Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Poetic perspective: Robert Nathan

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How oft Columbus, dreaming of Cathay,
In the night's shadow, lost upon the sea,
Doubting the stars, and fearful of the day,
Wept in the cabin of the Saint Marie.
All was uncertain then, and only he
Leaned on his sails and fed them to the spray,
Spreading the waves before him at his knee,
Drawing the winds behind him on his way.
And shall we then who steer a sturdier bark
Across obedient seas from pole to pole,
Or climb the sky on errands like the lark,
Turn in despair from yet a worthier goal,
And crying,
All ahead is death and dark,
Miss the remoter heavens of the soul?

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Robert Nathan, 1935

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I ran into the above poem this morning while beginning my research for an essay.

Robert Nathan wrote a novel in 1928 called The Bishop's Wife, made into a film by the same name in 1947. This film will be the subject of my essay.

Nathan was the author of a number of works including Portrait of Jenny, another novel turned into a film on my personal classics list. A haunting and sentimental supernatural drama, Portrait of Jenny (Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten) was released one year before The Bishop's Wife. Both films were shot in glorious black and white.

For reasons that will eventually be clear, my wish is to review The Bishop's Wife and discuss it in a cultural context. The film is timely because it is a Christmas story; its pertinence, however, goes beyond that.

It is usually classified as a romantic comedy, yet what lingers in modern memory are the inspirational moments and messages, the quiet dignity of the performances, and perhaps, a poignant sense of loss.

Here is the thesis of my essay:

The Bishop’s Wife
Samuel Goldwyn
1947 Directed by Henry Koster, with

Cary Grant, David Niven, Loretta Young

There are many notable qualities to films of the 1940s. Not the least of these is the obvious and correct presumption made by filmmakers of that time that their films’ audience consisted of a single national culture, people who shared an overall-- but still fairly specific-- set of values and beliefs. That such a film as The Bishop’s Wife would never be produced by today’s Hollywood is a powerful statement about how far we’ve come as a nation… and not for the better.

It is my belief that while we may have lost the innocence required to produce a film such as The Bishop's Wife, I cannot accept that the heart and wisdom behind such a film is gone forever.

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I'll let you know when and where the article is available online.

In Christmas cheer, I remain your humble commentator.

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