A Letter to Three Wives

| September 22, 2013

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1949 picture, A Letter to Three Wives, is the latest film released in the 20th Century Fox Studio Classics line of Blu-rays. There have been some thoroughly remarkable works released as part of Fox’s Studio Classics line, and so I was surprised to find A Letter to Three Wives coming off as rather awkward and stilted at first, especially since the film won the Academy Awards Best Direction and Best Screenplay. But once you’ve trudged through the intro and the first of the wives’ stories, it picks up speed considerably and proves to be a terrific three-part romance, and one of my favorite entries in the Studio Classics line to date at that.

But like I say, it takes some getting into. The film’s premise promises a small, theatrical, dialogue-heavy story about three women on a boat, talking through their troubles—just the kind of film I’m apt to eat right up. (Give me a My Dinner with Andre or Two Girls and a Guy any day!) The film opens with the titular three wives meeting up for a day trip on a boat to find that their fourth, the glamorous Addie Ross over whom all men dote, has yet to arrive. Then, just before departure, the three receive a letter from Addie informing them that she has left town for good, having run off with one of their husbands. Wanting desperately not to believe her, the trio boards the boat and goes about their day. But what if she was telling the truth, they ask themselves? This forces the women to reflect on the problems facing their respective marriages, and rather than talking it all out amongst themselves as I initially hoped they would, their issues are addressed in a series of three lengthy flashbacks.

And although I had hoped for a smaller film than it turned out to be, the more ambitious, flashback-laden model turned out not to be a problem all in the long run. What is a problem is that, especially in the opening, the film relies on some infuriatingly overbearing and unnecessary narration from Addie Ross, who we ultimately never see. Among other offenses, her narration belittles the problems of the women on which the narrative hinges before it even really begins, as Addie responds to their initial worries with the dismissive proclamation that “Women are so silly.” I ask you, though, if we’re to interpret their concerns as silly, making them somehow not worth our serious consideration, why the hell am I going to devote 103 minutes of my time to this thing?! It’s self-defeating narration that desperately needed to be omitted. Additionally, the first of the three wives we follow into flashback, played by Jeanne Crain of State Fair, is so manic depressive, self-conscious and mopey that I found myself not caring one iota about her story except when her husband’s friend, played by Kirk Douglas, was on screen. If Addie’s run off with this woman’s husband, I thought, who could blame him?

With the second wife’s tale, however, things take a major turn for the better. Her husband is in fact the character portrayed by Kirk Douglas and he’s predictably wonderful in his role, which quickly undoes all the damage done by the insufferable narration and the overly mopey wife. Then, hot on the heels of the Kirk Douglas segment is what proves to be the best of the three tales, starring the staggeringly beautiful Linda Darnell, who you may recall from The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand. The story of the unlikely romantic pairing of Darnell’s lower-class department store worker and her wealthy, womanizing employer quickly becomes the heart of the picture, and that troublesome first third is easily forgiven (and that tells you a lot, because I’m not the sort to easily forgive an entire third of a film, if it didn’t work).

Ultimately, I’d rank this Studio Classics release in the top three of so along with The Fly and Niagara. What’s more, the presentation of the film on the Fox Blu-ray is terrific, beautifully capturing the film stock (which is at its most striking when shooting exteriors) in this HD presentation, with minor speckling at worst. And it’s even accompanied by a handful of wonderful special features including commentary with Kenneth Geist, Cheryl Lower and Christopher Mankiewicz, the Biography episode centered on Linda Darnell, a clip from Fox Movietone News showing the arrival of stars at the 22nd Annual Academy Awards at which A Letter to Three Wives won the aforementioned awards, as well as the theatrical trailer.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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