A LETTER TO THREE WIVES
Review by Ed Nguyen
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
is it that sooner or later, no matter what we talk about, we wind up talking
about Addie Ross?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
TRIVIA: Celeste Holm, a highly
versatile Oscar-winning actress, provides the uncredited voice for Addie Ross.
Holm would appear later in Mankiewicz's All
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
a vintage A Letter to Three Wives
trailer is included on the disc.