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A LETTER TO THREE WIVES

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn, Thelma Ritter
Director: Joseph Mankiewicz
Audio: English stereo and mono
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-frame
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: Commentary, Biography episode, newsreel footage, restoration comparison, trailer
Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: February 22, 2005

"Why is it that sooner or later, no matter what we talk about, we wind up talking about Addie Ross?"

Film ****

To date, only one director, Joseph Mankiewicz, has ever won double Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay in consecutive years.  One of the films so honored was the quintessential backstage drama, All About Eve (1950).  The other film, perhaps not as well-known today but nonetheless an equally superb character study, was A Letter to Three Wives (1949).  Both films demonstrate Mankiewicz's best virtues as a filmmaker - a knack for scripting blazingly witty dialogue and an innate ability to elicit the best performances from his stars.  Mankiewicz was, in short, an actor's director, no doubt aided by the regularly stellar casting in his films.

A Letter to Three Wives, for instance, features a cast of the most popular actresses on the Fox studio lot at the time.  One, Jeanne Crain, was a beauty contest winner (Miss Long Beach and the "Camera Girl of 1942") whose innocent, girl-next-door screen persona virtually defined her Hollywood career.  While Crain occasionally tackled serious, dramatic roles (earning an Oscar nomination for 1949's Pinky), she generally appeared in light and breezy films which emphasized her youth and fresh beauty.  On the opposite end of the spectrum was Linda Darnell, one of the top Fox stars and an actress with a decidedly colorful reputation.  Initially a teen child star, Darnell by the late 1940's had matured gracefully into the screen persona of an exotic and sultry temptress.  Somewhere in between was Ann Sothern, the heroine of lighthearted B pictures in the 1930's and a fine comic actress with a classically-trained voice.  Sothern was as equally comfortable in screwball-style comedies as in musicals, although she had a fine talent for dramatic roles, too, as quite evident in A Letter to Three Wives.

These three actresses comprise the core of A Letter to Three Wives, a film about three wives who each fear that her husband has left her for another woman.  Set one afternoon at a children's picnic, the film utilizes a flashback structure to explore the individual marital conflicts which have contributed to each wife's mounting concerns of abandonment.

The first wife is young Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), a demure farm gal recently married to Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn).  Of the wives, Deborah is the most insecure.  Being of a rural upbringing, she frets over whether she will appear backwards or clumsy in the eyes of her husband's more sophisticated friends, among them a certain Addie Ross.  Deborah's insecurity causes her to eye enviously her husband's close friendship with anyone more exciting and elite, such as Addie.

The second couple, the Phipps, features aspiring radio scriptwriter Rita (Ann Sothern) and her simple but honest school teacher husband George (Kirk Douglas, in a fine supporting performance).  Rita is a practical career woman.  Her desire to please her domineering and old-fashioned radio boss vexes her husband, who finds Rita's subservience unbecoming of the bright and independent person he had fallen in love with and married.  This marital crisis, not helped by an inappropriately romantic birthday gift from Addie Ross (again) to George, creates an indelible impression upon Rita's mind that George may someday leave her for Addie instead.

The final couple, the Hollingsways, is that of social climber Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) and her general store mogul Porter (Paul Douglas).  Linda Darnell, as Lora Mae, is the most glamorous of the actresses.  The film virtually sizzles during her scenes, thanks to Darnell's remarkable screen presence.  Not surprisingly, the character of Lora Mae is the most alluring, a gold digger whose charms have ensnared her a husband but who now begins to worry that her husband has become dissatisfied with her.  Perhaps his eyes have started to linger upon Addie Ross, whose portrait occupies a prized space in the Hollingsway den.

Who then is Addie Ross?  Unfortunately, we the audience never actually see her.  Even so, her presence seemingly saturates nearly scene in the film, much as Orson Welles' unforgettable Harry Lime did in The Third Man.  By not showing us Addie Ross, Mankiewicz wisely allows each viewer to fashion an idealized image of what sort of regal and flirtatious beauty Addie Ross must be that she might conceivably have any man she so desires.

