A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
A special Tuesday post kickstarting a whole week (hopefully) of reviews for films now out on Blu-ray and DVD. Last week, I reviewed 20th Century Fox‘s Blu-ray update of The Fly. This week, we’re doing a complete 180, moving away from horror and into domestic drama. A Letter to Three Wives was an Academy Award winning film up for Best Picture the year of release. The female driven film combines the mystery with the woman’s melodrama and succeeds, for the most part. I was a bit confused about the overall message of the picture, but the three leading ladies, especially Linda Darnell, had me enjoying the mystery. The bonus content is fascinating if you don’t already have the DVD, and the continued beautiful presentation of the material packages an overall film experience worth engaging in.
Three friends are set to go on a trip but are presented with a letter upon departure. In said letter it’s revealed by their friend, Addie Ross (an unseen Celeste Holm), that she’s run off with one of their husbands. Each woman is forced to examine the flaws in their own marriages to determine which man has left with Addie.
A Letter to Three Wives originally saw life as a book entitled A Letter to Five Wives. Of course, due to time constraints a wife had to be dropped and thus it became A Letter to Four Wives. Sadly, fourth wife Anne Baxter was cut from the final release (although I was unable to find out if she’d filmed anything or if she was cut before production commenced) and we’re left with the three wives played by Ann Sothern, Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell. I have to think that was a wise decision because A Letter to Three Wives has its slow moments, but could have proved disastrous with superfluous wives.
Each woman’s character has her own obstacles to overcome, within herself and her marriage. Jeanne Crain’s Deborah is desperate to impress her husband’s friends after what feels like a hasty courtship, although the movie never explains. Crain’s persona continues into the loveable homebody of Leave Her to Heaven; thankfully, she isn’t nearly as perfect as she was in that film. Crain is vulnerable and flawed from the first minute she rakes a brush through her hair and is close to a mental breakdown. She drunkenly goes out to a party which is good for a few laughs, and could have easily taken the movie into social drama with Deborah using alcohol as a crutch. Her husband is equally flawed, more so than the other men in the movie, as he comes off as controlling (there’s a snide moment where Deborah says she’s wearing what her husband told her to wear). There is a parasitic quality to each woman who fuels the fire even before Addie’s revelation. When Deb goes to meet Rita (Sothern), she comments on Rita’s husband, George (Kirk Douglas) dressing up for the day which stokes Rita’s suspicion. Each woman does their fair share to establish hostility and distrust within their own marriage that Addie isn’t really needed. However, much like Addie knowing that without her to gossip about they wouldn’t talk about anything, she’s the necessary push to have each woman look at their marriage in a different light.
Addie is the God-like character of the movie, playing with each woman like a puppet on a string (I did have to smile wondering if Desperate Housewives watched this ahead of time). Celeste Holm always comes off as sweet, but even though her voice is all we get, she’s perfectly two-faced. She covers each woman in platitudes of love and friendship, only to drop the bomb that she’s run off with one of their husbands. Is she a home wrecker, or does she truly believe that each woman is so desperate for her friendship that they’d put up with this? Addie is a cipher; unable to be described because we never learn about her. There is a bit of mockumentary to the precedings with Addie giving a disclaimer: “Any resemblance to you or me might be coincidental.” It presents the air of authenticity while blending it with the fictional disclaimer at the end of all films. The goal appears to be to remind women to take care of their husbands; a cautionary documentary for the housewife set. The end does wrap things up too conveniently and left me questioning whether the favor was towards women changing.
I would disagree and agree with that argument by looking solely at Linda Darnell’s plotline. I was left cold by Darnell in both My Darling Clementine and Blood and Sand, but I adored her here; she’s probably my favorite character in the movie. Darnel’s Lora Mae is the white trash member of the group whose lied and schemed to get where she is; “Fairy stories, I grew on them. I wrote my own.” Her husband, Porter (Paul Douglas) states she’s “got no class of her own” and thus you can see the makings of their loveless marriage. The flashback to Lora Mae’s origins has the makings of a thriller or something like Born to Be Bad (Darnell could have sunk her teeth into that lifeless potboiler better than Joan Fontaine did). Regardless of her upbringing, Lora Mae has a strong set of values she isn’t willing to compromise; she may lack class, but she makes up for it in conviction. When Porter thinks he’ll honk the car horn to get her to come out Lora Mae refuses to leave the house till he comes to the front door: “This ain’t a drive-in.” Lora Mae is the one character who isn’t changed in the present scenes, she’s still sassy and while the plot wants us to see her as money-hungry, I never felt that. The ending has her and Porter reconciling and realizing they each love each other, but have been too stubborn to say it. It’s a necessary way to end the plot, and emphasizes mutual changes; however, it’s too hokey and falls in line with the rest of the movie which is a cautionary tale for women.
