishop Henry, Julia (his wife), and Debby (their young daughter), is strained because the bishop is trying to raise money to build a cathedral in place of his current church, St. Timothy’s.  Unfortunately for the bishop, raising money has been a slowly and fruitless process.  Moreover, his exhaustive pursuit of this money, from wealthy members of his community, has frequently taken him away from his family and caused him incredible stress.  In fact, Bishop Henry (David Niven) is so frayed that God himself (or herself, or etc…) has sent an angel, Dudley (Cary Grant), to help the bishop, who has prayed for guidance. Reading into the film’s propaganda, clearly belief systems are essential to 1940’s America, and, to a dominantly God-fearing population (the film’s audience), God’s role in this film is to restore the family unit; thus, God wants families to stay together, and so the God-fearing American population also wants families to stay together, or so one may read into The Bishop’s Wife.

Julia (Loretta Young), “the bishop’s wife,” clearly wants to restore her family unit, and works as tirelessly as her husband to be a model wife; Julia represents the ideal in the film; Julia is the woman, wife, mother, and person 1940’s America wants more of.  Julia, like Dudley, is called “unusual” by Sylvester, the taxi cab driver turned Greek chorus of The Bishop’s Wife.  He calls her this because she “know[s her] destination,” having a sense of direction about her.  She maintains the family value even though her husband is lead astray by the drive for a bigger church and quest for money to make that drive a reality.  Julia is rooted in the ideals of yesteryear and cannot be shaken, exactly what the film’s propaganda hopes to instill in its audience.


One of the ways the film makes this clear is with a metaphor: Julia’s new “daring” hat.  After staring at it longingly in a shop window, Julia, with Dudley’s encouragement, finally buys the long-admired hat.  Now, the audience knows this “hat” is really more of a bonnet, but Julia and other characters refer to is as a hat.  Why?  Times change, and people don’t wear bonnets in 1947—not only when the film was released, but the presumed setting for the film itself.  This is significant because, metaphorically, this is the film’s way of claiming Julia reveres yesteryear, cherishes it, and holds tight to it even as the times (and fashions, to be literal) evolve.  Put another way, the language has changed—this is now a hat, not bonnet—, however, the item is the same, only guised by a new, more acceptable, name.  Metaphorically speaking, the family unit, like the bonnet, may evolve with the times, but must stay of utmost importance and revered amid the American people of the time.  People can have new interests, pursue new opportunities, live in prosperity, but people, like Julia, must revere yesteryear, namely the family unit, and, therefore, keeping their values is place regardless of changes that time’s progression brings.


Henry Bishop, a rather secondary character in the film, is the one who poses a threat to the family unit by his disregard of it in the pursuit of money and advancement.  Continuing to look through the lens of the film’s propaganda, his secondary status, and rather disagreeable characterization, may be an intentional threat in and of itself to those who, like Henry, do not place value on the family unit ahead of monetary gain and career advancement.  Whether or not that is true, Henry is portrayed as the problem in the Brougham’s family unit.  The audience realizes this early on, but Henry does not fully realize this until he sees another man, albeit and angel, move in on his neglected wife.  When his family unit is compromised by a force beyond his control Henry changes his ways.  The family unit is restored, Dudley leaves forever, and Henry, having realized how dangerously his pursuit of money for his cathedral was, now sees that family must come above all else.  Henry does not get his cathedral in the end.  The film does not reward him with more money or career advancement; the film rewards him with his restored family, a reward, according to the propaganda in the film, greater and monetary advancement or prestige.


As America advanced in the late 1940’s the propaganda of The Bishop’s Wife and its contemporaries blasted: family comes first.  The Bishop’s Wife, an enduring holiday classic, is a quintessential 1940’s propaganda film which forever immortalizes American values in the aftermath of World War II.




~ by Kate Bellmore on 01/12/2013.

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