Letter to Three Wives, A (1949): Mankiewicz’s Oscar-Winning Dramedy

a_letter_to_three_wives_posterJoseph Mankiewicz’s bitter-sweet serio comedy takes place in a fictitious (unspecified) small town, “just 28 minutes from the Big City,” 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.”

The film’s plot device is brilliant. On their way to the town’s eighteenth annual picnic, a boat excursion (on the Hudson) with the Settlement House’s children, three housewives learn through a joint letter that Addie, the town’s charmer and most desirable woman, has run off with one of their husbands.

Because “it isn’t easy to leave a town like our town,” Addie has decided to take “a sort of memento,” one of their husbands. The letter throws the three women off balance, each wondering whether it was her husband who walked out. This external threat creates a strange camaraderie, uniting the women with a common enemy (the “Other Woman”), but at the same time each hopes that it’s another woman’s, not her, husband. Thus, while trying to support each other, the threat also places them in direct competition.

Set on a Saturday morning in May, it is meant to signify any” 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. 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.” But 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 well kept: A gardener is mowing the lawn; a couple is stowing golf clubs into a car, the kids bike.

The narrative structure is coherent, consisting of five sequences: An Introduction, three long flashbacks (of almost equal length), and Conclusion. At the center of each flashback is a poignant dissection of a marital union.

Each of the three matrons represents a different type. The first, an ex-farm girl, suffers from a complex of inferiority. The second, a successful radio soap-opera writer, is resented by her husband because she contributes to the family’s income more than he does from his school teaching, an unconventional practice for women at that time. The third, a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks, outwits and outmaneuvers her hard-boiled husband into matrimony.

Each of the flashbacks 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 in George’s response, “I’m sure she took the hay out of her mouth while she was being photographed.” Deborah’s problem is how to assimilate into middle-class manners.

Middle-class uniformity is 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 ironic tone pevails 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.” “Letter to Three Wives” is a morality tale, in which writer-director Mankiewicz advises his viewers, particularly women, to examine their own marriages.

Letter to Three Wives” flaunts Mankiewicz’s characteristic style of humor, to be perfected the following year in his Oscar-winning All About Eve.” Among his targets is the lack of respect for teachers, who are vastly underpaid, and the alarming popularity of mass culture, here in the form of radio soaps. Television was not popular yet; it would take another decade until TV soap operas would become the prime entertainment and the common denominator in America.

Addie Ross, whose very name is a threat to each of the three marriages, stands for good taste and high class, two words that are used repeatedly. “Always doing the right things at the right time,” is the way Addie is described. The dress that Brad picked out of Vogue magazine was exactly the one Addie had worn to the concert two weeks ago!

And when Lora Mae first sees Addie’s picture on Porter’s piano, she remarks, “She sort of looks like a queen.” But Porter corrects her, “Like a queen ought to look.” On George’s birthday, which his wife forgets, Addie sends him a Brahms record with a card, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Indeed, classical music and radio soaps are the symbols of two clashing subcultures. Mrs. Manleight is so anxious to listen to the soaps that she inadvertently breaks George’s record. And as soon as the soaps are over, she suggests turning off the radio, because “from now on, there is nothing but music.”