Letter to Three Wives, A (1949): Mankiewicz’s Critique of Middle-Class

Joseph Mankiewicz’s serio comedy about marriage, A Letter to Three Wives, 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.”

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.

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 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.

As the scholar Rebecca Walsh points out, in the dominant ideology of femininity in the 1940s, it made perfect sense that Deborah–not her husband–should make all the adjustments since her husband promises upward mobility, thus representing a more desirable lifestyle.

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 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 and 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 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.

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, 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–each woman decides to work harder at her marriage–and restoration of order, i.e., patriarchal family. While the movie suggests that the bourgeois marriage is still the ultimate venue of happiness, it is not without strain.

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 leveller,” 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.