By Alan Hurst
For whatever the reason, there was a dearth of great comedies in the late forties but thankfully that was remedied with the 1949 release of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ A Letter to Three Wives.
Mankiewicz enjoyed a successful hyphenate career as producer, writer and director (not always at the same time) from the late 1920s up until Sleuth, his final film in 1972. As a producer he was involved in The Philadelphia Story (1940), Strange Cargo (1940), and Woman of the Year (1942) among others while working at MGM. But it’s his work while at 20th Century Fox in the late forties and early fifties that cemented his reputation as a brilliant writer of dialogue and a director of style who elicited top performances out of his cast. His output during that era includes Dragonwyck (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), No Way Out (1950), and 5 Fingers (1952).
In 1949 and 1950 he won a total of four Oscars – two for writing and two for directing two acknowledged classics: A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). Much has been written about All About Eve, one of the great films of all time with an iconic lead performance from Bette Davis. Less attention has been paid to A Letter to Three Wives, but it’s a film that’s almost on par with All About Eve as a witty, engrossing and perfectly filmed slice of suburbia circa 1949.
I’ve loved this movie from a first viewing back in the nineties. Mankiewicz and co-writer Vera Caspary based the script on a 1946 novel serialized in Cosmopolitan Magazine. It’s the story of three friends – Deborah (Jeanne Crain), Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) and Rita (Ann Sothern) – who receive a letter from another mutual acquaintance (silkily voiced by Celeste Holm) telling them that she will be running off with one of their husbands that day. The three women get the letters just as they’re leaving for a day of volunteering with a group of kids – so there’s no way for them to get home to find out who’s about to lose her husband. That provides an opportunity for the script to give us a view into each of the women’s back story and we see that none of their marriages are perfect, leaving the audience guessing right up until the final scene.
The three women and their husbands each represent a different level of the social strata – the beautiful Lora Mae is literally from the wrong side of the tracks and is married to a self-made business-man (Paul Douglas). We’re not sure if it’s for love or money. Deborah and her husband (Jeffry Lynn) met during the war, but in married life she’s not entirely comfortable with his social status. Rita writes for a radio program and her husband (Kirk Douglas) is a teacher – the conflict in their marriage is her desire to improve their social status, coupled with the fact that she makes more money than he does.
I can’t think of anyone working in the late forties or early fifties who wrote dialogue like Mankiewicz. He wasn’t a gag writer nor was he looking for the perfect punchline. What he wrote was witty and natural, and fit perfectly with each character – from Rita’s maid Sadie (the brilliant Thelma Ritter got some of the best lines) to the plain talking Lora Mae. Mankiewicz also makes sure that each of the relationships are believable. None of the marriages are ideal, but they all feel like real marriages.
He’s helped by the terrific cast he’s assembled.
Two standouts in smaller roles are Thelma Ritter as a maid and Connie Gilchrist as Lora Mae’s mother. There scenes together are some of the film’s highlights – they’re both very funny delivering their working-class banter and bluntness. Ritter did so well here (it was her third movie), that Mankiewicz wrote a part of her in All About Eve as Bette Davis’ maid which netted her the first of six Oscar nominations.
All three of the actors portraying the husbands are good – Paul Douglas is particularly strong as the gruff but ultimately soft-hearted husband of Lora Mae. But the movie isn’t really about the men and it’s two of the three actresses playing the wives who really shine. Crain is good as the insecure Deborah, but it’s ultimately a bland role and her performances doesn’t add a lot of color. Darnell and Sothern, on the other had, deliver their two best film performances. Neither actress ever had a part this rich and you can see they relish the dialogue and the opportunity. Sothern was a star at the time but hadn’t really had much opportunity beyond some lightweight MGM musicals and B-level comedies. She was always an excellent comedienne but here she’s able to play different layers and she excels. Her skill and confidence set her up to be leader of the trio. Of all the cast, I think she could and should have been in the running for Best Actress that year. Darnell never really had much range as an actress, but she was beautiful, and she found the ideal role with Lora Mae. Darnell could play aloof and sarcasm easily and that defines this character. She’s very fun to watch, especially in her verbal battles with Paul Douglas and Connie Gilchrist.
A Letter to Three Wives was a major hit when it was released, winning Oscars for writing and directing and it should have won Best Picture that year as well. There was a very bad TV remake in the mid eighties with Michele Lee, Loni Anderson and Stephanie Zimbazlist. It wasn’t relevant or funny – just trashy. The only bright spot was seeing Ann Sothern again, this time as Lora Mae’s mother.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.