A Letter to Three Wives (1949): Mankiewicz’s Satirical Critique of Bourgeois Marriage and Mass Pop Culture, Starring Jeanne Crain, Kirk Douglas, Linda Dranell

Blast from the Past: Revisiting Classic Hollywood Cinema

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Joseph Mankiewicz’s serio-comedy about the fragility of the marriage institution, A Letter to Three Wives, takes place in a fictitious (unspecified) small town, “just 28 minutes from the Big City.”

 

A Letter to Three Wives
A letter to three wives movie poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

As Addie Ross, the off-screen narrator, informs. “The name of the town isn’t important, like thousands of others, it’s on a river, and it’s got houses and stores and churches.”

Set on a Saturday morning in May, it is meant to signify any typically American town. The fact that many critics mistook the locale for a suburb is an indication of how similar the portrayal of small towns and suburbs has become in pop culture.

The town is first seen from a high angle, then the camera hovers over Main Street, “nothing like Broadway or Market–just plain Main.” The stores follow the same old pattern: “drug, dry goods, shoes, and those horrible little chain stores that breed like rabbits.”

However, the town does not neglect culture: a banner between two trees announces: “Week of May 15th, Twelfth Night by Wm. Shakespeare.”

The residential streets are clean well-kept, seen by a gardener is mowing the lawn; a couple stowing golf clubs into a car, kids on their bikes.

The narrative unfolds in a series of long flashbacks.

Each flashback begins with a close-up of an object that represents the protagonist’s problem. The first opens with Debora in front of the mirror, hating the way her hair looks: “Making me look even more like a farmhand than I feel.” The second, with a close-up of a radio, the bone of contention between Rita and George Phipps. The third flashback begins in Lora Mae’s kitchen, showing a bucket for the leaking water under the sink, an indication of her lower class.

Deborah (Jeanne Crain), a farmer’s daughter from a Mid-Western town, married Bradbury Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) while they served in the Navy; she was a Wave. She still remembers a painful night at the Country Club, when she felt out of place because of her inexpensive, tasteless, mail-order dress. Deborah is aware of the class and culture differences with her husband. Ever since that night, her efforts have been directed toward gaining the respect and acceptance of her husband’s friends.

Indeed, there is some snobbery in Rita’s remark about Deborah’s photograph, “She certainly doesn’t look as if she grew up on a farm.” Or, for that matter, in George’s response, “I’m sure she took the hay out of her mouth while she was being photographed.” Deborah’s persistent problem is how to fit in, how assimilate into middle-class manners.

As the scholar Rebecca Walsh points out, in the dominant ideology of femininity in the 1940s, it made perfect sense that it is Deborah–not her husband–who should make all the adjustments. After all, her husband is the one who can promise and fulfill upward mobility, thus representing the more desirable lifestyle.

Upper middle-class uniformity is the universal goal to be achieved, despite the women’s varying social backgrounds. Once married, they each live in big and luxurious houses.

This is particularly the case of Lora Mae Finney (Linda Darnell), a poor salesclerk, who lives with her widow mother and younger sister. Whenever the train passes by, the whole house, down to the kitchen’s last pot, is shaking. Dating her boss, the much older Porter Hollingsway, Lora Mae consciously uses his attraction to her as a channel for upward mobility. Their marriage is based on mutual attraction, but there is also calculated maneuvering–on both sides.

The tale’s ironic tone is apparent from the very beginning, as Addie says: “All the incidents and characters in this story might be fictitious, and any resemblance to you–or me–might be purely coincidental.” But it is actually a morality tale, in which writer-director Mankiewicz advises his viewers, particularly women, to examine their own marriages. Marriage, like other tender and fragile commodities, needs constant attention, and should never be taken for granted.

Thus, the film cashes in on–and in some respects increases –the uncertainty women might feel about the stability of their marriage. But despite its acid, the narrative presents a compassionate view of marriage; in the final account, each of the marriages is salvageable.

