Sunday, November 13, 2016

Please, Mr. Postman

Film: A Letter to Three Wives
Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.

Since I’ve watched The Great Dictator, the biggest whole in my classic movie knowledge/viewing history is probably A Letter to Three Wives. Naturally, when I saw it on the schedule of one of the several movie channels I have available to me, I recorded it to knock it out. I literally knew nothing about this going in. I didn’t know who was in it, who directed it, or what the basic plot was about. Based on the title, I assumed it was a letter from a man to three former wives about something. Well, I was pretty wrong about that.

Instead, the letter in A Letter to Three Wives actually comes from another woman. In this case, the woman in question is named Addie Ross (an uncredited Celeste Holm), who never appears on camera but narrates the film. Addie, we learn, has just run off with the husband of one of three women in town. All of the women know Addie, who is more or less perfect in the eyes of everyone who knows her. Even more, all of the husbands know Addie as well, and all three revere her greatly. Finally, all three marriages have a particular tension, so the end result is very much in doubt.

We get the story of the three marriages through flashback. The first concerns Deborah (Jeanne Crain) and Bradford Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn). Deborah’s problem is that she doesn’t really feel like she fits in with everyone else. While the husbands, another of the wives, and Addie were all childhood friends, she grew up on a farm apart from everyone else. Worse, everyone had always assumed that Brad would end up marrying Addie. Instead, he met Deborah during the war when she was a WAVE and he was in the Navy. Since Brad has money and a certain amount of class, Deborah constantly feels inferior to everyone around her. And when Brad claims to be going off on business that morning, her insecurity surfaces.

The second marriage is between Rita (Ann Sothern) and George Phipps (Kirk Douglas). Their marital tension is much more a product of the time than it would be now. He is highly educated and works as a school teacher. She, on the other hand, writes radio plays and makes a great deal more money than he does. Bluntly, George feels like less of a man. He’s also disturbed that Rita is constantly giving in to her difficult and unpleasant boss, Mrs. Manleigh (Florence Bates). In her flashback, we see a disastrous dinner party with the Manleighs where she forgot it was George’s birthday and his only gift comes from Addie.

Third is the troubled marriage of Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) and Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas). Lora Mae grew up dirt poor. The maid/cook for the Phippses (an uncredited but immediately recognizable Thelma Ritter) is the best friend of her mother (Connie Gilchrist). They live so close to the railroad tracks that the house shakes when a train passes by. Lora Mae wants out, and Porter is one of the wealthiest men in town, so she pursues him. Eventually, she gets him to marry her, but their marriage seems like one based on mutual anger and distrust. They argue constantly, often about the fact that Porter believes Lora Mae married him exclusively for his money.

It’s not worth discussing the conclusion of the film. Suffice it to say that what you think is going to happen at the back of your mind probably does. That’s really the great failing of A Letter to Three Wives. It doesn’t really have the courage of its conviction to ultimately stick the landing the way it needs to. It goes for a much easier way out. That’s a disappointment considering just how well the tension is built through the first two acts of the film and well into the third act. It’s the closing ten minutes that seem to drop the ball. However, in this case, the film has an excuse. While the identity of the husband in question is apparently different in the book (which was called “A Letter to Five Wives”), everything else appears to have been pretty much the same.

And that’s just it—it is a good story, and it’s very well told pretty much all of the way through. Mankiewicz’s job here was to create a great deal of tension from a very simple and interesting premise, and he genuinely does. There is doubt through all of the different reveries about which husband might be walking away, particularly since each of them had been acting strange that morning.

In fact, other than the actual ending, my only real complaint was that Porter Hollingsway looked so much older than everyone else, and that’s actually addressed in the story. He is older than everyone else.

The best thing, though, is that A Letter to Three Wives could have easily become as maudlin and melodramatic as we are led to believe that Rita’s stories are. This could have absolutely dripped with sentiment and glurge, and instead we get real emotions and real people with real problems. That more than anything is what recommends the film. The ending, while it doesn’t quite earn it, would seem to be a problem with the story itself and a function of the time in which it was made. I can forgive the film this, since the rest of it is so solid.

Why to watch A Letter to Three Wives: An interesting take on potential infidelity.
Why not to watch: It doesn’t really earn its ending.