A Letter to Three Wives commences upon the afternoon of a children's picnic on a riverboat, an outing that Deborah, Rita, and Lora Mae are to chaperon.  Just prior to boarding the riverboat, they receive a single letter addressed to all three of them.  The letter is from Addie Ross.  Despite supposedly being a mutual friend, Addie announces that she has just run off with one of their husbands and that his identity will not be revealed until the wives return from their picnic to an empty (or not) home.  The three women initially dismiss the letter as a peculiar if cruel joke, and each woman maintains a calm and brave facade during the otherwise pleasant picnic.  Yet, during brief moments of solitude, each wife begins to ponders over recent past events that might hold clues as to whether her husband might be capable of running away with Addie.

Which of the three women has truly lost her husband?  Any of three scenarios is feasible, and while a lesser film might emphasize the mystery and intrigue of the situation to create suspense, the true thrill and glory of A Letter to Three Wives instead lies in its genuinely brilliant and often biting dialogue.  These characters are so richly-developed with such distinctive personalities that in the end, we the audience wish no misfortune upon any of them, even the mysterious Addie Ross.  A Letter to Three Wives may not be a suspense-thriller, but it certainly is a supremely well-acted social satire that creates such a vivid and fascinating small-town world that audiences may be sorry to leave it at the conclusion of the film.

Yes indeed, one husband does leave with the never-seen Addie Ross.  Yet, the film still finds a path towards a bright and cheerful ending.  A Letter to Three Wives was released in the year just prior to All About Eve, and together, both films confirmed Joseph Mankiewicz's reputation as one of Hollywood's most intelligent and literate directors.  Even if he had not directed any other films besides these two, they alone are enough to establish Mankiewicz as one of the elite directors during Hollywood golden studio era years.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Celeste Holm, a highly versatile Oscar-winning actress, provides the uncredited voice for Addie Ross.  Holm would appear later in Mankiewicz's All About Eve.

Video ***1/2

Considering that the original camera negative to A Letter to Three Wives has been lost, this film looks remarkably good.  The main source for this transfer is a composite fine grain master struck from the original negative.  The film is shown in its original full-screen, black & white format.  The transfer rate averages a very solid 7 Mbps, and image clarity is quite sharp and detailed.  The restoration work has done a very nice job in cleaning up any dirt specks and filling up scratch marks.  For an old black & white film, A Letter to Three Wives looks almost new.

Audio ***

A Letter to Three Wives can be heard in either its original monaural English track or a new stereo dub.  Both tracks provide 2-channel sound.  The sound quality is generally very good with no background noise.  The film is mostly dialogue-driven, although Mankiewicz does throw in a few surprising audio sound effects every so often.

Features ***

For viewers unfamiliar with A Letter to Three Wives, the commentary track by Mankiewicz biographers Cheryl Lower and Kenneth Geist provides a good resource.  Both commentators offer plenty of biographical information about Mankiewicz, trivia about the film's production, and the film's influence on Mankiewicz's subsequent masterwork, All About Eve.  They are also joined rarely by Christopher Mankiewicz, son of Joseph Mankiewicz.

Fans of Fox leading actress Linda Darnell can check out the featurette Linda Darnell - Hollywood's Fallen Angel (44 min.).  This episode of the popular Biography cable television program focuses on the life and career of the silver screen siren from Darnell's fairy-tale start in Hollywood until her final, tragic years.

As is common with the Fox "Studio Classic" series, a restoration comparison is included and shows before-and-after looks at the restoration done on the film.  This short featurette is highly technical but does give a basic representation of the meticulous efforts required for the preservation of this film.

Also available is newsreel footage (1 min.) from the Fox Movietone archives covering the 22nd Annual Academy Awards presentations.  Some of the stars from A Letter to Three Wives can be briefly seen, as well as Joseph Mankiewicz accepting his Oscars for this film.

Lastly, a vintage A Letter to Three Wives trailer is included on the disc.

Summary:

Although not as famous today as All About Eve, Mankiewicz's A Letter to Three Wives is every bit the later film's equal and a classic in its own right.  Sophisticated and witty, this high comedy takes a wry look at the fragility of love and marriage.  With a brilliant script, solid direction, and an all-around superb cast, A Letter to Three Wives represents studio-era Hollywood at its finest.

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