A Letter to Three Wives Review
Way ahead of his time as a hyphen and still the only writer-director to win Oscars for both categories two years in a row, Joseph Mankiewicz was that rare thing in 50s Hollywood: a powerful male director who not only liked and understood women, but delighted bringing them to the screen in all their flawed glory, rather than as passive, idealised cheesecake for the men to fight over or be nurtured by. Mankiewicz’s women were usually smart, funny, vulnerable, manipulative, duplicitous, self-destructive… in other words, about as different from the standard pouting bombshell or bland housewife as you could get. In ‘A Letter for Three Wives’ he transforms John Klempner’s novel into a witty vehicle for the talents of three superb leading ladies, giving at least one of them – Darnell – arguably the best role of her career.
Friends Deborah (Crain), Lora Mae (Darnell) and Rita (Sothern) are setting off on a boat trip with disadvantaged children. Just as they’re about to board the boat, they receive a letter from Addie Ross, a sophisticated and attractive woman they all know, claiming to have run off with one of their husbands. As the boat journey begins, each woman casts her mind back to a crucial period in her life, when the influence of Addie Ross had made itself known. Which of them will be returning to an empty house… and heartbreak?
‘A Letter to Three Wives’ works on many levels, few of which have anything to do with what is in essence a flimsy melodramatic plot. Most obviously it’s a very funny social satire, but there’s also acute observations about marriage, class, and the dumbing down effect of advertising on entertainment – in the film it’s radio but the criticism can be applied equally to TV today. The upper-middle class ‘society’ setting, well-drawn characters, flashbacks, vitriolic exchanges, a breathily confessional voice-over and the odd but successful combination of high and low-brow wit mark it out as a Mankiewicz film, and ‘Three Wives’ is indeed one of his best writer-director comedy efforts, for many a close second to ‘All About Eve’.
It’s not quite in that class. ‘Eve’ is a film that still makes one want to applaud spontaneously every few minutes whilst one watches it, so immaculate are its script and performances. The wit in ‘Three Wives’ doesn’t sparkle so frequently and its barbs don’t go as deep (it was the movie that Mankiewicz made before ‘Eve’ so could be seen as a warm-up, rather than a companion piece), but it does possess those qualities of intelligence, elegance and sophistication (as opposed to pretense) that one treasures in the best movies of this period, before the process of movie-making became subject to the vagaries of the focus group and the demands of pathologically conservative media colossi desperate to recoup their investment.
Any film that attempts to give six major characters roughly equal amounts of screen time is going to have to be cleverly constructed, well written and sensitively played and thankfully ‘Three Wives’ is all of these. There’s a lot of very funny scenes, particularly in the Lora Mae sequence, where her working class background and the increasingly frustrated pursuit given her by Porter Hollingsway give ample opportunities for laughs. The guys – particularly Paul Douglas – are great but the key roles are of course the three wives and Darnell, Crain and Sothern work very well together, all the more effectively due to their very different personalities.
Linda Darnell is a classic 40s screen goddess in the Rita Hayworth mode, a stunning statuesque brunette who simply glowed on camera (her brief appearances in ‘My Darling Clementine’ as Victor Mature’s spurned love toy gave male audiences a non-heroic yearning for dusty plains and provided a compelling reason for that film’s title to have been changed to favour her character’s – admittedly ridiculous – name; yet who would have forgotten a film called ‘My Darling Chihuahua’?). Here she’s in superb form as the mercilessly sexy gold-digger Lora Mae Hollingsway, whose knowing, rat-a-tat exchanges with friends, foes and family – conducted in her unbearably sultry contralto – are a treasure. In fact, I’d have to say that Darnell owned arguably the most deliciously provocative hoisted eyebrow in 40s Hollywood, matched only by Lauren Bacall.
Jeanne Crain is a different type entirely, a girl-next-door Fox contractee who never quite reached the level of a Darnell or Tierney. She’s terrific in ‘Three Wives’, however, bringing genuine vulnerability to the ‘hayseed’ Deborah Bishop and showing, in her character’s drunken flashback sequence, an unexpected gift for humour.
Ann Sothern, the oldest of the three, had starred in well over 50 films before this one, often in a variation of the brassy showgirl-with-a-heart-of-gold. Her character Rita in ‘Three Wives’ retains the peroxide moxie of these earlier roles while at the same time being happily married to a teacher. The great Thelma Ritter also appears here in her first major screen role as Rita’s maid. She’d become better known for her roles in ‘All About Eve’ and ‘Rear Window’ but her brilliant comic timing, lugubrious character and serrated Brooklyn tones are all already fully developed here.
