A Letter to Three Wives (1949) typifies Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s undeniable strength as a film maker; chiefly, his acidic wit as a social satirist. Characters in a Mankiewicz movie are always more articulate than the average person; their struggles and triumphs framed by Mankiewicz’s fervent desire to expose greater issues through sociological character studies rather than plot-driven narratives. Mankiewicz occasionally gets criticized for his lack of visual ingenuity and in reexamining his masterworks today – even the venerable and enduring All About Eve (1950) – one can definitely identify Mankiewicz’s verve for explanation – more ‘tell’ than ‘show’; his visuals almost an afterthought or ‘necessary evil’ to get his points across. Indeed, his best work might have been achieved on the stage if only Mankiewicz had not suffered an early flop on Broadway after his split from MGM that effectively put a period to whatever aspirations he had for a career along the ‘great white way’. 2oth Century-Fox’s head Darryl F. Zanuck, having come from the ilk of a solid storyteller himself, greatly esteemed Mankiewicz’s precision in his writer’s craft. From a purely constructionist viewpoint, Mankiewicz is untouchable; his cause and effect scenarios brilliantly conceived to expose the caveats of modern society with light romance and scathing humor.
The project had begun as A Letter to Five Wives, a widely read serialized novel written by John Klempner first published in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1946. This was quickly acquired by Zanuck who assigned writers Melville Baker and Dorothy Bennett to do a draft. Baker, in fact, established the operatic deus ex machina of Addie Ross – the character who drives the narrative, voiced by Celeste Holm but never seen in the movie. Even before the script was completed Zanuck announced in the trades his intentions to cast resident Fox starlets Gene Tierney, Linda Darnell, Maureen O'Hara, Dorothy McGuire and Alice Faye in the movie. However, with Mankiewicz’s involvement on the project A Letter To Three Wives would undergo several permutations, not the least of which was the excision of two of the wives, primarily done to manage the rather unwieldy narrative. Mankiewicz had, in fact, pared down the protagonists by one but was still having difficulty adapting the property. “Just take out one of the wives,” Zanuck suggested.
Yet A Letter to Three Wives differs almost entirely from its literary counterpart. Perhaps owing to Mankiewicz’s prowess and ego as a writer, virtually all of the characters in the movie are complete rewrites of those featured in Klempner’s novel – Mankiewicz arguably ‘improving’ on the originals. As example, in the book Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) is a woman dominated by her wealthy husband, Porter (Paul Douglas). In the movie she is portrayed as something of an enterprising gold digger. Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) is a divorcee shoring up a second and thoroughly passionless marriage in Klempner’s novel. In the movie, she is a happily married career woman who infrequently clashes with the high-minded principles of her school teacher husband, George (Kirk Douglas). Finally, Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) is a plain Jane in the novel; thoroughly unable to rise to the occasion of being married to her more socially affluent husband, Brad (Jeffrey Lynn). In the movie Deborah is a returning WAVE – obviously someone who can take care of herself and who overcomes her initial awkwardness through a trial by fire to become one of the ladies who lunch long before the final fade out.
Something of a ladies man, Mankiewicz was perpetually fascinated by strong female characters. His best movies are driven by women who know their own mind and are capable of manipulating their various lovers, husbands, bosses and other male cohorts to their own advantage. Seen in this light, A Letter to Three Wives is a potpourri for Mankiewicz’s grand dames; his ‘three act in flashback’ structure ever so slightly episodic yet more than serviceable as we follow the natural progression of thoughts ricocheting beneath the cultured facades of our featured trio after they have received a handwritten letter from their fair-weather friend and society maven, Addie Ross confessing she has left town with one of their husbands.
Mankiewicz, a highly literate man able to extract and explore the absurdities of life and present them to the rest of us in fresh and revealing ways gives his ‘wives’ their due in three separate vignettes bookended by the structure of their coming together as chaperones on a high school field trip to an island camp in Cold Springs, New York. Zanuck reluctantly agreed to allow Mankiewicz his own field trip to New York to lens these inserts and the pro- and epilogues, then rued the day he had ever acquiesced to his director’s demand when it rained for nine straight days, holding up production and causing the film’s initial budget to skyrocket.
