Saturday, June 10, 2006

Tonight's Movie: A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Tonight I enjoyed watching this terrific Joseph L. Mankiewicz film for the third or fourth time, along with its commentary track. Like Mankiewicz's ALL ABOUT EVE (reviewed here in April), A LETTER TO THREE WIVES contains razor-sharp dialogue and fascinating character studies.

The plot is relatively simple: three women embarking on a day-long boat trip receive a letter from a so-called friend announcing she's run off with one of their husbands. Unable to get home, or even to a phone, the three women spend the day reflecting on their marriages and wondering whose husband will be missing when they arrive home. Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, and Ann Sothern are the wives; Jeffrey Lynn, Paul Douglas, and Kirk Douglas are their husbands. The unseen author of the letter is voiced by Celeste Holm.

I think my only disappointment with the film is that the Crain-Lynn storyline gets relatively short shrift compared to the meaty stories about the other two couples. Crain is one of my favorite actresses, and we don't have the opportunity to see enough sides to her character or her marriage.

Sothern and Kirk Douglas are fine, but the story I enjoy the most is the fascinating Linda Darnell-Paul Douglas courtship. I don't think Darnell has received enough recognition over the years for her highly effective acting in a string of classic '40s movies for Hollywood's greatest directors, including, in addition to Mankiewicz, John Ford, Rouben Mamoulian, Preston Sturges, and Otto Preminger. Here she plays a girl from the wrong side of the tracks (literally) looking for financial security -- and maybe love as well.

A LETTER TO THREE WIVES is available on DVD, No. 27 in the Fox Studio Classics series; the DVD includes a commentary track and an excellent BIOGRAPHY episode on Linda Darnell. The movie can also be obtained on video.

In 1985 there was a fairly entertaining TV remake, with Stephanie Zimbalist, Loni Anderson, and Michele Lee in the Crain, Darnell, and Sothern parts. Charles Frank, Michael Gross, and Ben Gazzara played the Lynn, Kirk Douglas, and Paul Douglas roles. The most interesting bit of trivia for film fans is that Ann Sothern herself appeared in the remake, this time as Ma Finney, the mother of the Darnell/Anderson character.

December 2018 Update: I was fortunate to see this film at UCLA in 35mm nitrate. To mark the occasion I put together a photo gallery of images from the film.


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