52 Before 62 — #36 A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

A letter to three wives movie poster.jpgDirected by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the novel “A Letter to Five Wives” by John Klempner, adaptation by Vera Caspary

Starring Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas, and Jeffrey Lynn

Here’s a little ‘behind the curtain’ info on this series – and really, this blog as a whole: I don’t own most of the movies reviewed here.[1]  I also don’t rent them – probably because that’s not a thing anymore.  The usual way I do it is take some from Amazon Prime and Netflix if they have ‘em,[2] then catch the rest either on TCM through Hulu, or from DVD’s I borrow from the library.[3]

This entry – A Letter to Three Wives – was one of the TCM entries.  Now, if you’re familiar with TCM you know they tend to have hosts intro the movies – my favorite is Alicia Malone, mostly because I’m shallow and like pretty women.  Plus, she’s got an accent.  Right below her is Ben Mankiewicz, who’s cute in his own way, just not my way.  These intros are important because whe I watched this film on TCM I was hopeful Ben Mankiewicz would do the intro, so maybe we’d get some commentary on the family connection he has to the movie.[4]  No shade to Dave Karger, but it was a disappointment when his handsome mug popped up to do the honors.

Anyway, other than the bit of trivia about him, Joseph Mankiewicz is somewhat of a forgotten director, despite the fact that he won Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay in the same year twice in his career – for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve (1950).  And he did it back-to-back!.

I suspect the reason he’s somewhat forgotten is that he’s not a visual stylist in the same way others were.  He’s no John Ford in Monument Valley, that’s for sure.  Rather, he’s a screenwriter with some competence behind the camera.  Which is why if you talk about All About Eve everybody will mention the script and the acting, but not one ever remembers the guy who directed it, even though they are the same person.  Still, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there’s worse fates than being a somewhat-forgotten Four-time Oscar winner.

What’s It About?

One morning three wives, Deborah (Jeanne Crain), Rita (Ann Sothern), and Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) receive a letter from the unseen Addie Ross.  The text of the letter?  Sorry, ladies, I’ve run off with one of your husbands, and I’m not telling you which one.  This leaves the women to fret all day about which one of their husbands took off, working through their own flashbacks on important moments in their marriages to find some clues, until finally the truth is revealed.

How Was It?

I mentioned up top that Joseph Mankiewicz won Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay for this film, and I’d say if he’s going to win any Oscars for this movie, the screenplay award is the one it should be.[5]  After all, while the screenplay is fine, and at least nods towards creativity, the film is hardly a triumph of direction.  Like most films made in the studio era, the direction doesn’t have much of its own personality and can best be described as competent.  In many cases I use that word in a derogatory manner, mostly to give credit to people who get the job done, but don’t exactly excel at it.  But here, I’m using the term more or less as a nod towards the standard of the time for studio films.  Which was competence.[6]  And while I’m throwing shade by calling him ‘competent’, it’s also a shame he won the award on non-shady grounds.  After all, given the also-nominated Robert Rossen managed to drag an Oscar worthy performance out of Broderick Crawford in All the King’s Men, which did have interesting direction, and Carol Reed was also nominated for directing The Fallen Idol, there were better choices among the nominated directors than Mankiewicz and his competence.

As for the screenplay, this film is essentially a sort-of-cozy mystery, structured around three separate flashback/episodes, from three different marriages.  In this way, we get clues about who might be the runaway husband.[7]  The one drawback to this structure is that it turns all the actors into supporting players, with no one of them actually leading the film.  Which means like your usual supporting players, they are all shallowly drawn, defined by only a thing or two.  For instance, Jeanne Crain’s Deborah is a country mouse trapped in the city.  Kirk Douglas likes to fish and is sore about how much his wife makes in radio.  Linda Darnell’s Lora Mae is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who struck rich.  This is not to say the acting is not up to snuff, just that they don’t have a ton to work with.

Because this is A Letter to Three Wives, and is told in episodes about their stories, the fair thing to do is look at the wives and their stories.

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Jeanne Crain and Jeffrey Lynn

Jeanne Crain’s Deborah is a country girl who did some naval service in the war, where she married the wealthy, high-class Brad (Jeffrey Lynn).  Because of the culture class element to things, she feels incredibly insecure in her marriage and so might have a little bit of a drinking problem.  Only, Brad is so damned devoted to her, even at her sloppy worst, that I never once suspected he was the one who ran off with Addie.

 

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Ann Sothern and Kirk Douglas

Ann Sothern plays Rita, a writer for radio – back before TV was a thing – who has a careerist streak about it.  She makes good money, and is essentially the breadwinner in her family, which makes her husband George (Kirk Douglas) feel emasculated.  Also rankling him?  He’s a school teacher who fancies the classics, while her writing is devoted to populist crap.  When she forgets his birthday to invite her boss to dinner, I was pretty certain that, despite George and Rita’s chemistry, and twin children, this was the doomed marriage.

 

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Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas

Linda Darnell plays Lora Mae as the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who has eyes on crossing over.  When her employer, Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), takes an interest, she basically manipulates him into it.  Throughout their courtship they are hard-bitten and cynical, which basically said to me they were 100% honest about their intentions from the start and unafraid to say anything.  Though it looked like they were battling, they appeared the most honest communicators.  This left me to believe they would be the ones who’d make it – after all, they got along fine enough, and Porter didn’t seem to mind Lora Mae presented as a gold digger.  But in the movie he’s the husband who runs off with Addie – if only for an afternoon.  And when he left, he didn’t really leave.  He only left as a test to Lora Mae.  After all, if the only thing she wanted was his money she could now bury him under her posture of being the wronged woman in a divorce– if all she wanted was money, now she could have it.  But Darnell refuses to fleece him because she loves him.[8]  Happy ending.

 

In all three stories the acting was good – both of the Douglas’s were particularly fine in their roles – and the women playing the wives sold the scenario.  My only wish is that they weren’t drawn quite so broadly and were fashioned with more subtlety than they were allowed.

Image result for carl switzer it's a wonderful life

Carl Switzer (right) in It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s A Wonderful Life

 

Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer was in It’s a Wonderful Life as the scorned kid at the school dance, rejected by Mary Hatch, who then opens the pool under George and Mary, which they dance into her.  In this movie he pops up as a messenger, bringing a package to Ann Sothern’s house on the night of her dinner party with her boss.  The same night she forgot her husband’s birthday.

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[1] Which makes sense: this series is about seeing films ‘new to me,’ so why would I own them before seeing them?

[2] Honestly, with Netflix’s bias against old movies, I’m not sure I’ve actually seen one of these on the service.

[3] Hey kids, you can use your library cards for more than just books!

[4] Ben Mankiewicz’s grandfather is Herman Mankiewicz, the co-writer – some say only writer – on Citizen Kane.  Herman’s brother was the director of this film, Joseph L.

[5] Though, to be fair, he shouldn’t have won for that, either, given Bicycle Thieves and The Fallen Idol were nominated there as well

[6] Honestly, it’s a label I’d put on Oscar winners like William Wyler, too, so it’s truly not meant to cast any shade on Mankiewicz.

[7] Each episode features, in some way, a conflict in a marriage, and the unseen presence of the universally-adored, Addie Ross, who all of the husbands are a little-too-attached to.

[8] Obviously, there’s something profoundly unmoored in a marriage when partners are willing to play this sort of game with each other.

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