Viewed in light of the sexual politics from this period, A Letter To Three Wives is a rather remarkable achievement. Virtually all of the women, including the unseen Addie Ross, are in the driver’s seat. The men in the movie are little more than window dressing, except perhaps for Paul Douglas who managed to make the absolute most of his big screen debut; concealing his nervousness and excelling as the slightly embittered, mostly uncouth mogul of a retail chain. Douglas’s Porter Hollingsway desires to acquire the one thing he so obviously lacks – class – by climbing the social ladder with Addie Ross, but ultimately settling for the even more enterprising Lora Mae instead.
We begin our tale in the upper class abode of Deborah and Brad Bishop, she preparing to leave for the field trip while her husband indulges in his early morning breakfast. Brad is a congenial sort. But his excitement over attending the first society gala of the summer hosted by Addie Ross ruffles Deborah’s feathers. You see, Deb’ met Brad while the two were stationed in Europe during the war. Although she has since assimilated into his affluent world the veneer that separates Brad’s cultured upbringing from her own less than pluperfect childrearing on a farm is very thin and exemplified by Brad’s enduring affinity for Addie, a woman he dated before the war and was assumed he would marry upon his return from it before Deborah came into the picture. Deborah makes an issue of Brad’s eagerness to his perplexed curiosity before storming out of the house to collect Rita Phipps in her station wagon.
Rita is late, as usual, and Deborah has a few brief words with her husband George to fill the gap. Deborah takes notice that the usually casual George is smartly dressed in his favorite blue suit. Clearly, he is not going fishing this Saturday. And his mood, always congenial, is in fact downright jovial at the moment. Rita pays him no mind. Perhaps she’s grown too complacent in their marriage; chronically disillusioned by George’s lack of career initiative. He’s contented to be an underpaid high school teacher while Rita supports the household on her lucrative salary as a writer of absolutely appalling radio soap operas. At the docks, Rita and Deborah are met by Lora Mae, the hard-bitten realist with a heart of gold who makes light of her frequent squabbles with her hubby, Porter and is frankly looking forward to spending some time away from him.
All three have made the boat launch just in time, attended to by a special delivery mail boy who hands Rita the letter written by Addie Ross. Ross’ confession – that she has been carrying on and has decided to run away with one of their husbands this very day – cuts to the heart of Mankiewicz’s first sociological precept; that these strong-minded career-driven women still desire the touch of a good man at the end of a long day; the sexual stereotyping a tad dated, perhaps, but still holding up under closer scrutiny primarily because the women in Mankiewicz’s movie are the instigators of its plot, dictating their own future prospects and happiness. Having boarded the boat with no ship-to-shore contact possible, Rita, Deborah and Lora Mae are left to their own devices and to ponder which one of their husbands has strayed. We regress to the first of three flashbacks; Deborah’s debut into polite society upon her return from the war.
Wearing a positively hideous mail order dress, Deborah meets Rita and George for the first time in her husband’s parlor, the foursome planning a night out at the country club. While the men head out to the car Deborah confesses to Rita her crippling anxiety for having married above her own class. Rita suggests to Deborah that she take the edge off with a few stiff drinks. Regrettably, Deborah, who grew up on a farm, is unaccustomed to alcohol and proves it by getting violently drunk. At the country club, the table discussion is centered on Addie Ross – the doyenne of the social set who has yet to arrive. Deborah is naturally curious and suspicious of Addie, having been made aware that her husband and Addie were an item before the war. To ease her concerns, Brad decides to take his wife for a spin around the dance floor, the whirling and twirling finally getting the better of Deborah who needs to use the ladies room. Accompanied by Rita, Deborah throws up off screen, returning with Rita to discover Brad chatting up Addie on the balcony. Mankiewicz deliberately obscures Addie from our view, showing us only a slender arm, cigarette in hand, a handsome diamond bracelet sparkling at the wrist, presumably to maintain the allure and mystery of this creature so idealized and idolized by the men in the story.