Among Mankiewicz’s targets is the lack of respect for school teachers, who are vastly underpaid.

Another target is the increasingly alarming popularity of mass culture, here in the form of radio soaps. Television was not popular yet; it would take another half a decade until TV soap operas would become the prime entertainment and the common denominator in America.

The narrative examines the deteriorating quality of American culture, with its emphasis on consumerism and commercialism. When Mrs. Manleigh claims, “radio is the literature of today, the literature of the masses,” George responds with what can be described as a “mass culture critique.”

The goal of popular culture (dominant ideology) says George, “is to prove to the masses that a deodorant can bring happiness, a mouthwash guarantee success, and a laxative attract romance.”

There is reconciliation at the end of the story, with each woman deciding to work harder at her marriage. There’s also restoration of order, albeit male-dominated, manifest in patriarchal family. While the movie suggests that the bourgeois marriage might still be the ultimate venue of happiness, it is not without inevitable strains, both internal and external.

In one of their endless arguments, Rita charges that the only alternative to her commercial writing was complete domesticity, which was not that appealing. Asked why she works so hard, Rita says: “Because each week I receive in return one hundred pieces of what Addie calls ‘the most restful shade of green in the world.'” It is significant that motherhood and children are not an issue; the Phipp’s twins are mentioned in passing but never seen.

Of the three marriages, only one is based on somewhat egalitarian foundations: Rita and George Phipps are of similar age and background. But Rita’s success poses a direct threat to George’s masculinity. Still, the Phipps’s marriage serves as a model, contrasted with the other, less egalitarian and more problematic, marriages. But even in the Phipps’ union, it’s the wife who has to give in. It is clear, for example, that it is her responsibility to take care of the children. At the end, Rita asks George to play the classical music louder, while unequivocally telling Mrs. Manleigh that she can’t work tonight “because my husband doesn’t want me to!”

The suburban lifestyle in Letter to Three Wives does not appear to be yet oppressively bland or too homogeneous. Furthermore, there is some sense of community. The three couples genuinely care for each other and spend a lot of time together. The film upholds middle class values, but it also acknowledges the growing importance of class distinctions, indicating early signs of disillusionment in post-War America. The army with its uniform was such “a great leveler,” says Deborah, “we were all in the same spot, everything was happening to all of us for the first time.” However, once the War was over, it is back to competitive individualism, and every person for himself.

Rights to John Klempner’s A Letter to Five Wives were acquired by 20th Century-Fox in February 1946, seven months after it was first published in a magazine.

Melville Baker and Dorothy Bennett wrote the first treatments of the script. Tough not credited, it was Baker who had the idea for the character of Addie only to be heard, and not seen.

In October 1946, F. Hugh Herbert was assigned to write the script. In the same month, it was announced that Samuel G. Engel took over as producer from Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Even before a script was finished, Gene Tierney, Linda Darnell, Maureen O’Hara, Dorothy McGuire were announced in the leads.

Cast

Jeanne Crain as Deborah Bishop

Jeffrey Lynn as Bradbury “Brad” Bishop

Linda Darnell as Lora Mae Hollingsway

Paul Douglas as Porter Hollingsway

Ann Sothern as Rita Phipps

Kirk Douglas as George Phipps

Barbara Lawrence as Georgiana “Babe” Finney, Lora Mae’s sister

Connie Gilchrist as Mrs. Ruby Finney

Florence Bates as Mrs. Manleigh

Hobart Cavanaugh as Mr. Manleigh

Thelma Ritter as Sadie Dubin (uncredited)

Celeste Holm as Addie Ross (uncredited voice)

Credits:

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Adaptation: Vera Caspary, based on A Letter to Five Wives 1945 novel in Hearst’s International Cosmopolitan by John Klempner
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Cinematography Arthur C. Miller
Edited by J. Watson Webb Jr.
Music by Alfred Newman
Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Release date: January 20, 1949 (US)

Running time: 103 min.
Box office: $2,750,000