The weakest of the women is Ann Sothern’s Rita. I say “weakest” because her plot lacks the meat of Deborah or Lora Mae’s plotline. Sothern and Douglas present a companionate marriage that didn’t feel like an undying love for years; it comes off as a friendship between two people who enjoy spending time together. Sothern is okay in the role, but it’s hard to believe she’s a fiercely independent housewife when put up against Lora Mae. I found myself enjoying Kirk Douglas more as George which is weird because I generally abhor him (although it’s on a personal level). His blow-up at a pair of radio commercial advertisers who come to dinner had me in stitches and poked at the English nerd in me when George starts critiquing their grammar: “Bad, not badly!” Addie has a compelling reason to snatch Deb and Lora Mae’s husband, but her motive for George wasn’t as defined. When she sends George a birthday gift, I felt bad for George that his own wife forgot his birthday when the intent is that you’re supposed to feel bad for Rita that Addie is apparently hitting on her husband.
Let’s take a look at the actual disc. I believed this was a Technicolor production, in part because of the beautiful disc art; so color me surprised when I saw this was a black and white picture. Fox continues to astound with black and white movies, presenting a crisp, clean presentation that accentuates the lights and shadows making the grays bright. The commentary with Kenneth Geist, Cheryl Lower and Christopher Mankiewciz is informative and explores every facet of the production and casting. A Biography special on Linda Darnell, entitled Hollywood’s Fallen Angel is fantastic for anyone who wants to learn about this magnetic woman. Her life and death is tragic, especially when held against the beautiful personality on the screen. There’s also the requisite Fox Movietone News which focuses on the Academy Awards that year; the theatrical trailer is also included. I’ve read that these features carried over from the last DVD release, so while they were new to me, those who already have the DVD will want to snag the Blu-ray for the superior audio/visual transfer.
The isolation and mystery keep the plot compelling as the audience works alongside the wives to discover whose husband isn’t coming home at the end. The ending itself resolves things in a pat, romantic way considering the time period, but I never felt angry that it was a “gotcha” type of conclusion. The trio of women assembled, and the disembodied voice of Celeste Holm, turn this away from overwrought melodrama and adds a dash of mystery to the domesticity. I enjoyed it far more than I anticipated!
WANNA WIN A COPY?
You can enter to win a copy of A Letter to Three Wives on Blu-ray courtesy of 20th Century Fox. All you have to do to enter is write in the comment section and include your name, email address and answer the question: Which husband should Addie have run away with?
The contest is open to residents of the US and Canada only. One winner will be chosen and you must include all the info above to be counted. The contest will run till Sunday, September 22nd.
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
I love this movie – one of my favorite “chick flicks”. I do believe that Paul Douglas’s character is the one to run away with – if for no other reason than it sets Lora Mae free to find a fabulous new husband. I loved Linda Darnell in this movie and in Unfaithfully Yours. 🙂
Fun review. THanks!
Congrats on winning Kathy! I do have Unfaithfully Yours on my DVR so I might need to make that a priority watch.
This is one of my favorites…a wonderful (with the exception of Jeffrey Lynn) cast and a clever woman’s film/mystery. Porter (Paul Douglas) was going to take off with Addie, but didn’t.
I must agree with Kathy that Porter needs to run off and let Lora Mae free! Linda Darnell is so wonderful in this film. It’s one of my favorite performances from her.
firstname.lastname@example.org – Lindsey
It makes me sad to read books that say Lora Mae is just a golddigger and nothing more, but there’s some complexity there! She’s a woman who knows what she wants and shouldn’t be squashed by a husband.
Completely agree! To say that Lora Mae is a simple golddigger is to undervalue not only the way her character is written, but also Darnell’s fantastic performance.