We return to the field trip, Rita joining Deborah near the shore, comforting as ever but already having begun to contemplate whether George’s departure earlier in the day in his best suit was a prelude to his prearranged rendezvous with Addie Ross. We regress into flashback #2; a disastrous dinner party hosted at Rita and George’s decidedly middle-class abode for her boss, the overbearing middle-age dragon, Mrs. Manleigh (Florence Bates) and her husband (Hobart Cavanaugh). The evening’s festivities begin in the kitchen with Rita’s maid, Sadie Dugan (the irrepressible and irreplaceable Thelma Ritter) giving Rita a bit of lip over having to wear the traditional ‘maid’s uniform’ that makes her look like a lamb chop. Rita is determined that everything go off without a hitch. In fact, Rita is so obsessed with the dinner arrangements she’s entirely forgotten that it’s also George’s birthday. He tells her it doesn’t matter and is elated when a recording of a rare Brahms’ concerto arrives, special delivery – a gift from Addie Ross.
Lora Mae and Porter arrive for dinner, followed by Mr. and Mrs. Manleigh. George attempts to elevate the evening into a highbrow appreciation of classical music by having everyone listen to his Brahms record. But Mrs. Manleigh is far more interested in tuning into her radio program. In attempting to turn on the broadcast she accidentally smashes George’s record. Momentarily angry, George bites his tongue, determined that Rita’s planned evening should come off to perfection. But the meal is interrupted by Mrs. Manleigh’s insistence that everyone retire to the living room to listen to three hours of her radio soap opera programming. George and Porter find temporarily solace in a game of chess. But when Mrs. Manleigh presses George on his opinion of her soap operas George admonishes the gargoyle for their utter lack of finesse, style and quality writing. The evening ends abruptly; the Manleighs storming out, followed by a weary Porter and grateful Lora Mae.
We return to the picnic, the day’s festivities almost at an end. Going in search of Lora Mae, Rita discovers her in the changing room. Their banter is tinged by Rita’s minor snubs of class distinction, her words and the dripping of water from a nearby leaky faucet reminding Lora Mae of her former life; living with her common frump of a mother, Ruby Finney (Connie Gilchrist) who is best friends with Sadie. The Finney’s home is near an elevated train, the frequent rumblings upsetting the entire household. Lora Mae works for Porter Hollingsway and has been asked out on a date by her boss. It’s a seedy prospect at best for a girl like Lora Mae who recognizes the obviousness in Porter’s attraction to her beauty. But Lora Mae wants more – much more – and makes Porter work for it by taking her out to fashionable places without even so much as paying off with a kiss. Porter is frustrated by his lack of progress but pursues Lora Mae further, even inviting her back to his home. It all plays out like a grand seduction until Lora Mae finds a picture of Addie Ross majestically framed in silver and prominently displayed on his piano. Asked what she really wants out of life Lora Mae confesses that she wants to have such distinction in a man’s heart and Porter reluctantly takes Lora Mae home instead.
Things reach an impasse on New Year’s Eve as Lora Mae finds herself performing alterations on one of her party dresses so that her obnoxious sister Georgiana (Barbara Lawrence) can go out on a date with department store clerk, Nicholas Butler (George Offerman Jr.). Even Ruby and Sadie are off for a good time. Everyone has a date except Lora Mae. Arriving at the Finney’s home, Porter mistakenly assumes Nick has come to take Lora Mae out and is infinitely relieved when he learns Nick is there for Georgiana instead. After the couple has left Porter proposes to Lora Mae – a rather half-hearted gesture, though willingly accepted by Lora Mae as the best she can hope for. Returning to find her daughter and Porter in each other’s arms, Ruby passes out after she learns of their pending marriage.
