By Jay Walljasper
Our attitudes about public spaces are shaped to a large degree by the experiences of our own lives–especially what we saw during the wide-eyed years of youth. I’ll wager that most of us interested in promoting lively public places had a chance sometime in our childhoods to explore a vital, interesting, walkable community–either growing up in such a place or on a memorable visit abroad, to New York or even the artificial pedestrian paradise of Disneyland.
The Bishop’s Wife joyfully uses the magic of moviemaking to show us what’s great about public spaces.
Popular culture exerts a strong influence in how we view the world. A lot of what we think and feel about any place comes from watching TV, going to the movies, and reading. A favorable impression of public spaces, for instance, could have been shaped by our excitement at watching Gene Kelly dance through the streets in movie musicals like An American in Paris and On the Town. A negative view might come from the fear we felt watching bad guys jump out of the shadows of Gotham City to attack Batman in comic books, TV shows and movies.
The nature of filmmaking itself heightened these trends. Since Hollywood movies in their heyday were filmed almost exclusively on studio sets and backlots (or in vast empty places, which explains the popularity of Westerns), we were treated to many more scenes taking place indoors rather than out in the streets and parks. It’s exceedingly complicated, not to mention expensive, to shoot in busy public places. Movies made on location in real places did not become popular until the late 1950s (On the Town was one of the first to be shot outdoors in New York), and even later with television shows.
It’s interesting to note that just a few years after movies shot on location became popular there was a resurgence of interest in the importance of public places spurred by figures like William H. Whyte and Jane Jacobs. Could there be a connection between what people were seeing at the moviehouse and what they wanted to see in their own communities?
Since the holiday season is upon us let me recommend a little known but delightful Christmas comedy–starring Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young–that stands as one of the best celebrations of public spaces. The Bishop’s Wife hit the theaters 1947, the same year as the beloved and equally delightful Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street. It was the era when suburbs were starting to boom, and the decline of American cities was just beginning. But while Miracle on 34th Street was jubilant in its embrace of the suburban dream, The Bishop’s Wife celebrated the energy and humanity of old urban neighborhoods and lamented their downfall. (It was remade as The Preacher’s Wife in a worthy 1996 version with Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston and Courtney B. Vance.)
The Bishop’s Wife begins with a gay scene of Christmas shopping on crowded city streets in an unnamed city, but there are ominous undertones of urban woes as a blind man, a baby in a stroller and an old professor are nearly rundown by speeding cars and trucks. The bishop’s wife is buying a Christmas tree from a colorful Italian shop owner, but she clearly lacks the holiday spirit. Bumping into an old friend–who laughs “What are you doing in this disreputable part of town?”–she breaks into tears, saying how much she misses this old neighborhood now that her husband has been appointed bishop and they’ve moved with their young daughter to a grand residence up on the hill. Indeed, we soon see that her husband’s old church, St. Timothy’s, is in danger of closing. “It can’t stand up to the march of progress,” the friend sadly remarks.
But, trust me, this is a comedy and much of the humor revolves around Cary Grant as the world’s most debonair angel, who is sent to help the beleaguered bishop (David Niven) but nearly botches things by falling in love with his wife (Loretta Young). Their budding romance plays out against a backdrop of vital urban places–kids playing in the snow at a park, a cozy neighborhood restaurant, a rundown but elegant apartment building, bustling shopping streets and a fabulous scene with everyone ice skating on a park pond. The Bishop’s Wife joyfully uses the magic of moviemaking to show us what’s great about public spaces.
It’s curious The Bishop’s Wife is so little known compared to Miracle on 34th Street, which came out the same year but takes a decidedly different view on the charms of city living–even though its plot centers on urban icons like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and Santa’s appearance at a Manhattan department store. Miracle was shot partly on location in New York, but the streets seem unwelcoming and anonymous.
The story involves Susie (the young Natalie Wood), a little girl living with her divorced mother in an apartment right on Central Park. But rather than showing Susie running through one of the world’s most wonderful parks, climbing trees or swinging on the playground, it depicts her lurking in the unfriendly basement of the apartment building with her unhappy friends. At one point a kindly old man who is a department store Santa tells her, “You have this lovely apartment.” She snaps back, “I don’t think it’s lovely. I want a house with a yard and great big tree you can put a swing on.”
This sets up the happy ending for Christmas morning when (warning: skip the rest of this paragraph if you are one of the very few Americans who haven’t seen the movie) Santa gives Susie’s soon-to-be-stepdad instructions on the best route back to Manhattan from a holiday party on Long Island, which just happens to take them past a new suburban home for sale with a yard, a big tree and a swing in back–”a real home” as Susie puts it.
Don’t get me wrong. Miracle on 34h Street is a great uplifting movie and there’s nothing inherently wrong with the suburbs. But The Bishop’s Wife is just as great a movie, and there’s nothing wrong about living in the city–even for kids. Indeed, these two films would make a great double feature. And that’s my wish for this holiday season: that popular entertainment celebrating public places could get equal billing in everyone’s imagination as the stories that portray the American dream as an exclusively privatized pursuit.