  1. It's been two or three years since I saw it and I'm having trouble remembering it in any detail But I do remember that I really liked it and I thought about DVRing it when I saw it on the schedule a few days ago. (I didn't because I'm DVRing so many documentaries off TCM this month.)

    I remember thinking the three lead actresses are all wonderful. Especially Darnell and Sothern. And Kirk Douglas is pretty awesome.

    I hate to say I don't remember the ending.

    1. It's worth another watch. I agree with your assessment of the people in it. Those three are the best three here. Sothern is particularly good. Douglas has a great speech, but he's a little too chipper in the main.

  2. This is a huge favorite of mine, in part owing to the fact that it's one of the best-if not the best-showcase Linda Darnell ever had. She's my all time favorite actress but her beauty trapped her in decorative parts and rarely was she given the quality roles that would highlighted her talent. The infrequent chances she was given-here, No Way Out, Fallen Angel, Summer Storm, This Is My Love, Hangover Square and one or two others demonstrate that she had much to offer and that she wasn't used wisely in the main.

    But the film is so good in addition to her participation. I think the first section is the weakest owning to the blandness of Jeanne Crain and Jeffrey Lynn, it's not bad but the other two couples personalities and interactions are so much more dynamic.

    It's very much of its time not just in the Phipps storyline but in the main conceit of the story with the women being trapped without communication on that island for the day. With cellphones now this couldn't happened and in a way that's a shame.

    Ann Sothern is wonderful and she and Kirk Douglas, I think this was only about his second or third film and his persona isn't fully formed-he is a bit chipper as you say-play well off each other. Paul Douglas & Linda Darnell have a nice spiky rapport as well, their teaming was so successful that they were reteamed a few times after this. But it's not just the main players that make the film but the few secondaries too.

    You mentioned Thelma Ritter, and any movie is better because of her, but I love Connie Gilchrist as Linda's down to earth mother-and the scenes where the train goes by are brilliantly played. Also Celeste Holm's voice work as the unseen Addie Ross is perfectly done, just the right tone of silky sweetness/bitchery to convey how Addie could have been adored by the men but it's no surprise that the wives had her number.

    1. About 20 minutes into this, I understood completely why this is as highly respected as it is. A lot of it is the story itself, of course, but much of it comes from how that story is shown to us. You're absolutely right about the idea that this would never work today. Cell phones would make this movie a short, at best. It's much the same with a film like Now, Voyager. Today, Charlotte and Jerry would bolt off the ship together, he'd get a quickie divorce, and the entire third act would never happen.

      The first story is the weakest, and not simply because Jeanne Crain is beautiful but bland and Jeffrey Lynn is just bland. It's got the least in it. We spend the least time with Brad and know the least about him. And, the point of their contention is the weakest. Gosh, he once dated Addie and she feels like a bumpkin. And? The other marriages have either tension or actual anger.

      And, as always, Thelma Ritter becomes a real reason to watch something. Good call on Celeste Holm. I more or less ignored her in the review above, and that's a miss on my part. She's less important as a narrator as the film moves on, but initially, she's a lot of why this works at all.

  3. I like this a whole lot. The number one reason is the whole Linda Darnell-Paul Douglas relationship and the wonderful dialogue that comes with it. Next would be the snappy dialogue in general.

    1. I agree. They have the most interesting relationship by far.

    2. I agree the Darnell/Douglas marriage was the best but the Sothern/Douglas one was fascinating as well. I liked that the script didn't make him threatened simply by the fact that she was working outside the home since she obviously was skilled at what she did. He respected that but that his problem was the compromises she kept having to make and the fact that that old buffalo (brilliantly played by Florence Bates) intruded on her personal time. Kirk's scene where he lit into her about syntax, proper usage and commercialization is one of my favorite scenes in the film. Although I could say that about most any scene that doesn't directly deal with the Crain/Lynn relationship.

    3. That's pretty nicely stated and I agree. There's an implied sense that George Phipps is a bit emasculated not only because his wife works outside of the home but because she makes a great deal more money than he does. He actually handles that pretty well. It's interesting that in the world of 1949, Phipps isn't hung up on the fact that his wife is the real breadwinner. He's okay with it, and he doesn't want to change his job. It's an interesting choice--everyone seems to make an assumption about his motivation and what he feels, and his main function in the film is to constantly tell them that they're wrong.

      That dress-down scene is Kirk Douglas's best scene in the film.