Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees hopes that, in the current climate of remakes, no one will get the bright idea to update this classic comedy as An E-mail to Three Significant Others.
Deborah: Why is it that sooner or later, no matter what we talk about,
we wind up talking about Addie Ross?
Quick, think of a classic Joseph L. Mankiewicz film that features satirical comedy, a skilled ensemble cast, needle-sharp dialogue, and a ruthless, cunning woman at the heart of the story. Did you think All About Eve? Well, you're close. The year before he made that unforgettable dramedy, Mankiewicz won Oscars for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives, an irresistible blend of "woman's film" and social satire. It may not be as well remembered today, but it's a gem of writing, directing, and acting, and its somewhat lighter tone may even endear it to a wider audience than that of the later film. Whether you're familiar with Mankiewicz's other work or not, A Letter to Three Wives is a classic well worth discovering—or rediscovering—and Fox's welcome new DVD release gives it the handsome presentation this excellent film deserves.
Facts of the Case
On a beautiful Saturday in May, three young matrons gather to chaperone a children's boating expedition. Soon, however, they will have much more on their mind than their young charges, since as they prepare to embark, a messenger boy delivers a letter addressed to the three of them. Their mutual friend Addie Ross (voice of Celeste Holm, Gentleman's Agreement) has written to tell them that she is running away with one of their husbands—but she declines to say which one.
Unable to get to a telephone and try to contact their husbands, the three women spend the day reflecting on their marriages in an effort to determine if their husbands have sufficient reason to leave them. Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain, Leave Her to Heaven) has always felt insecure and out of place in her husband's country-club world, having grown up on a farm—unlike Addie Ross, who grew up cheek by jowl with Brad (Jeffrey Lynn, All This and Heaven Too). Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern, Lady Be Good) has experienced some marital tempests due to her work writing for radio programs, which cuts severely into the time she can give her schoolteacher husband George (Kirk Douglas, Spartacus) and their children. She's under so much pressure from her overbearing boss (Florence Bates, Rebecca) that she even forgets her husband's birthday…but Addie Ross doesn't. Stunning Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell, Anna and the King of Siam) knows that her husband Porter (Paul Douglas, Clash by Night) thinks she married him only for his money and status, and their marriage has been characterized by constant bickering. Porter keeps casting up to his wife that she has no class—a quality exemplified by Addie Ross.
Not until they return at the end of the day will the three women know which of their husbands has left her. But even when they think they know everything, fate still has some surprises in store—including, just maybe, one for Addie as well.
A Letter to Three Wives works on several levels simultaneously. On the surface, it belongs to that genre called (sometimes contemptuously) the woman's film, placing women at the fore and focusing on the problems characteristic of women's lives—which are, as here, often romantic and domestic. Just beneath that seemingly conventional surface, however, is some often astringent commentary about middle-class America, its social snobbery, pretension, and materialism. The three wives of the title are friends who belong to the same social set, but each possesses a slightly different economic and social status—something that Addie's voiceover narration points out with quiet pleasure—and this manifests itself in some charged undercurrents in their friendship. There's also a sense in which the film seems to be satirizing the American Dream, distaff version: All three of these women have a lifestyle to which other women aspire, whether by achieving wealth or social status through marriage, like Lora Mae and Deborah, or by having a career as well as marriage and motherhood, like Rita. Yet over the course of the movie all three have to question the value of what they have and confront how easily they could lose it. That uneasy awareness of the ephemeral nature of what they have aspired to forces the women to examine the values at the core of their comparatively frivolous lives.
Mankiewicz keeps his treatment of these issues entertaining by virtue of the snappy dialogue, a compelling narrative drive, and some unusual and distinctive directorial decisions. One of these is the way Addie Ross is invisibly present right from the start of the film. Her narration gives a cynical view of her supposed friends and shows amusement at the panic she has created in them, which starts the movie off with a sense of ironic detachment—and tells us a great deal about Addie herself. One of the many clever decisions Mankiewicz makes is never to show this character who catalyzes the action. This allows us to accept that she can represent an ideal for three quite different men—and it creates a mystique that underscores the almost supernatural dread and envy she inspires in the three wives. To all three women, she is an unseen presence in their marriage, a rival they are being compared to (even if only in their own minds). Like the unseen title character in Hitchcock's Rebecca, she gains power in the audience's mind through her physical absence.
Another standout character—a visible one, this time—is George. The young Kirk Douglas brings energy, quick intelligence, and a bracing edge to this character, and the writing endows him with surprising complexity. George is much more than what we at first expect him to be: an old-fashioned husband who resents his wife's superior earning power. He is defensive about being a schoolteacher—he carries a bit of a chip on his shoulder about being an intellectual, since he assumes that makes him less of a man in the world's eyes—yet he feels a passionate sense of vocation and defends his work movingly to his wife. He admits that his "male ego" is put out of joint by the fact that his wife pays many of the bills, but he admires her independence. It's not the existence of her job that he resents so much as her slavish obedience to her boss—and the fact that he has no respect for the medium for which she writes. One of the most exhilarating parts of the film is George's blistering denouncement of radio theater as mindless pabulum. (As a friend of mine commented, just imagine what he would have thought of television.) The issues that complicate his and Rita's marriage are thus drawn not in black and white but in shades of grey, giving their conflict a more adult and realistic quality than those of most film couples whose marriage is threatened by the wife's career.
