It’s hard to believe now that, back in 1949, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives was a really big deal. But at the 1950 Oscar ceremony, Mankiewicz won two Oscars, for both writing and directing this film. It was up for Best Picture too, but lost to a movie I consider far more memorable, a still-timely story of political corruption called All the King’s Men. (The following year, Mankiewicz made Oscar history by again winning screenplay and director honors. That 1950 release, which won a total of six Oscars, is a bonafide Hollywood classic, All About Eve.)
A Letter to Three Wives can fairly be called a woman’s picture, because its topic is wedlock, as seen through the eyes of three married women who are pals living in a small suburb. The structural gimmick is that the three, while en route to a good-hearted outing with some underprivileged kids, receive a note from a so-called friend telling them she has just skipped town with one of their husbands. This shocking news leads to extended flashbacks, in which we see the fault lines of each woman’s marriage.
There’s Jeanne Crain as a fresh-faced farmer’s daughter who met her handsome and wealthy husband while serving as a WAVE in World War II. She still feels like a rube and an outsider. There’s Ann Sothern, the career gal who out-earns her schoolteacher spouse (a young Kirk Douglas!) but kowtows to the producers of the sappy radio program for which she writes. There’s sultry Linda Darnell, who’s succeeded in persuading a retail tycoon (Paul Douglas) to marry her. The marriage was her ticket out of poverty, but it hasn’t entirely brought happiness. And always lurking in the vicinity, though never really seen on camera, is Addie Ross, whom each of the three husbands views as their town’s prime exemplar of class and sex appeal. For each of them, she seems to be the One Who Got Away, and we anticipate finding out at the end of the film exactly who—and what—she’s gotten away with stealing. The film’s cleverest touch is Addie’s voice-over narration. It’s provided (without screen credit) by Celeste Holm, whose self-satisfied purr tells us all we need to know about Addie Ross’s attitude toward domestic life.
A Letter to Three Wives began, fittingly, as a novel published in 1946 within the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine. The original, I’m told, was A Letter to Five Wives. The filmmakers started out planning to tell four marital stories, then removed one that was supposed to feature Anne Baxter. (She certainly got her revenge in All About Eve!) I gather the movie also differs from the novel because of its unambiguously happy ending. Not surprisingly, for that era, career gal Ann Sothern patches up her marriage by standing up to her demanding boss for the very first time. (I was glad to see that she doesn’t go so far as to quit her writing career altogether – she merely makes it clear that from here on out her weekends belong to her spouse and kids.) The reconciliation of Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas is frankly unconvincing, given their constant bickering earlier in the film, but I guess audiences in 1949 were in desperate need of reassurance that marriages could really work.
The DVD on which I viewed this film contains a fascinating character sketch of actress Linda Darnell, billed as “Hollywood’s Lost Angel.” What a turbulent life she led! Too much success too soon, bad marriages, and a death much too early. No wonder she was so convincing as the film’s beautiful cynic.