A Letter to Three Wives January 28, 2019
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
1 Hr., 43 Mins.
he letter is from Addie Ross, a friend. It is addressed to not one person but three: Deborah (Jeanne Crain), Lora Mae (Linda Darnell), and Rita (Ann Sothern). How odd. These women, whom you might call society types, are about to take off on a riverboat ride just as a mailman tracks them down and hands it over. Lora Mae and Rita are eager to rip open the envelope; Deborah isn’t so sure. “Let’s wait ‘til we get back,” she says to Rita, citing
Addie’s penchant for malice. But in this instance is she outnumbered. This will prove unfortunate. This message is certainly malicious, and will decidedly ruin this leisurely trip.
The camera hovers above the letter, which is written in practiced, perfect cursive. In the note, Addie shares that she not only has left town — she has decamped with a man in tow. The toy boy isn’t merely an acquaintance of these women: it's one of their husbands. Addie, something of a femme fatale, doesn’t specify whose. She’s a fan of schadenfreude, I guess.
In A Letter to Three Wives (1949), the movie writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz made just before his magnum opus, All About Eve (1950), these women will consider the states of their marriages. The movie, essentially, comprises vignettes — a trio of short films that both encapsulate the neuroses of the leads and imply which parts of their marriages might have led their husbands to abandon them.
First, we flash back to an early moment in Deborah’s marriage to Brad (Jeffrey Lynn), an upper-class, slightly older man. In the semi-short, we see her fretting about going to a dinner gathering with his affluent friends. The group terrifies her not because she's socially awkward but because she's anxious that her lower-class upbringing will make her a pariah. Then we look into Rita’s marriage, which we come to understand is often derailed by her career: She is intimidated by her boss (Florence Bates), and as such has she become more fixated on pleasing her than on doting on her husband, George (Kirk Douglas). We move on to Lora Mae, whom we find out is a gold digger who attracted the attention of a well-off man named Porter (Paul Douglas) but has, since marrying him, learned to grow attached.
While the quasi-shorts encompassing A Letter to Three Wives make for a sometimes-engaging collective look at the social mores of the 1940s, they aren't particularly rousing. The Deborah-centric stretch is an acute depiction of how felt class disparities can permeate through even the most steady-seeming of a romantic relationship, which makes it an early zenith. But the stories of Lora Mae and Rita feel comparatively shortsighted: They’re démodé tales that suggest that, if these women just bent to the wills of their spouses, they’d be happier.
Mankiewicz’s dialogue is tough and snippy; the actresses convince even when the storylines into which they’re thrust don’t. But in A Letter to Three Wives do I see a movie that, while once a narratively clever delving-into of universal, gendered truths, has morphed into a sad-funny comedy-drama too confined to be revelatory. Myriad dated movies can still work because the characterizations are thorough enough to portray the societal trappings of a certain era with a tangible sort of horror. But as honed as Mankiewicz’s scriptwork can often be, the film says less about its era and more a commitment to ingenious structuring and an upholding of little-explored social norms. C+