Friday, November 11

Good 40s Films: A Letter to Three Wives

1949 Drama
From 20th Century Fox
Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz

Jeanne Crain
Linda Darnell
Ann Sothern
Kirk Douglas
Paul Douglas
Jeffrey Lynn
Thelma Ritter
Barbara Lawrence
Connie Gilchrist

The film opens with the voice of Addie Ross.  The cameras take us through a seemingly charming little town, just 23 miles from a large town.  Everyone takes the train to the larger towns. Addie tells us about her three friends, Deborah, Lora Mae and Rita, and we meet them.  Yes, they are Addie's friends but how that came about is not as you may think.  Addie has been friends with each of the husbands for years and years, way longer than any man knew his wife. That's usually not how the story goes and Addie always posed a bit of a threat in each marriage.

The friends have just learned that Addie has left town.  They have gathered on a dock to catch a ship for a day on the water.  Before they board, the letter of the title is delivered to them...

As you know by now, you'll have to carry on without me from here. It isn't easy to leave a town like our town, to tear myself away from you three dear friends who have meant so much to me.  And so I consider myself extremely lucky to take with me a sort of memento, something to remind me always of the town that was my home and of my three very dearest friends whom I want never to forget... and I won't.  You see, girls, I have run off with one of your husbands.

Well....!!!  Obviously Addie is hardly a really good friend and we know it by her catty narration.  Not just any ol' movie narration but some of the very best.  She takes us along on a fun neighborhood jaunt into the homes of the three couples and we learn about them, chiefly through flashbacks. Addie's narration is sometimes included right along with what couples are saying on the screen... and always witchy funny.

The fun fact about Addie is that we never see her on screen.  It is true she is referred to about 500 times but no visuals are provided... strictly a voice and it belongs to actress Celeste Holm.

Deborah (Jeanne Crain) is wed to wealthy Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) and their new-ish marriage is not only threatened because of Addie but because Deborah, a farm girl with few citified ways, feels out-of-place and is clearly ill-at-ease. Even though Addie likes to purr that Brad was the first boy to ever kiss her, he tries to assure his wife that she has no cause for alarm.

She begins to drink too much and becomes convinced she has the husband who has left her.  Others tell her no, it couldn't be so, but they don't want to think it's their husband either.  Things are said and done that will make you take your own guesses.

Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) and Porter (Paul Douglas) are a constantly bickering couple. He snaps at her in public and she needles him.  She feels unloved, he feels she is a gold-digger.  He is a rich department store scion and she not only comes from the other side of the tracks but lives right next to the tracks.  There are at least three scenes, all quite funny, watching the house rattle and roll as the train whizzes by.  Porter says she has no class but casually mentions that Addie Ross has class all zipped up. 

I loved one line, exquisitely delivered by Darnell when she comes to the kitchen to ask her mother what she thinks of her dress and the mother comments that she needs some beads.  And Darnell, throwing her head back as she throws the line away, says what I got don't need beads.  Amen, Sister, amen. 

Rita (Ann Sothern) and George (Kirk Douglas) are the most well-grounded of the three couples although they are not on speaking terms when we meet them. They have the least money (Addie chirps) and we can hear them haranguing one another over money issues while they do their best to mingle with the country club set. He is a teacher, smart and forthright, and she writes radio scripts. On the night of a big party she is throwing for some guests she wishes to impress, she forgets it's George's birthday while Addie sends a gift over and some precious classical recordings George treasures.  George gets a little publicly hot under the collar over the poor quality of what his wife writes. 

Each story is delightfully presented and they carry on more while the three couples are together at the country club.  Each of those visits are important to the progression of the story including the finale where we learn which husband it is.  Aren't you dying to find out?

Without question one of the finest things about this movie is the wonderfully deft dialogue, biting, incisive, insightful, written by Mankiewicz.  His direction is also superb but it's these words that stand out.  No wonder the Fox contract players didn't balk at appearing in this one.  Mankiewicz would win dual Oscars for this film, for directing and writing, and he repeated the same the following year for All About Eve.

The film was based on a book called A Letter to Five Wives and that's how it was originally going to be filmed... still with Darnell but adding Alice Faye, Maureen O'Hara, Dorothy McGuire and Gene Tierney.  Oh my, what I would have given to have seen that.

As it is, it put most of the cast on the road to stardom.  I think Jeanne Crain's role is the least interesting and the least defined.  It may have something to do with the fact that Mankiewicz didn't like her or her acting and fought over her being hired but he was overruled.

That may piggyback on another story... Mankiewicz began a several years-long affair with Linda Darnell during the making of this film. It is odd that Ann Sothern was chosen for the roles for two reasons. One is that she was borrowed from MGM which seems odd considering how many wonderful actresses Fox had under contract. Secondly, of the three friends, I found her Rita to be the best written and her character clearly the most likable.

On the male side are those Douglas boys. This was Paul's first movie and one of his most romantic roles.  It certainly helped propel him to a large degree of fame for his too-brief career.  And Kirk, in only his seventh film, is so dapper and sweet... adjectives we'd soon drop from our choices when describing him.  He and Sothern played off one another like they'd worked together for years.

Thelma Ritter played a maid for Rita and George and was good friends with Lora Mae's mother (Connie Gilchrist).  Her three scenes, of course, were outstanding but she received no billing for the third and last time. Even as talented as she already was and with her beautifully-nuanced lines, they still didn't give her screen credit because she wasn't famous enough.  This film would happily change that.  Mankiewicz would also use her for All About Eve

This entire cast worked well together... this is a wonderful ensemble production.  Some of that certainly could have come from the fact that most had already worked with some of the others or soon would again.

The august American Film Institute once named A Letter to Three Wives as being among America's top 100 films.  I always thought watching it was time well-spent. Thanks, Joe.

Next posting:
More B Leading Men

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