A Letter to Three Wives
January 22, 2010

I caught the classic A Letter to Three Wives on the Fox Movie Channel earlier this week and very much enjoyed it.

It’s an engrossing story. Three friends are setting out to take a bunch of kids on a charity picnic one Saturday. The notorious Addie Ross was going to join them. (She was a “friend” of theirs, but mostly due to their husbands, who were fascinated by her beauty, her charm, her thoughtfulness, and so on.) Instead of attending, Addie sends a note, saying that she’s left town … and taken one of their husbands with her.

A Letter to Three Wives cover
A Letter to Three Wives
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While at the picnic, each of the three women is left to wonder if she’ll return home at the end of the day to find her husband gone. The meat of the film consists of flashbacks to each couple, showing one key incident in their marriages and indicating why they have reason to worry. The movie is narrated in voice-over by the uncredited Celeste Holm as Addie, who conveys both class and subtle malice.

Brad married Deborah (Jeanne Crain) while both were serving during the war. (The movie was made in 1949.) He’s a young prince, rich, well-connected, and childhood friend of Addie. Until Deborah joined the WACs to see the world, she was a farm girl who’d never left town. She’s insecure now that she doesn’t have a uniform to equalize them.

The second couple, Rita (Ann Sothern) and George (Kirk Douglas), seem happy, but her job as a radio writer annoys him, a “mere” schoolteacher. She’s ambitious for them both, while he can’t stand the sponsors and media people they have to entertain.

Last, there’s Porter and Lora Mae Hollingsworth (Linda Darnell). Porter is a local tycoon who owns many department stores. She worked as a clerk until she maneuvered him into marriage so she could get away from the wrong side of the tracks. (Literally — the small home she shares with her mother and sister rattles whenever the train goes by.) He got a beautiful wife who always knows what to say out of the deal, but the two still don’t trust each other.

An Oscar Winner

A Letter to Three Wives was written (screenplay based on a novel) and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the year before he made the better-known All About Eve, and it’s got his typical wit and insight (although since it covers small-town politics instead of Hollywood, it’s not quite as bitchy). It won him two Oscars, for Best Director and Screenplay.

It also has amazing cinematography, in starkly beautiful black-and-white. I found the portrayal of male/female interaction in a very different time and culture fascinating (post-war, consumer-based, social class becoming flexible). Rita isn’t considered wrong, for example, for having a job, but she is criticized for making it too important in her life and for not seeing through the commercialism that drives the mass medium of radio.

Oh, and there appears to be some confusion about the ending. I found myself questioning if more was being implied than spoken. It turns out, according to Mankiewicz’s son, that what’s stated by the characters is intended to be taken at face value. Some were reading more into it (me included) — just in case you’re wondering.

The Remake

I was surprised to find that this story had been remade in 1985 as a TV movie, which also aired on FMC this week. Lora Mae is now Loni Anderson, Rita is played by Michele Lee, and Deborah by Stephanie Zimbalist. Instead of meeting in the service, they met when he broke his leg skiing, and she was his nurse, to keep the uniform idea. She does a good job as a nice girl out of her league.

Instead of crisp, moody black-and-white, this one is all soft-focus pastels and jewel tones. And everyone’s overwrought; subtlety is completely gone. Radio has been updated to TV, but the idea of a pretty girl dreaming of only snagging a husband doesn’t play nearly so well, even if Anderson is great at that kind of role, giving it depth beyond the stereotype.

Of trivia note: Doris Roberts, who also starred with Zimbalist in Remington Steele, plays the Thelma Ritter housekeeper role, while Ann Sothern, the original Rita, plays Lora Mae’s mother here. I couldn’t identify the Addie voiceover, which left me curious.

4 Responses  
David Oakes writes:  

“I couldn’t identify the Addie voiceover, which left me curious. ”

Brenda Strong?

(No, I don’t know either. I am just kicking myself that it took me this long to realize why “Desperate Housewives” felt so familiar…)

Johanna writes:  

Oooh, neat comparison!

Tom writes:  

Celeste Holmes was the voice of Addie.

Johanna writes:  

Thank you! Finally!


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