We return to the docks, Deborah, Rita and Lora Mae making haste to return to their homes and discover which one of their husbands will not be waiting for them. Indeed, Rita is exceedingly grateful to find George sprawled out on the couch in their living room listening to classical music and Lora Mae, while surprised to find Porter at home with Ruby, is nevertheless standoffish as she orders him to get ready for the country club social. Deborah, however, comes home to an empty house and a message stating that Brad will not be returning for the evening. Believing the worst - that Brad has run off with Addie Ross - Deborah decides to attend the country club dance anyway. At the club, Porter finds himself alone with Deborah while Rita and George take a spin around the dance floor. Porter makes a rather glib reference to the fact that Lora Mae is dancing with another man, telling Deborah that he knows his wife only thinks of him as ‘a cash register’.
Unable to take the humiliation any longer, Deborah tearfully admonishes Porter, informing him of the depth of Lora Mae’s genuine affections for him and declaring to all that Brad has run off with Addie Ross. But it’s Porter’s turn to be noble. He informs Deborah that Brad is away on legitimate business, and furthermore that it was he who had begun an affair with Addie Ross some time earlier that ought to have ended with their running off together this very afternoon. “A man can change his mind, can’t he?” Porter sheepishly confesses and Lora Mae, realizing just how much Porter loves her tells him that she hasn’t heard a word of his confession, but instead asks him to dance; presumably, their marriage now stronger than ever. As Deborah rushes home to wait for her husband and Rita and George look on while Porter and Lora Mae dance, a ghostly wine glass topples and Addie Ross’ voice over bids us all a good night.
The ending of A Letter to Three Wives has often been misconstrued as Porter lying to Deborah so that she can get a good night’s sleep before having to face the truth about Addie and Brad. Questioned about this interpretation, Mankiewicz always held firm to the notion that Porter was not telling a lie simply to placate Deborah’s fears but, in fact, was being truthful, the predictably happier note remaining true to the time-honored precepts of the romantic comedy. In viewing the movie today, one can in fact infer that Porter might be lying to Deborah for the sake of maintaining peace at the country club, although most would probably prefer to view his declaration as a gesture made partly out of guilt but mostly as an act of kindness to set Deborah’s mind at ease.
If A Letter to Three Wives seems a trifle formulaic and dated today it is only because in the many years that have passed since its premiere we have seen its story lines and characters reconstituted in so many different ways and venues; occasionally with more refinement, but never with quite so much acidic dialogue. By 1949 standards the movie’s premise and characters are both fresh and revealing, Mankiewicz’s clever interchanges and double entendre effectively skirting the stringency of the production code. After nearly a decade of playing to the whims of his studio bosses, first at Paramount and then MGM, Mankiewicz was given the opportunity to excel over at Fox by Zanuck – who never entirely warmed to Mankiewicz as a person but could definitely recognize and admire his strengths as a great writer and competent director. Mankiewicz’s contributions to the movies have very little to do with visual stylization and thematically, a good many of them could – and have – played just as effectively when translated into stagecraft. There’s still a lot to watch and digest in a Mankiewicz movie, but visually they tend to aspire more toward the moving tableau rather than the motion picture medium.
At the time of its release Jeanne Crain had the most prolific career at Fox. She was a personal favorite of Zanuck’s and he effectively plugged her into a roster of movies that generally played up Crain’s bucolic congeniality. Linda Darnell’s star was still on the ascendance at the time A Letter to Three Wives debuted. She was the studio’s undeniable bird of paradise and A Letter to Three Wives proved another feather in her cap. Darnell is one of the great beauties of the silver screen; a girl who scaled the pinnacle of success at the ripe old age of 25 only to see it all slip away and end prematurely in a tragic house fire in 1965. Ann Sothern is perhaps the most remarkably cast; not a Fox contract player but actually her own free agent after a string of hits playing the reoccurring character of Maisie, as well as appearing in several choice musical offerings over at MGM.
