A Letter to Three Wives – An OCF Classic Movie Review

IMDb lists this 1949 film as a romance drama.  Today we’d call such a film a “chick flick.”  The director,Joseph Mankiewicz  was also responsible for “All About Eve,” which was another movie that centered around women.  Mankiewicz received Oscars for both of them so it seems this type of movie was his specialty.

The plot revolves around three married couples, the Bishops, the Phipps and the Hollingsways.  They live in a suburb of New York City and the three wives Deborah, Rita and Lora Mae, respectively, all have an uneasy relationship with a fourth woman, Addie Ross who has always been admired by their husbands for her beauty, intelligence and taste.  As the story opens it’s the morning of the first big country club dance in town and the wives are in various stages of annoyance with their husbands.

Deborah is angry at Brad because he’s going on a business trip and doesn’t even know if he’ll return in time for the dance.  In addition, he has selected an evening gown for his wife for the dance that she has discovered is identical to a dress Addie Ross recently wore.  Rita is angry with George because he is dismissive of her job as a radio script writer whereas she resents that he works as a low paying teacher at the high school.  She is also surprised to see him leaving that morning in a suit, something he never does.  And Lora Mae is dismissive of her husband Porter strictly on general grounds.  Their relationship is a continuous stream of digs and jibes by both of them.

The wives are engaged that day as chaperones for the grammar school annual outing at the lake.  But right before the boat leaves the dock a letter arrives for the three women addressed from Addie Ross.  In it she ironically says goodbye to them as her three dearest friends.  She’s leaving town forever but as a memento of her life with them she says that she’s running away with one of their husbands.

The bulk of the movie is the reminiscences of the three women on their history together as wives, friends and rivals for Addie Ross.  Brad and Deborah Bishop are played by Jeffrey Lynn and Jeanne Crain.  Brad is the rich, handsome aristocrat of the story.  Deborah is a farm girl that Brad met in the Navy in WW II.  She has always been intimidated by the more sophisticated background of his friends and their shared experiences as longtime residents of the town.  Honestly, I find these two characters the least interesting of the six.  Kirk Douglas and Ann Sothern are George and Rita Phipps.  They are the intelligent couple.  He’s a school teacher and a wit.  She’s a hard-working career mother trying to push George into a more ambitious and better paying career.  Paul Douglas and Linda Darnell are Porter and Lora Mae Hollingsway.  Based on their way of speaking and information you learn from the story they are both from “the wrong side of the tracks.”  In fact, in a comical scene from her past we see that Lora Mae’s mother’s apartment was practically on top of the elevated train tracks adjoining it.  Porter is a very wealthy retailer with a chain of appliance stores and a mansion.  And when Porter and Lora Mae meet, she is his employee and he is a cynical divorced man on the make.  She is a painfully beautiful young woman to his gruff 35-year-old cynic and she skillfully uses her charms to negotiate a marriage.  And after he can no longer resist her, he grudgingly agrees to marry her but in terms so unflattering and unromantic that their married life is guaranteed to be a vicious cycle of hurt feelings.  Porter and Lora Mae are the most interesting part of the movie.  Paul Douglas’s characterization of Porter as the gruff regular guy and Linda Darnell’s Lora Mae as the wise-cracking shrew are very amusing.  And Linda Darnell is a remarkably beautiful young woman in this film.  A small supporting part in this movie is played by Thelma Ritter as a friend of Lora Mae’s mother and housekeeper to the Phipps.  Ritter is always the most interesting character on screen in any scene she is in and this movie is no exception.

The movie has a surprise ending at the country club dance when we find out that love can be found in unexpected places.

One of the things I find interesting about this movie is the “types” that the various characters represent.  Brad Bishop and apparently Addie Ross are the “to the manor born” aristocrats of the town.  They both have money and refined taste.  George and Rita Phipps are the educated middle class.  They are the product of the egalitarian World War II generation who believe in the virtues of enlightened modernism.  Porter and Lora Mae are from the working class and for both of them buying into refinement of the upper class is one of their highest motivations.  Porter is constantly talking about Addie’s “class” and disparaging Lora Mae for her lack of class.  And when she goes to Porter’s house for the first time Lora Mae tells Porter that she wants to be a lady so she can have a big house with a piano with a photo of her in the silver frame just like Porter has of Addie Ross.  Deborah Bishop is the farm girl who is completely intimidated by Brad and Addie’s sophistication.  Instead of aspiring to become like them she just fatalistically assumes that someday brad will cast her aside for her social superior, Addie.

Although Brad is obviously friendly with the Phipps and not noticeably a snob his character is very sparsely sketched in.  And likewise, Deborah’s inferiority complex makes her a very one-dimensional character.  The Phipps are a more fully drawn pair of characters and their husband/wife dynamic is also more believable and therefore enjoyable.  I especially like how Kirk Douglas describes his low status and not very well-paying job as making him a comic figure and almost unmanly.  George is the modern man, comfortable with his wife as a bread winner.  When she complains that he bought cheaper whiskey because he can’t afford scotch, she hints that she can afford to buy it instead.  To this George replies, “I forget sometimes that I’m merely the titular head of the household.”  But even Rita is insecure of George’s relationship with Addie.  When Rita forgets George’s birthday Addie sends him a present of a rare symphony recording that has a romantic inscription that inspires Rita’s jealousy.

But the most fully drawn characters are Porter and Lora Mae.  He is the self-made man who worked his up to success.  He is proud of his success and desires to be measured by his material possessions and by the “class” that he tries to surround himself with.  Addie Ross is his ideal of an aristocrat who wouldn’t covet his wealth and would add the class that he was born without.  He was formerly married to a gold digger and he assumes because Lora Mae forced him to marry her that she is looking for the same kind of “pay day” where she can divorce him for all she can get.

Lora Mae is a woman born poor but blessed with the gift of great beauty.  She likes Porter but she refuses to enter into an intimate relationship with him without the promise of marriage.  She knows this will torture him but she tells him openly that is her price.  When he finally grudgingly agrees, he tells her that she is making a “good deal” without any illusions of love.  The bitterness this statement elicits from her is the poison that haunts their every married day with each of them sniping at the other about their shortcomings.  Here is an almost Shakespearian scenario where misunderstanding blinds love on both sides.

The movie is quite enjoyable and is an excellent date movie for married couples since the war between men and women is on full display and is resolved very agreeably.  I highly recommend this film.