Speaking of comic timing, there’s loads of dry asides and witty exchanges of the kind that the Coen Brothers love so much and attempt to emulate: “A samba can only be danced properly on the side of a hill on ice,” opines Kirk Douglas, returning to the dinner table after having struggled on the dancefloor at a fashionable party (odd to see the granite-jawed Douglas in the kind of lightly comic role that would have more usually been filled by Cary Grant). “If I were you I’d show more of what I got,” Thelma Ritter advises Linda Darnell as she prepares to go on her first date with the lecherous Paul Douglas, “Maybe wear something with beads.” “What I got don’t need beads,” smirks Darnell, in a voice that could melt tarmac. How true. Radio executive Florence Bates comments on the effect of advertising on Thelma Ritter’s character: “Sadie may not realise it, but whether or not she thinks she’s listening, she’s being penetrated.” “I’m glad she didn’t hear you say that,” growls Douglas. And so on.
Beautifully shot by master cameraman Arthur Miller, ‘Three Wives’ looks gorgeous in this pin-sharp transfer, typical of the titles in the Fox Studio Classics series. A very few sequences – mostly in the middle of the film – have noticeable dirt and debris, plus there's that slight 'smudging' effect that aspects of the digital restoration process sometimes leads to, but for the most part this is an excellent picture, bringing its lovely, elegant dressed cast to life from the distance of half a century.
Fox supplies the English Mono track and Stereo tracks, though unlike some of its other releases in the series, there’s no Spanish mono to complement these (though Spanish subtitles are provided). The dialogue and music sound clear and unobstructed throughout, without any obvious distortion. In fact there’s some rather funky vocal effects featured in the transition scenes as each woman falls into a reverie. A perfectly adequate soundtrack, I’d say.
There’s a Commentary, a Biography of Linda Darnell, the usual ‘Fox Movietone News’ feature, a Restoration Comparison and the Theatrical Trailer.
The Commentary features Joseph Mankiewicz’s son Christopher and biographers Kenneth Geist and Cheryl Lower. This is a very good commentary track that provides a consistently entertaining and informative background to the film. Lower is the most entertaining speaker, clearly an expert in Mankiewicz’s work but also genuinely amused by the film, a fan as well as a scholar. She responds spontaneously to the events onscreen and then weaves in background information in a way that’s very compelling. By contrast, Geist’s comments sound very prepared – he’s obviously reading them from written notes at pre-determined times. There’s nothing wrong with what he has to say – it’s clear, well-written and often quite witty – but it comes across as a bit leaden. Mankiewicz Jnr interjects with spirited asides and stories about the film and his father, the relationship he had to his work and family and how he regarded ‘Three Wives’ in relation to the rest of his work.
The Biography piece, ‘Linda Darnell: Hollywood’s Fallen Angel’ is rather a sad affair, revealing the largely unhappy personal life of this star who seemed to have everything. Born Monetta Eloyse, Darnell was propelled towards stardom almost from birth by her overbearing, eccentric stage mother Pearl. Entered into countless beauty contests and pageants she ended up being noticed by a Fox talent scout and made her first film at the extraordinary age of 15. A marriage four years later to the 42-year old cinematographer Pev Marley seemed doomed from the start and subsequent relationships with Mankiewicz, Howard Hughes and an airline pilot failed to bring happiness but did give rise to a growing dependence on alcohol, the first bouts of serious depression and, eventually, a suicide attempt.
At age 40, her career took a turn for the better, but things were to come to a tragic end. Staying at a friend’s place in Chicago in 1965 she was terribly burnt in a freak housefire and died soon after. The 45-minute Biography piece is well done and features soundbites from Roddy McDowall, Richard Widmark and Darnell’s daughter Lola, among others.
If you’ve seen any of the other ‘Fox Movietone News’ segments, you’ll know what to expect. It’s a brief, brash news piece covering the 22nd Academy Awards Ceremony, in which Mankiewicz picked up two Oscars for ‘Three Wives’. The Restoration Comparison outlines the superb work done by the Fox team in restoring the film elements and creating a new high definition video master for this DVD presentation. The Theatrical Trailer ends the Special Features.
The acuity of Mankiewicz’s writing means that even today his films can still delight and amuse. ‘A Letter to Three Wives’ is no exception. More than simply an exercise in nostalgia, it’s an object lesson in brevity, convincing characterisation and witty dialogue. The DVD is up to Fox’s excellent standards, with the Documentary feature on Darnell being of particular interest. Available online for a little over £4 this is a highly recommended purchase.