The ensemble as a whole is also excellent. Rita's tart intelligence, and the ready sympathy she shows Deborah in a social crisis, both seem to make her a precursor to the Celeste Holm role in All About Eve. Ann Sothern is a piquant and engaging screen presence as well as a deft comedienne, and her performance in this plum role makes me wish she had had more such opportunities for high-profile films. Linda Darnell is excellent as the sultry, tough-talking Lora Mae, whose flashback is perhaps my favorite of the three wives' stories. We see her living with her blowsy mother literally on the wrong side of the tracks; there's a great running joke whereby every time a train passes, everyone in the house stops what she's doing and waits stoically for the shaking to stop. As we watch Lora Mae's pursuit of Porter in flashback (and his pursuit of her), it's fascinating to see all the roles she plays. She acts the dewy innocent with him at first, then starts to let her natural wised-up bluntness come through. At other intervals she reacts toward him with hints of jealousy and vulnerability. Both the writing and the acting create a fascinating uncertainty as to the real Lora Mae and her true feelings for Porter. Opposite this beautiful enigma, Paul Douglas as Porter has a subtle appeal and an expressively homely mug; at first he seems just the cynical businessman, but we come to recognize that his tough manner is a form of self-protection. Like Lora Mae, he is more capable of both love and vulnerability than he wants to let on. Both characters are so busy trying to keep from getting hurt that they don't want to let anyone—probably even themselves—know what they are feeling.
The always wonderful Thelma Ritter (who would, like Holm, go on to appear in All About Eve) turns in a priceless deadpan performance as salty domestic worker Sadie, who links the worlds of low and high society. She assists at a disastrous dinner party for Rita's boss and is also present at the start of Lora Mae's courtship; on both occasions she has some of the best and driest dialogue. Even the unseen actress turns in a memorable performance. Celeste Holm's softly mocking narration is delicious; she shows us the side of Addie the husbands don't see, a malicious quality evident in her enjoyment at the mental torment she is putting her "friends" through. Probably the weakest female member of the cast is Jeanne Crain, who nevertheless brings the right note of wistful vulnerability to her role as Deborah. It's not that her performance is glaringly inferior; it simply isn't up to the high level of the rest of the ensemble. The only really lackluster performance is that of Jeffrey Lynn, a one-dimensional presence whose screen time is mercifully abbreviated; in fairness to the actor, it must be added that his character as written lacks perception and depth. His is probably the least developed, and least interesting, character in the film.
The visual transfer for this black-and-white film is superb. The depth and gloss of the blacks, and the radiant clarity of the whites, bookend a rich range of greyscale tones. The image is sharp and clean in comparison to previous releases of the film (see the included restoration comparison to discover just what an improvement has been made in this area). There's still some faint flicker from time to time, and an occasional speckle, but overall the image is marvelous. Audio is offered in both the original mono and a stereo option. The mono track is clean and unobtrusive; the stereo option is a gracious addition but sounds a little muddier than the original mono, and in this dialogue-driven film, the mono track is preferable for its greater clarity and brightness.
Fox has provided a very nice array of extras for this release. The feature commentary is a standout and represents one of the best commentaries I've heard from the Studio Classics series. Christopher Mankiewicz, the director's son, is joined by Cheryl Lower and Kenneth Geist, both of whom have written about Joseph Mankiewicz's life and films. Although Geist appears to be reading his comments, he makes up for a lack of apparent spontaneity with enthusiasm and vivid language. The combined comments of these three speakers produce a commentary that is filled with perceptive analysis of the film, tasty morsels about its making, and welcome background on the major players. I learned a lot from this commentary; I was particularly interested to learn about Mankiewicz's trouble with the censors and the way his screenplay mines both contemporary issues and his personal convictions (like his respect for teachers). It was also illuminating to learn more about the distinctive Mankiewicz touches in A Letter to Three Wives that make it "the first quintessential Mankiewicz film," in Lower's estimation. The commentators also discuss the ending to the film, which some have found ambiguous, and resolve this ambiguity. This is both an entertaining and informative commentary, definitely one of the highlights of the extras on this release.
The inclusion of the Biography episode on Linda Darnell is also a definite plus. Until watching this program I knew very little about this tragic beauty (and how sad it is that those two words so often appear together in the annals of Hollywood), and I found her story fascinating, if often saddening. It's particularly appropriate for her biography to accompany this particular film since (as we learn from watching it) she and Mankiewicz had a special relationship—and also since her performance here is one of her best (of the Darnell films that I've seen, I think her work in this film is equaled only by her performance in the Preston Sturges black comedy Unfaithfully Yours).
The restoration comparison is one of the most helpful I've seen in the Studio Classics line, since it is accompanied by text that describes the elements used in the transfer and points out what each state of the restoration achieves. Thanks to the text, we know fully what we're looking at in each split-screen demonstration. On the topic of restoration, it's a pity that the sound for the film's theatrical trailer doesn't seem to have received one; although the trailer is in good shape visually, the audio is poor. This is a particular shame since the trailer cleverly uses voiceovers by Addie, just as does the film. The Movietone News footage of the Oscar ceremony that honored Mankiewicz's writing and directing is of much better quality and boasts very clean picture and audio.
A Letter to Three Wives has many pleasures to offer, not least some genuinely surprising plot twists. Although it's true that, as the commentary points out, Mankiewicz's writing flair isn't accompanied by equal visual dynamism, this is a film that doesn't need zippy visuals to captivate an audience; the writing and acting make it a superlative experience. (Of course, when it comes to visual interest, three beautiful leading ladies in swanky '40s fashions—plus the handsome young Kirk Douglas in a tux—offer plenty of eye appeal on their own.) The bottom line is that lovers of classic films will be proud to add this title to their DVD library.
Fox gets a special commendation from the bench for this fine release. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Christopher Mankiewicz and Mankiewicz Biographers Cheryl Lower and Kenneth Geist
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