Saturday 18 September 2021

Movie Review: A Letter To Three Wives (1949)

A drama about relationship ups and downs in a leafy small town, A Letter To Three Wives is a spry snapshot of post-war middle class domesticity.

Deborah (Jeanne Crain), Rita (Ann Sothern), and Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) are friends and neighbours, and about to chaperone a community children's picnic. Just before departing for the day, they receive a letter from common acquaintance Addie (voice of Celeste Holm) informing them she has run off with one of their husbands, but not disclosing which one. In separate flashbacks, the women review the state of their marriages.

Emotionally fragile Deborah met husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) when they both served in the navy. He is from a wealthy and respected family, while she is from humble origins. Deborah always felt inferior and a misfit with the country club crowd. Brad fuels her insecurities whenever he mentions the vivacious Addie.

Brassy Rita has a successful career as a radio theatre writer, while husband George (Kirk Douglas) is a proud but low-paid school teacher. He looks down upon her commercial brand of writing, and the tension between them rises when Lora Mae nudges him to consider a career change. George knows Addie from college and she is more aligned with his love for the arts.

Confident Lora Mae grew up in a poor household on the wrong side of the tracks. While working at a department store she caught the eye of the wealthy owner Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas). He pursues her but she does not yield to his affections until he proposes marriage. They are never truly in love but always honest with each other, including Porter expressing his admiration for Addie.

An adaptation of a story that appeared in Cosmopolitan, A Letter To Three Wives boasts a clever structure, three casually related mini relationship portraits, and a mean streak of humour to punch-up the drama. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz also wrote the screenplay, and delivers an entertaining summary of first-world problems lurking in the households of the haves and want-to-haves.

Addie provides mischievous narration without making an appearance, instead hovering over the lives of others as a cunning plot device to cut through the facade of marital bliss. The three stories expose a range of women's emotions and intentions, including Deborah's deep-seated self-doubt and desperate desire to fit in, Rita's well-intentioned but misplaced attempt to elevate the earning potential of her husband, and Lora Mae's singular focus on snaring a wealthy man.

The men here are mostly static beings, war-winning objects to be captured, cared for, manipulated, improved and jealously guarded. In turn, the revealed lives of Deborah, Lora Mae and Rita revolve fully around their husbands, and even working woman Rita insists on muddling her career with her marriage.

The performances are lively, Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern and Linda Darnell quickly creating distinct and memorable personalities. They receive equal screen time and ample opportunities to navigate a range of man-instigated crises. Mankiewicz's writing is human-centred: despite their different backgrounds, it's easy to believe these women are friends. In the supporting cast, Thelma Ritter has a significant but uncredited role as a housekeeper.

Although the ending settles for a relatively quick wrap and lacks zing, A Letter To Three Wives remains a savvy peek into three couples' lives.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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