A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 43 min.

Release Date: February 3rd, 1949 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz Actors: Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn, Barbara Lawrence, Hobart Cavanaugh, Celeste Holm

 


 

“T

he name of the town isn’t important … ” begins the narrator (a curiously unseen, uncredited Celeste Holm, playing Addie Ross, a character whom the townsfolk can’t avoid gossiping about), explaining that the time is the first Saturday in May in the country club area of a city as familiar as any other. In this upper class arena, Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) and her husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) lightly argue about the big dance that evening – one that is terribly important to Deborah and not too significant for Brad. Their squabble concerns a dress that Brad liked for Deborah – but one that was coincidentally worn by another woman. Deborah drives over to pick up good friend Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), whose own husband, George (Kirk Douglas), is all dressed up for a secretive outing.

Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) arrives separately, completing the threesome of women all set to board a boat for the day. Just as they’re about to depart, a courier brings a letter from none other than Addie Ross, stating that she’s run away with a husband belonging to either Deborah, Rita, or Lora Mae. But her note doesn’t specify which one. Far from a phone or anyone with additional information, the women spend the afternoon thinking back upon their relationships, initially certain that Addie couldn’t have stolen away any of their husbands, but slowly beginning to analyze the faults and contentions that could have led to such a scandalous fiasco.

Flashbacks constitute the majority of the picture as the three leading ladies mull over the originations of their romances and the very last events before boarding the boat, which might have served as warning signs of a spouse’s spontaneous departure for another woman. The premise is terribly amusing, particularly as their exterior armor is steadily chipped away by details of an outsider status and doubts about fitting in, an admirable generosity toward welcoming newcomers, pretense concerning impressing snobbish guests, and playfully heated contempt in substitution for more standard flirtatious repartee. Each woman’s life is ideal at the start – until the threat of an impromptu elopement arises. And then, seemingly insignificant tidbits concerning Addie’s light coquetries suddenly become major clues for not-so-veiled, longstanding infidelity.

“We’re beginning to behave like some movie about a women’s prison.” Although the film is a relatively slow-moving melodrama, the character development is absolutely sensational. Humor and heartbreak surface in spectacular fashion, chronicling the complexities of stereotypical roles in the family unit, the desire for people to impress inconsequential acquaintances, and the outward appearances of imperviousness to emotional betrayal. The three stars represent drastically different perspectives on the various components of couples – including upbringing, wealth, social status, ambitions, and even age differences. In many ways, they cover a sizable sampling of the factors that shape prospective partner pursuits; they’re a well-rounded collection of engrossing archetypes.

Here, there’s also quite a mystery brewing, building to a nerve-wracking revelation. And part of what makes the mystery so absorbing is the care with which the characters are designed. No one is an outright villain; no one appears deserving of losing their significant other to the machinations of the notorious Addie Ross. And even the husbands don’t feel like the types to run off, despite their flaws and the routine quarrels. Movies this mature, this powerful, this moving, are incredibly rare; “A Letter to Three Wives” is utterly monumental in its acting, scripting, and direction.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10