A Holiday Classic For City Dwellers
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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 city life, for instance, could have been shaped by our excitement as kids 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 power of TV and movies has actually played a role in turning many Americans away from cities and public spaces in general throughout the 20th century. Almost from the beginning, cars were portrayed as sleek and sexy while big houses with huge lawns were presented to us as the ultimate measure of success. Movies, of course, didnâ€™t invent these things as status symbols but they did implant everyoneâ€™s minds with idealized images that fueled yearnings for a privatized version of utopia. One wonders how America would look today if Hollywood had romanticized trains, streetcars and bustling city streets with same fervor as it did speedy cars and rambling single-family homes.
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. Itâ€™s exceedingly complicated, not to mention expensive, to shoot in busy public places. Movies made on location in real places did not become widespread until the 1960s. That was the same time we saw a resurgence of interest in historic preservation and revitalizing cities. 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 comedyâ€”starring Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Youngâ€”that stands as one of the best celebrations of the American city. The Bishopâ€™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 Bishopâ€™s Wife celebrated the energy and humanity of old urban neighborhoods and lamented their downfall. (It was remade as The Preacherâ€™s Wife in a worthy 1996 version with Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston and Courtney B. Vance)
The Bishopâ€™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 bishopâ€™s wife is buying a Christmas tree from a colorful Italian shop owner, but she clearly lacks the holiday spirit. Bumping into an old friendâ€”who laughs â€œWhat are you doing in this disreputable part of town?â€â€”she breaks into tears, saying how much she misses this old neighborhood now that her husband has been appointed bishop and theyâ€™ve moved with their young daughter to a grand residence up on the hill. Indeed, we soon see that her husbandâ€™s old church, St. Timothyâ€™s, is in danger of closing. â€œIt canâ€™t stand up to the march of progress,â€ the friend sadly remarks.
But, trust me, this is a comedy and much of the humor revolves around Cary Grant as the worldâ€™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 scenesâ€”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 Bishopâ€™s Wife joyfully uses the magic of moviemaking to show us whatâ€™s great about living in a city.
Itâ€™s curious The Bishopâ€™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 livingâ€”even though its plot centers on urban icons like the Macyâ€™s Thanksgiving parade and Santaâ€™s appearance at a Manhattan department store.
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 worldâ€™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, â€œYou have this lovely apartmentâ€. She snaps back â€œI donâ€™t think itâ€™s lovely. I want a house with a yard and great big tree you can put a swing on.â€
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 havenâ€™t seen the movie) Santa gives Susieâ€™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 backâ€”"a real home" as Susie puts it.
Don't get me wrong. Miracle on 34h Street is a great uplifting movie and thereâ€™s nothing inherently wrong with the suburbs. But The Bishop's Wife is just as great a movie, and thereâ€™s nothing wrong about living in the cityâ€”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 urban settings and public places could get equal billing in everyoneâ€™s imagination as stories that portray the American dream as an exclusively privatized world of cars, big houses and wide lawns.
Jay Walljasper is executive editor of Ode magazine and a fellow at the Project for Public Spaces. He lives in Minneapolis.