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Many of the best directors in the 1940s and 1950s started out as screenwriters. They directed out of necessity – they grew tired of seeing their scripts not make it to the screen the way they envisioned them. 20th Century Fox knew it had a genius in Joseph L. Mankiekcz, who wrote and produced films before he finally began directing in the late 1940s. The studio gave him the chance and he took it, developing a unique voice American cinema had not heard yet. For his films, the drama played out in the dialogue, with a dry, literate wit all his own. All About Eve (1950) is his crowning contribution to cinema, but the year before, he tested the limits of female friendship with A Letter To Three Wives.
Calling A Letter To Three Wives a dry run for All About Eve does the film itself a bit of a disservice, since it stands on its own as a good film. It centers on three women (although it was five in John Klimpner's original story) who are good friends and have volunteered for a children pick-nick, apart from their husbands. Just before boarding the boat for the pick-nick, they receive a letter from Addie Ross, a mysterious, alluring woman they all know. Addie says that she is leaving their little suburban town, running off with one of their husbands.
As one can expect from the title, Mankiewicz split the film into three parts, as each of them wonder if their husband ran of with Addie. Each of these actually play out as short films, as the main trio are so different. It almost makes you wonder if they could even be friends if it weren't for some loose connections between them.
The first story is actually the best, with the young and amazingly beautiful Jeanne Crain playing Deborah Bishop. She's the newest member of the group, having just married in. She met Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) while the two were serving during the war. In her flashback sequence, Deborah goes over how she was introduced to Brad's friends – Rita (Ann Southern) and George Phipps (Kirk Douglas). Crain is exceptional as the young, constantly nervous Deborah. The scene between her and Southern in the bedroom is on par with some of the best scenes in All About Eve.
Rita's story is rather unique, as she's the one wearing the pants in the house. Yes, her husband is played by Kirk Douglas, but this is before Douglas became a true action hero star. He's a schoolteacher who can't make enough money to support their lavish lifestyle. Rita is the breadwinner as a radio show writer. Her sequence does provide the film with a balls-out explosion from Douglas, who rants on radio shows. He overpowers Southern, who gives a delicate performance outside of the lighter fare she was known for. She's the glue between Crain and Linda Darnell, but that unfortunately makes her more of a soundboard for them.
And then we must get to Darnell, who plays Lora Mae Hollingsway. Darnell is a forever underrated actress, who will never get her due, even when it should have come to her. If any of the three leading ladies deserved a Best Actress nomination for this film, it was Darnell. She gets a juicy role, as a woman from the lower class moving up, as she gets department store owner Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas) to marry her. It's a great part and a wonderful performance from her, but if you've seen this movie before, you know why it's a little hard to take her manipulations easy.
Yes, I have to talk about the ending. Like The Women (1939) a decade before, the cheating husband gets away with it and the wife goes back to her man. After over 90 minutes of seeing how strong a character Lora Mae is, Mankiewicz betrays the audience by having her accept Porter's decision to run away with Addie. Yes, Porter said he “changed” his mind, but Lora Mae never seemed to be the type of woman who would just take him back unconditionally. Clearly, this is her weakness. She loves the guy.
Nevertheless, seeing A Letter To Three Wives makes it quite clear how Mankiewicz won the Best Director Oscar, in addition to Best Screenplay. Although he was a wordsmith first, he knew how to keep his story from seeming stage-bound. He used the camera efficiently to take advantage of the medium. Only in film can you give the audience an off-screen narrator, with a character the audience never sees, but hovers over all the proceedings. Addie is our guide early in the film and even though she's not there at the end, she still gets to comment. She even loses, but still gets the final word.
On Home Video: Fox is easily the best of the big studios when it comes to releasing its classics itself. Although Fox has worked with Twilight Time and Criterion, in 2013, it went on a massive campaign to release films under its “Studio Classics” banner. Although Three Wives isn't action oriented and is in black & white, we were still given a stunning Blu-ray release, complete with commentary and a Biography episode on Darnell.
A Letter To Three Wives is classic Hollywood, all the way up to the tidy ending. Its characters are far more in-depth than any other film of its time though, thanks to Mankiekcz's writing. The film centers on the bonds of friendship and how they can be tested. This is still one of the greats and far more than the warm-up for All About Eve than some consider it.