Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Studio Classics series took its time getting to this winner, one of Fox's most
entertaining films of the post-war period. Smart & snappy dialogue from Joseph L. Mankiewicz
is enlivened by an excellent cast - it's funny, sexy and often right on the mark with its
look at the ambitious middle class after the war.
Upper middle class housewives Deborah Bishop, Lora Mae Hollingsway and Rita Phipps
(Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell & Ann Sothern) get along with their husbands reasonably well, even
though all three feel inadequate next to local beauty Addie Ross (unseen but heard
in voiceover courtesy of Celeste Holm). Addie was the old girlfriend of Deborah's husband Brad
(Jeffrey Lynn), and George Phipps and Porter Hollingsway (Kirk Douglas and Paul Douglas) were crazy
about her too. Then, just as the trio of wives are leaving to help out at a picnic for the local
settlement house kids, a note comes from Addie saying she's run off with one of their spouses. Cut
off from telephones, the three remember episodes from the past, each of them convinced that
their hubby might be the one to have flown the coop.
Although a television version was done in 1985, forget about doing a remake of
A Letter to Three Wives now - cell phones would make the plot unworkable. The three wives
stare at a telephone booth as they sail away with their slum kids, while we realize that
in ten years stationary telephones may be entirely passé.
Joseph Mankewicz was an intellectual who wrote and directed a string of classy dramas
around the mid-century mark: This movie,
All About Eve and
People Will Talk. The backstage
Broadway film is an acknowledged classic and People Will Talk an interesting oddity, but
A Letter to Three Wives is as entertaining as either of them, an intelligent riff on the
catty women's picture.
The simple setup posits three wives (there originally might have been four or five) with reasons to
worry that their particular husband is the one to have run off with the town siren, described
as a perfect cultured lady. Paul Douglas calls her "what a Queen should be." Those kinds of
endorsements have given the wives a kind of perpetual marital insecurity.
Working in his familiar flashback mode, Mankiewicz tells a separate episode from the past of
each relationship. Jeanne Crain gets an shaky start on post-war life with her classy and monied
husband. A farm girl who went directly into the Navy, she feels entirely inadequate to join the
social swirl of fancy friends and country club
dances. This episode must have won over many females in the audience, the ones intimidated
by the standards set for them after the war: To be perfect social companions for upwardly mobile
husbands. Interestingly, although two of the three couples are described as middle class, all have
large homes and employ at least one servant. Today they would be "lower rich class."
Ann Southern's segment is the least successful. She and Kirk Douglas perform well but Mankiewicz'
idea of keen satire is to contrast Douglas' refinement in music and art against the crass
commercialism of the kitschy radio dramas his wife writes. It doesn't take much courage to target
radio soaps as trash and the episode becomes a little preachy. Mankiewicz does manage a timely
dig against the HUAC witchhunts, when Douglas pointedly asks if his higher
cultural standards make him un-American. That's a pretty courageous line for 1949.
The final chapter introduced Paul Douglas
(The Solid Gold Cadillac) to the
screen and is the most entertaining. It deals with Linda Darnell's Lora Mae, a beauty
from the wrong side of the tracks, and her use of feminine wiles to maintain her dignity and snare a
husband. Lora Mae won't get intimate with her rich boss and drives him nuts until he
capitulates and agrees to marry her. There are some good gags with her amusing
mother (Connie Gilchrist), a supportive friend (Thelma Ritter in an early role) and Lora Mae's
bickering sister (Barbara Lawrence, of the same year's
Thieves' Highway). The episode
frankly acknowledges the problem of a woman from a lower class position who wants love but must
resist becoming a bought item for a wealthy man. Economic inequity forever complicates
what could be a perfect romance.
Mankiewicz's slick and clever dialogue is sometimes a bit show-offy, with too many people correcting
each other's word usage. Oddly enough, the banter is at its most convincing among the beer-drinking
gals at Lora Mae's house. He does manage some sly jokes, such as when an old biddy talking about radio
refers to 'penetrating' Ann Southern with a commercial message. There are some good visual jokes as
well. Porter has finally broken down and proposed to Lora Mae in her home, one of those shacks adjacent
to a railroad that shakes, earthquake style with every passing train. When the two finally embrace,
the shaking from the main line tracks turns them into a quivering pair of statues. It's a naughty
substitute for the sex Porter so desperately craves.
Fox's Studio Classics presentation of A Letter to Three Wives comes in a stunning transfer
with a great-sounding audio track. Beyond the expected trailer and newsreel, the main attraction is a
Biography episode on the dramatic and tragic life of Linda Darnell. Three experts trade off
on a feature commentary, including one of Mankiewicz's sons. They provide too much description of
the plot we're all watching unfold on screen, but a lot of interesting information as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Letter to Three Wives rates:
Supplements: Commentary, Biography episode on Linda Darnell, trailer, newsreel
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 7, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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