It started out as a Cosmopolitan magazine novel, A Letter to Five Wives, then as a studio film adaption, it was pared down to Four Wives. When production began in 1948, the final product from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz was a striking and highly sophisticated comedy-drama called A Letter to Three Wives (1949). From beginning to end, the dialogue sparkles. Mankiewicz won an Oscar for his witty script and his skilled direction and then he turned around and won the same two Oscars the very next year for his masterpiece, All About Eve.
The story is set in American suburbia circa 1948 ("just 28 minutes from the big city, 23 if you catch the morning express") and it revolves around three upper middle class wives (actually one is striving to be upper middle class). Just as they're boarding a boat, to act as chaperones of a day long children's charity picnic, they receive a letter (one letter addressed to all three) from their "friend", who is also the town flirt, saying she has run off with one of their husbands, but doesn't say which one. Caught between shock, disbelief and nagging suspicion, they board the boat and begin a journey that not only takes them up river but through the emotional status of their respective marriages. They reflect, via flashback, on the weaknesses in their unions and dwell on the fact that each of their husbands was friendly with the vampish letter writer, named Addie Ross, at some point in his life.
First up is Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), who met her well-to-do husband Brad in the Navy. Born and raised on a farm, she thinks back to when she first married Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) and how socially inept she felt around his sophisticated friends, particularly ex-flame Addie. Next up is Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), radio drama writer, who clashes with her idealistic, high school English teacher husband (Kirk Douglas) over household finances and their social standing. Lastly we meet Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell), a gorgeous gold digger, who married the boss (Paul Douglas), owner of a chain of department stores bearing his name. Though she got what she wanted materially, the emotional walls built up by both she and her husband offer little hope for true love.
Though Miss Crain received top billing (and this blogger is personally crazy about her), her segment is by far the weakest of the three. Still engaging in the way it captures its characterizations through scintillating dialogue and great performances, the Crain segment doesn't have the spark that the other wives' slice of celluloid provide. Jeffrey Lynn as Brad Bishop is neither here nor there.
As Rita Phipps, Ann Sothern is as charming and fun to watch as ever. Her delectable voice and confident character can deliver a line of dialogue like a fast ball over home plate. While at a country club dinner dance, the three husbands are glowingly listing the many attributes of the absentee Addie when Rita pipes in, "also fog lights, white sidewalls and a heater?" Classic Sothern. Kirk Douglas, who plays husband George Phipps, was on the brink of stardom when cast in this role. Champion, released the same year as Wives, would put him there.
As screen time goes, Linda Darnell comes out on top, appearing in all three of the wives individual segments. Her Lora Mae shows a determined calculation in order to get everything she wants, including and especially marriage from her wealthy department store tycoon boss. In order to get the disdainful look he wanted out of Darnell, when she's looking at a framed portrait of Addie ( the front of which the audience can't see), Mankiewicz put a photo of director Otto Preminger in the frame during the scene. Preminger had given Darnell a tough time during the filming of Forever Amber(1947), which they made together, and their was no love lost on him by the beauty.
The supporting players in A Letter to Three Wives are just as good, if not better in some cases, as the stars. Thelma Ritter, in her first significant role, is hilarious as the Phipps' maid Sadie Duggan. Like Sothern, she really delivers the goods with Mankiewicz' great script and her strength in this role helped her land a plum part in Mankiewicz' Eve. Also in top form is Florence Bates as Rita's radio executive boss and Hobart Cavanaugh, her henpecked, milquetoast husband. The Phipps dinner party in front of the radio is hilarious, no one missing a beat. Much to Mankiewicz credit, he never actually shows Addie Ross throughout the film, we only hear her velveteen voice which is provided by actress Celeste Holm. Thus, Addie's air of mystery leaves it up to the audience interpretation of how she looks. The film put director Mankiewicz on the map in a big way and allowed him to go gung ho into All About Eve the following year with both creative barrels blazing.