A Letter To Three Wives

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A LETTER TO THREE WIVES sold critics, awards and tickets in 1949, earning adulatory reviews for the writing, an Oscar for its script, and another for the director who wrote it, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Along with a nomination for Best Picture, $7,600,000 rolled into happy 20th Century Fox coffers when it placed #23 among the years hits. It has a lofty rep. I’m not sold, at least not nearly as much as I’m supposed to be, given the perennial gush waterfall over its “sophistication” that nearly all reviews splash it with.

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Three upper-middle class (country club set version) wives receive a note from a ‘friend’ they’re all jealous of. The note announces that one of their husbands is running off with her–and she “has it all” already!  The three, all variously insecure over their marital situations, ponder their pasts in flashback.  The relationships with their husbands and the group dynamics are explored through this device while they—and the audience—wait to see who will end up jilted.

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The novel it was based on had five wives, and filming had four, but the episode shot with Anne Baxter was dropped, and the running time of 103 minutes makes do with enough chattiness for ten as it is. Other than that the script dictates it, nothing in the conception or behavior of these people—the women or the men—indicates they would have much to do with each other, let alone be close friends. Individual one-liners and barbed exchanges are brittle witty but they pile up so much that it quite quickly doesn’t sound anything like reality, just a screenwriter being self-consciously clever. The condescension factor rankles. The generally accepted take on Mankiewicz’ theatrical dialogue is that it’s ‘insightful’ as well as ‘sparkling’: to me it’s more like glib and snotty, barely concealed elitist contempt for the middle class. No wonder critics continue to fawn.

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The cast gives it whatever humanist authenticity it has, with some faring better than others. Jeanne Crain and Jeffrey Lynn don’t convince for a Hudson River minute, and Kirk Douglas (32, his 7th film) as a schoolteacher feels like “pretend you’re a regular guy” time. Ann Sothern (as Kirk’s wife) comes off better. Best in the batch are the always underrated Linda Darnell (really sharp here) and Paul Douglas, solidly impressive in his debut. Ungraciously uncredited in support is newcomer Thelma Ritter, 46, in her second film appearance, stealing every scene she’s in. Celeste Holm provides the offscreen voice of the never-seen ‘Addie’.

Some location filming was done in New York State, at Lake Mahopac, Cold Spring and Hook Mountain. With Barbara Lawrence, Connie Gilchrist, Florence Bates and Hobart Cavanaugh.

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