Back in March of last year, my Facebook compadre (and proprietor at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence) Jill Blake solicited via the Twitter machine (stop snickering) suggestions for what she called “Classic Movie Confessions.” In a nutshell, these are defined as movie classics you probably should have already gotten around to watching…but for reasons unexplained (or even explained) you have not. It’s a situation familiar to all film devotees: you’re having a spirited conversation with your fellow movie mavens when someone mentions a specific title…and as everybody volunteers comments (“Oh, that is a good one!”) you suddenly realize it’s one you’ve never watched all the way through (or perhaps, like me, you’ve only seen clips from it). Compounding this embarrassment is the awareness that you’re going to have to confess this sin in front of your fellow cinemaniacs.
So, at the time Jill was lobbying for declarations designed to ultimately save one’s soul, I threw out a number of Best Picture mentions that I’ve not yet logged into my film diary—notably The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937), for example. (In my defense, several Twitter supporters replied that I don’t need to be in any rush.) I’ve not seen Watch On the Rhine (1943), though I made a gallant try the last time it was on TCM and gave up after nodding off in the first half-hour (I’ll tackle it again when I’m better rested). I’ve also dozed off during Fantasia (1940), for what it’s worth. I’ve also not had the opportunity to see Wilson (1944)…although I’m fibbing a little on this; it was the subject of a #TCMParty session during the channel’s 31 Days of Oscar and I gave serious consideration to tuning in and participating in the shenanigans. But if what I read on Twitter was any indication I made the right call (though a lot of the tweets were hysterical). I also revealed that I’ve not seen any of the Astaire-Rogers movies, though I had to walk that one back a bit because I have seen Top Hat (1935). (Obviously that experience was a memorable one.)
I told myself at the beginning of 2014 that while I certainly wouldn’t begrudge myself from spending time with some of my all-time favorites, I was going to make a concerted effort to add “new” old movies to my set list. It’s March, and I think I’ve done pretty well in this regard. Last night, I notched another elusive classic—one that I actually owned on DVD before it became the property of some lucky eBayer: A Letter to Three Wives (1949).
Three women—Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), and Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell)—are embarking on a weekend jaunt, accompanying a group of underprivileged rugrats on a riverboat ride with a picnic to follow. Before shoving off, the girlfriends are handed a letter; it’s from a mutual friend named Addie Ross, who informs the trio that she’s running off with one of their husbands. Addie doesn’t identify the fleeing spouse, however—which prompts each wife to ponder as to whether or not their better half is the party who took a powder with Ms. Ross.
Married life for Deborah hasn’t always been smooth sailing. In a flashback, we learn that even though she tied the knot with Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) while she was doing her bit as a WAVE during the Second World War, she’s self-conscious about her background (farm girl) and nervous about mingling with Brad’s friends at a country club dance. It is at this dance that she first meets Rita and Lora Mae, and learns that the group expected her husband to end up manacled to Addie.
As the picnic gets underway, Rita flashes back to her happy-ever-after with husband George (Kirk Douglas)—which is anything but. George ekes out a living as a schoolteacher, but since they were just as underpaid back then as they are today, Rita helps makes ends meet as a writer of radio soap operas, and her income provides the couple with a level of creature comforts that includes a sharp-tongued domestic named Sadie (Thelma Ritter). Most of Rita’s reminiscing centers on a disastrous dinner party she’s thrown for the Manleighs (Florence Bates, Hobart Cavanaugh)—the couple (based on radio soap mavens Anne and Frank Hummert, it would seem) who employ Rita to pen their program. Rita has an ulterior motive in hosting the affair—she’s promoting George for a job with Mr. and Mrs. M—but that avenue of employment is road-blocked when George tells them off at the end of the evening.
The third and final flashback belongs to Lora Mae…who, as Lora Mae Finney, has a date with her boss Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas, in his film debut), a wealthy (and divorced) tycoon who owns a chain of department stores. Lora Mae is the embodiment of the gal “from the wrong side of the tracks”…only it’s literally that; she lives in a house with her mother (Connie Gilchrist) and sister Babe (Barbara Lawrence) that vibrates wildly whenever the trains roll by. Though she ostensibly starts seeing Porter in an attempt to move up from her present position at the store, we slowly learn that she really wants to trap him in holy matrimony. Porter is reticent to walk down the aisle a second time but he’s helpless to resist; he loves Lora Mae that much.
When the day trip comes to an end…which of the papas has a brand new bag? (No offense, Addie.)
A Letter to Three Wives was adapted by Vera Caspary and scripted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who also directed) from the novel Letter to Five Wives by John Klempner…which was originally serialized in Cosmopolitan magazine. That’s right; the original source material featured five women in danger of losing one of their spouses to the charms of Addie Ross. Early drafts of the screenplay focused on a quartet of housewives (Anne Baxter would have played Wife Numero Quatro) but writer-director Mankiewicz thought the movie was a little long…and on the advice of 20th Century Fox studio head Daryl F. Zanuck, the fourth wife ended up in the wastebasket. There are a number of differences between the novel and the motion picture (the husband who splits with Addie is different…and I’ve kept mum about him here in case you were as slow as I was in seeing the movie) but from what I’ve been able to glean, Mankiewicz improved on the book immensely. (His peers thought so, too; Mank won Oscars for his screenplay and direction.)
We never see Addie—she’s described as “a queen in a silver frame”—but her purring voice is unmistakably that of longtime TDOY fave Celeste Holm…had Celeste physically been in the film, I might have gotten around to seeing it sooner than I did. I will have to chastise myself later for not doing so; it’s a marvelous entertainment, with strong performances from all. Okay, Jeffrey Lynn…maybe not so much (Crain is doing the heavy lifting on that end) but the two Douglases (not related, in case you were curious) make up for Lynn’s deficiencies.
Mankiewicz does in Three Wives what he would later encore in All About Eve (1950); create complicated relationships between men and women where marital troubles are leavened by sophisticated, witty dialogue. The highlight of the film for me is the Phipps’ dinner party, where George’s brittle, forced politeness around the Manleighs finally cracks and he gives them a piece of his mind about what he really thinks of radio. “The purpose of radio writing, as far as I can see, is to prove to the masses that a deodorant can bring happiness…a mouth wash guarantee success and a laxative attract romance,” George starts up in an impressive rant that actually made me laugh out loud (and this from a fan of radio…I guess it’s only right, since Mank went after theater folk in Eve). The presence of Ritter is like a Steak ‘n’ Shake frappe (“The cap’s out. Makes me look like a lamb chop with pants on.”), and I love how Thel interacts with Darnell’s character during the proceedings (we later learn that she’s pretty chummy with Darnell’s ma).
In addition to Ritter, my favorite performances are those from Paul Douglas and Ann Sothern; Douglas is aces as a bombastic jerk with a heart of gold and I think this is one of the few movies in which I’ve watched Sothern where I’ve resisted the temptation to make a “Maisie” joke. (You may thank me later.) Sothern would inherit the role played by Gilchrist (Mrs. Feeney) in a 1985 telefilm remake that featured Loni Anderson, Michele Lee and Stephanie Zimbalist as “the three wives.” (I probably won’t get around to seeing that one anytime soon.)