A Letter to Three Wives plays as ingenious social satire, Mankiewicz managing to insert his artistic sentiments and opinions primarily in the second flashback, particularly in George’s delicious diatribe that effectively deflates Mrs. Manleigh’s commercially crass pomposity. Mankiewicz’s own opinion of radio stories dumbing down the masses – an affliction frequently associated with movie culture of the day as referenced by those toiling in the ‘legitimate theater’ – would later be ascribed to the television age as well. Mankiewicz’s astute observations have since proven all too prolific in hindsight; our present pop cultural a cheap bastardization of the high cultural precepts both Mankiewicz and his fictionalized alter ego in the movie, George, share. A Letter to Three Wives is also something of a swan song for the congenial persona Kirk Douglas had fostered thus far in his movie career. As Douglas would reveal, playing the hard bitten realist with a grudge and axe to grind in the boxing classic, Champion, released the same year as A Letter To Three Wives, his talents as an actor lay elsewhere than in playing the affectionately devoted milquetoast.
Again, the focus of Mankiewicz’s best movies is female. Still, Paul Douglas manages a minor coup, transforming what could so easily have been misconstrued as a womanizing lummox into a very sympathetic and endearing ‘every man’ who just happens to have struck it rich but doesn’t quite know how to handle it amongst the cultured set. In the final analysis, A Letter To Three Wives endures as a great literary adaptation brought to the silver screen. Arguably, Mankiewicz’s revisions have improved upon John Klempner’s novel. In point of fact, the book and the movie are so different that one could easily consider each as a stand-alone entity rather than two halves derived from the same equation. Either way, A Letter to Three Wives is a movie that deserves to be revisited by contemporary audiences. It has Mankiewicz’s hallmark of great writing to recommend it and some very fine performances throughout. It also was the first movie for which Mankiewicz took home back-to-back coveted Academy Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Director. A Letter to Three Wives was also Oscar-nominated for Best Picture – unusual for a movie then misperceived as a featherweight romantic comedy.
Prepare to be astonished by Fox’s newly minted Blu-ray. My admiration for the studio has grown exponentially over this last year, the reinvigorated passion of Schawn Belston and others to revisit a goodly number of the studio’s premium classic catalogue titles with complete ‘ground up’ restorations and hi res rescans yielding some utterly gorgeous transfers. A Letter to Three Wives is among them. This movie has never looked good on home video, primarily because no original elements exist after the previous regime at Fox junked all of its original nitrate elements in the mid-1970s. Fox did perform a rather extensive restoration effort on A Letter to Three Wives back in 1997, removing blemishes and damage to prepare it for release on DVD as part of their ‘Studio Classic’ series. But the results then were far less than perfect, the image retaining a woefully soft characteristic that seemed very dull, dark and excessively blurry.
Well, I am happy to report you can start using that old disc as a Frisbee. The newly mastered Blu-ray is nothing short of a revelation – one of the most significant upgrades made on any of the studio’s catalogue titles. Truly, viewing the two discs side by side there is virtually no comparison to be made. Where the DVD was dark, exhibiting weak contrast levels and softly focused, the Blu-ray snaps together with crisp renewed refinement. It’s a brighter visual presentation overall, but one with infinitely more accurate contrast levels and a gorgeous smattering of film grain consistently rendered throughout.
Age-related artifacts are practically a non-issue, the image sparkling and with a bit rate five times more progressive than its ancestor we are seeing fine detail in hair, clothes and skin like never before. The lossless DTS mono audio definitely improves our appreciation for Alfred Newman’s iconic score. Dialogue sounds noticeably crisper too. We lose the ‘restoration comparison’ from the DVD. But Fox has retained virtually all the other extras including a fairly engrossing audio commentary from Kenneth Geist, Cheryl Lower and Christopher Mankiewicz, and the very solidly produced Biography Special on Linda Darnell. Great stuff!
So, is A Letter to Three Wives visually perfect? That depends on one’s point of view. Remember, I said no original nitrate elements exist on this title. But Fox has done an incredible job given the second generation stock they’re working from and the results are a wonderment to behold. You will love this disc – it’s that simple. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)