“To begin with, all the incidents and characters in this story might be fictitious, and any resemblance to you or me might be purely coincidental.”
Right off the bat, the unseen, all-knowing narrator of A Letter to Three Wives lets her audience know the characters in the film aren’t the only ones who are about to have their heads profoundly messed with. That sort of smart playfulness is one of the many reasons you should check out this terrific romantic dramedy from legendary writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz now that it’s on Blu-ray for the first time.
A Letter to Three Wives has a simple, effective concept. Just as they’re about to head out for a boat trip, three women receive a letter from their (alleged) friend Addie Ross, who claims to have run away with one of their husbands. The women outwardly pooh-pooh the idea and proceed with the boat trip, but their insecurities eventually come to the forefront. The majority of the film plays out in episodic flashbacks that reveal each wife has a reason to believe her hubby may be looking for greener pastures.
Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) married her well-to-do husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) when they were both in the Navy. But now that they’re back home, Deborah isn’t so sure she fits in with all his fancy friends. Rita Phipps (Ann Southern) is a radio soap opera writer who makes considerably more money than her affable, emasculated schoolteacher husband George (Kirk Douglas). Meanwhile, gold-digger Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) and her much older husband Porter (Paul Douglas) don’t even bother to hide their contempt for each other anymore. On top of that, each of the three men are shown to have a connection and admiration with Addie, making it plausible that any of them could’ve skipped town with her.
Mankiewicz never actually shows us Addie, and it turns out to be a brilliant move. (Oscar winner Celeste Holm provides the gently caustic, uncredited voiceover narration.) The character is described as the epitome of “class” and “sophistication,” and is obviously beautiful enough to make our three lovely leading ladies jealous. So rather than invite superficial comparisons between the potential homewrecker and the three wives, the story cannily encourages viewers to superimpose their own image of the ideal woman onto Addie.
That’s just one of the ways the film gets the audience’s wheels turning. (I mean, what if Addie didn’t run away with any of their husbands and just wrote the letter to mess with them?) More importantly, the movie appears to take the sobering stance that there’s no such thing as a “100% happy marriage.” In other words, if you think long and hard enough, you can probably come up with a reason why your spouse might want to leave you.
Fortunately, that downer of a message is delivered with a deft mix of witty comedy and believable drama. (Mankiewicz won Oscars for both his script and direction here; he pulled off the same trick the following year with All About Eve.) The story’s ideas about class conflict and gender roles — George laments that he’s only the “titular” head of his household — are still relevant nearly 65 year later. On the other hand, the story’s central conceit could probably be blown up today with a quick text message from the wives to their husbands. Despite the somewhat dated concept, A Letter to Three Wives was ahead of its time in other ways. The most obvious is the film’s use of a voice box sound effect to transition in and out of each flashback. I’m still not sure if I actually liked the device — it’s weird today, so I can imagine how off-putting it must’ve been back in 1949 — but it was an effective way to convey each woman’s scrambled state of mind.
As far as the flashbacks are concerned, they each basically serve as mini-movies showcasing each actress. My least favorite was the first one, a melodramatic vignette starring an intensely insecure Deborah that nevertheless features strong performances from Crain and Southern. On the other hand, my favorite bit was the one that followed, centering on a painfully awkward dinner party hosted by Rita and George. It’s very funny, a little sad and (most importantly) features the best explanation of “feel bad” vs. “feel badly” I’ve seen this side of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. (Kirk Douglas shines in this sequence the same year he earned his first Oscar nomination for Champion.) Meanwhile, I was prepared to be surprised by the segment that revealed how the outwardly hostile Lora Mae and Porter first got together, but it still managed to be affecting. (Darnell plays the brassiest, most sarcastic character, and she’s matched very well by Paul Douglas.)
The conclusion to this domestic whodunit — whodunher? — winds up being genuinely surprising, if a bit confusing. We’ll get into that in the Special Features section, but first…
A Letter to Three Wives is presented in its original full-screen aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 38 mpbs. The first thing you’ll notice about this presentation is how remarkably clean the print is for a B&W movie that is almost 65 years old. There are no scratches or notable blemishes, even as the film manages to maintain its natural grain. Black levels are excellent, and contrast is similarly strong. (The sumptuous opening credits set the tone immediately.) There are a few instances early on where the image appears a bit soft, possibly due to artifacting. As a result, this Blu-ray image isn’t quite as consistently eye-popping as other vintage efforts from Fox. Still, this is another impressive effort from the studio.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track serves the dialogue very well, displaying none of the popping or hollow quality I’ve heard in some other older films. (The purring voiceover narration from Addie comes through particularly well.) Other than that, the mono track is predictably limited. Fortunately, those limitations are only on display a few times, including during the passing of a house-rattling train and two party scenes. As you’d expect, dialogue is king for a film like A Letter to Three Wives, and this track delivers better than most.
All of the bonus material is presented in standard definition.
Commentary with Kenneth Geist, Cheryl Lower and Christopher Mankiewicz: Authors Geist and Lower have literally written the books on Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and they are joined by the writer/director’s son. Lower calls A Letter to Three Wives the “first quintessential Mankiewicz” film due to its mix of social satire and high comedy. The commentary is naturally a bit fawning, but it’s also incredibly engaging and enlightening, especially if you’re looking for a crash course on the works of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Since I prefer conversational tracks, I do wish it weren’t so obvious their portions were recorded separately.
The most interesting revelation is that Christopher’s interpretation of the ending — as well as mine and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s(!) — is completely different from what his father intended.
“Linda Darnell: Hollywood’s Fallen Angel”: (44:03) The full A&E Biography episode dedicated to the striking starlet, whose “personal life was far more poignant than anything she portrayed on screen.” The special chronicles her Hollywood rise, bouts with alcoholism, scandalous affairs (including one with Joseph Mankiewicz), and death from a house fire at age 41.
Fox Movietone News: Oscar Presentations: (1:15) Newsreel footage of the 1950 Academy Awards. Paul Douglas (who made his film debut in A Letter to Three Wives) hosted the ceremony, and we see a clip of double winner Mankiewicz accepting his awards.
Although Mankiewicz would go on to make his signature film (All About Eve) a year later, A Letter to Three Wives is more than deserving of your attention. This is especially true now that the film looks better than ever thanks to another splendid release from Fox’s Studio Classics series.