Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1949 classic “A Letter to Three Wives” gets a much deserved upgrade in this Blu-ray release from 20th Century Fox. The film has long been considered one of Mankiewicz’s most seminal works because of its structure, performances, and its amazing ability to blend comedy, satire, and important themes of class and marriage. In fact, many of these elements would be seen again later on in what is arguably his most famous film, “All About Eve.” “A Letter to Three Wives” remains a very poignant and universal story today, giving you the feeling that it could take place anytime and anywhere. Of course, it also helps that it’s just a good old fashioned and entertaining experience.
The film tells the story of three women, Deborah (Jeanne Crain), Lora Mae (Linda Darnell), and Rita (Ann Sothern), who are very good friends. They’ve known each other and each other’s husbands for a long time. On this particular Saturday, the women are helping to chaperone an annual picnic, but before they go, a couple of unusual events have occurred. Rita’s husband, George (Kirk Douglas), is all dressed up and not going fishing as he usually does, while Deborah’s husband, Brad (Jeffrey Lynn), is going into town and taking an overnight bag “just in case.”
Right before the ladies board a ship for the picnic, they receive a letter from an acquaintance of theirs, Addie Ross, telling them that she has run away with one of their husbands, neglecting to tell them whose in the process. The three women go about their day, but remain worried that it could well be their husband that has run off. Through flashbacks, we begin to learn more about them, their spouses, and just what part Addie Ross has played in all of their lives.
Perhaps the most interesting element of “A Letter to Three Wives” is the way Mankiewicz constructed the film. In the first few scenes, we learn very little about the characters or their situations. We do know that some odd things are happening, but we don’t really get any details until we’re drawn into the first of the flashbacks. We first explore Deborah’s background. We learn that she grew up on a farm and is from a rather poor family, eventually marrying Brad, a former Navy officer who has some high class friends.
This is where we first get a taste of Mankiewicz exploring the class issue as Deborah is rather uncomfortable being around such people. When she plans to attend a dance with her husband and their friends, she makes a rather big fuss about her dress being too old and even tries to back out at the last second, but Rita won’t hear of it. Her feeling of discomfort is only made worse when she learns of how it was expected that Brad would marry Addie Ross, a woman who is the constant source of gossip for the three women in the present day.
The second flashback involves Rita, a writer for radio, and her husband George, a schoolteacher. The story is a fascinating one in that George doesn’t really see himself as the “man of the house” what with Rita paying most of the bills through her line of work. However, George can’t see himself doing anything else, and as we learn, he’s not the biggest fan of radio. Making matters worse, the two have Rita’s boss over for dinner, meaning George must hold his tongue as to what he thinks of the medium. Intermingled with this is a birthday gift to George form Addie, complete with a provocative note. As to what it means, we only learn later on, but it’s enough to heighten Rita’s suspicions.
The third and final flashback tells of how Lora Mae met her husband, Porter (Paul Douglas). Lora Mae, coming from a humble family as well, works in Porter’s successful chain of stores, but when the two get together to “discuss Mae’s advancement,” we learn that there is actually a little more going on. It’s not your typical boy meets girl and falls in love story. In fact, you get the sense that both parties are straining to get together, but without much emotion on either side. Does Lora Mae really love Porter, or is she just in it for the money? Does Porter really want to marry her despite thinking that she might not really love him? The awkward relationship becomes even more strained as Addie once again squeezes into the picture by inviting Porter to her New Year’s party. We already know that Porter and Addie are somewhat close (he has a framed picture of her on his piano), but as to what their relationship status really is is something of a mystery.
Another one of the fascinating devices that Mankiewicz uses is the narrator, Addie Ross, who is heard, but never seen. It’s amazing that he was able to construct this story with Addie being one of the most important characters, and then never have her actually appear in the film. Her narration isn’t particularly vital, but it does offer a small glimpse into her mind, where we learn that she knows that she’s the main topic of discussion for these three women.
She comes to represent something that these women want to be, knowing full well that their husbands have all been attracted to her at one point. However, when it comes to what kind of person she really is, Mankiewicz prefers for her to remain somewhat of a mystery to the audience. Perhaps that was the best decision he could have made. If he had actually included Addie in the film, it’s quite possible that we could have lost too much focus on the three main women and how they are dealing with their respective situations.
The performances must also be mentioned. Crain, Darnell, and Sothern are all fantastic as the three titular wives. Crain and Sothern in particular have to deal with emotionally difficult problems in their marriages, while Darnell’s role requires something a little different. As I mentioned earlier, while she and Porter are seeing each other, you get the feeling that all she sees are dollar signs where her relationship with him is concerned, so in a sense, emotion ends up taking a back seat to her ambition. We see quite clearly that she wants to be in control of the situation (as opposed to Deborah and Rita who are somewhat lost in theirs), so Darnell has to show a great deal of strength, confidence, and command as she worms her way into Porter’s heart.
Let’s also not forget about the great Kirk Douglas, giving a brilliant performance in one of his earliest roles. At this point in his career, his biggest credit was in another classic, “Out of the Past.” He might have been relatively new to the profession, but his screen presence makes it seem as though he had been acting for several years prior. After this, he would go on to give several more brilliant performances throughout the 50s in films like “Ace in the Hole,” “Lust for Life,” and “Paths of Glory.” It’s great to see that even at the beginning of his career he was a force to be reckoned with.
All of these elements combine into a great film that went on to win Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay (both for Mankiewicz). It was even nominated for Best Picture, but ended up losing to “All the King’s Men.” Experimenting with film structure like this could have been pretty jarring for audiences back in the 40s, but Mankiewicz pulls it off with great precision, telling us what we need to know a little at a time. Because of this, he pulls us in and doesn’t let go as he slowly untangles the mystery. He was a master of the craft, showing early on that he knew what was most important in the cinematic arts. “A Letter to Three Wives” is more than enough proof of that.
Turning now to the specs, the film is presented in a 1.33:1, full frame transfer that makes the film look better than it ever has before. It’s a little strange that they opted to present it with black bars on all four side of the screen rather than just have the picture fit the frame (it is in full screen after all), but the presentation isn’t hurt too much by it. The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is flawless with all sounds coming through loud and clear. It’s amazing to think that this film is 64 years old, and yet it looks and sounds absolutely incredible. They’ve done a really fantastic job in cleaning it up for this release, so there’s practically nothing to complain about.
The special features on the disc include:
- Commentary with Kenneth Geist, Cheryl Lower, and Christopher Mankiewicz
- Linda Darnell: Hollywood’s Fallen Angel as seen on Biography on the A&E Network
- Fox Movietone News: Oscar Presentations
The commentary features two Mankiewicz experts, as well as his son, Christopher, talking about the different themes seen throughout the film and more. It’s quite interesting to listen to as these guys really know their stuff. It’s also very informative if you’re looking to learn a lot more about the film. The biography on Linda Darnell is just that. It’s pretty good if you want to learn more about her, though I would gladly exchange it for something more specific to just this film. The Movietone News is just a very short clip (about a minute long) showing us some quick Oscar highlights for 1949. It’s semi-interesting to look at, but nothing vital.
Overall, they could have done a little better on the special features, but at least you get the excellent commentary. This remains an excellent release of the classic film that is definitely worth adding to your collection. It may be 64 years old, but there’s no better time to go back and rediscover this classic by one of the greats.
Now available on Blu-ray.
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This review is based on a copy of the Blu-ray received for reviewing purposes.