Has there ever been a season that has stood by Hollywood longer or more faithfully than Christmas? From Clarence’s Twain-wielding celestial bumbler to Wallace and Davis dancing their former commander back to relevance; from leggy lamps and BB guns to John McClane’s profane holiday jingles — the list of memorable Yuletide moments is almost endless. Nearly every family has their own personal favorites, and there are few phrases that can produce such an instantaneous nostalgic flood as “favorite Christmas movie.”
With the possible exception of Halloween, no season has served as such a useful backdrop to the works of Tinseltown’s cinematic elves as Christmas; filmmakers realize that setting their stories in the joyful season gives their work a shining, cheery aura that can save them a great deal of time and energy. The role the feast itself plays in the story of the “Christmas film,” however, varies wildly. For some, it is nothing more than an easy cinematic shorthand, while for others, it lies at the core of their message. Identifying which is which is a fascinating enterprise, but it can prove much more complicated than one might expect.
For instance, one particular pair of classic films might well feel to audiences like card-carrying members of the first category, but they truly belong in the second: The Shop around the Corner and The Bishop’s Wife. Both films are set amid the hustle and bustle of pre-Christmas festivities — shops and presents, sleigh bells and Yuletide carols, roasting chestnuts and gently falling snow — and both feature the warm, fuzzy glow of Christmas cheer. But their Christmas roots run far deeper than that.
The Shop around the Corner — Ernst Lubitsch’s charming homage to his childhood and his father’s lifelong labors in Budapest — follows the story of Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) and Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), two shop hands at Matuschek and Company, a Hungarian gift shop doing a particularly brisk business as Christmas approaches. Though bitter rivals at the workplace, Klara and Alfred share an unusual common bond: They are both falling deeply in love with people they have never met, correspondence-style.
Disillusioned with their current romantic options, the two have struck up long-distance friendships with a pair of sympathetic pen pals — each far more comfortable interacting with someone they have never met than with the ordinary human beings that populate their mundane lives. As one might expect from a romantic comedy conceived and executed in the early 1940s, the film’s humorous twist is charming, readily foreseeable, and perhaps a trifle too tidy: Klara’s and Alfred’s safely unmet lovers turn out to be both well-known and thoroughly unromantic — they have, in fact, been corresponding with one another.
Alfred becomes aware of this delightful irony before Klara can discover it for herself, and he sets out in search of the most propitious way to rectify their “misunderstanding.” Events, however, take an unhelpful and (despite the film’s sweetly Christmassy exterior) undeniably dark turn. After years of faithful service, Alfred falls under suspicion from the shop’s owner, Matuschek himself, who has become convinced that his star salesman is carrying on an affair with his wife. Ashamed to publicly admit to his cuckolding, and well aware of Alfred’s long and faithful labors at the gift shop, Matuschek decides to fire Alfred without explanation.
Unable to understand why Matuschek would let him go so suddenly, Alfred refuses to harbor a grudge. Besides, he has far more serious matters on his hands: how to break the news to Klara. How exactly does one explain to his newly discovered and previously despised love that she actually loves him, as well? Somehow, Lubitsch and his wonderful cast find a way, but the fact that both Alfred and Klara have so badly misjudged one another lingers behind — a slight dollop of discomfort in an otherwise perfectly concocted cinematic brew.
In The Bishop’s Wife, one of Hollywood’s more successful attempts at the “angel come to earth” story, Cary Grant plays Dudley, a celestial messenger sent in answer to the prayers of Bishop Brougham (David Niven). The good bishop fancies himself a modern-day David, desperately wishing to build a glorious (and expensive) house of God — whether God wants it or not. Overwhelmed by the challenges of raising the funds for such a vast project, he calls out to God in prayer; Dudley is the answer.
But Dudley most emphatically refuses to behave in the way the bishop expects. His presence, a source of great encouragement to the bishop’s entire household — particularly to his increasingly neglected wife (the luminous Loretta Young) — grows exponentially more awkward for the bishop with each passing hour, as Dudley’s suave-yet-discomfiting behavior reminds Brougham of his own failings with painful exactitude. The bishop’s dream has always been to touch the lives of thousands in a spectacular and public way, while Dudley insists on gently, quietly touching the lives of each and every person he meets. Not surprisingly, Dudley’s approach wins over far more people than ever could be by the bishop’s great, loud cathedral.
The film’s finale feels a bit humanistic, almost maudlin in its unfair juxtaposition of Brougham’s cathedral with the health and welfare of his flock. But the bishop, through watching Dudley’s actions — and, perhaps more importantly, watching his wife’s reactions to Dudley’s kind and generous presence — has learned a lesson of profound and lasting importance: We can never substitute our own wishes and desires for what God wants; Christmas must be Christ-centered, or it ceases to be Christmas at all.
There are many more similarities between these two films than simply their seasonal setting: From their cheerful, buoyant charm to their wonderfully realized secondary characters to the subtle-yet-spectacular quality of their production values, they are truly deserving of one another. But perhaps the most striking similarity between the two is the way in which their central characters struggle to align their expectations with what God actually intends for them.
In The Shop around the Corner, Klara and Alfred are each so sure of the extraordinary characteristics of their faceless lovers that they miss they miss the actual, actually extraordinary faces of each other entirely. Despite their daily interactions, they are both so immersed in a world of fantasies and romance-fueled dreams that they barely even know each other. They are so blinded by what they want, they nearly miss seeing what they truly need.
And so it is in The Bishop’s Wife. Bishop Brougham’s certitude that the construction of a new cathedral must be a key part of God’s plan clouds his ability to see the things that are most important in his life: his family, his faith, and the individuals who make up his congregation. He is so convinced of the way he must follow — so sure of what he is being called to do — that Dudley’s kindness and generosity actually grates on him; he suffers while watching someone else doing good. This lamentable state of soul, so nearly fatal to him and to his family, is brought about by that same blindness — the insistence on seeing our struggles and goals through our own eyes, rather than God’s.
At their core, both films share an important Christmastime message: What we want is rarely what we truly need, and God’s actions in our lives rarely fulfill our expectations. And isn’t that exactly the story of Christmas? Who in their right minds would ever think that the answer to the problem of sin and evil would be a humble carpenter’s son, born in a stable in the dead of winter? Thank God He didn’t leave it up to us.