Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Celeste Sends a Letter

As Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Lora May Hollingsway (Linda Darnell), and Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) are about to leave on a charity boat ride, a young man delivers A Letter to Three Wives (1949).  The letter informs them that their "friend", Addie Ross (voiced with just the right amount of venom by Celeste Holm) has left town - with one of their husbands.  Unable to leave the boat, the women spend the day worrying about their husbands and reviewing their marriages.

Based on A Letter to Fives Wives by John Klempner (the film eliminated two wives, which tightens it up), this is an exceptional film, especially given that it is really a series of vignettes.  The use of Addie's  narration as a glue to hold together this tale of three marriages in trouble is both inspired and entertaining.  That narration brings the tale to a different level, making the film a fully cohesive unit instead of a series of short stories.

Two of the stories especially stand out.  Rita and George Phipps  (Kirk Douglas) are a relatively happy couple, but Rita, a successful radio writer, is trying to have it all - career, husband, and children.  She's pretty good at doing it, but George is frustrated that he and their twins often take second place to the demands of her clients (ably represented by  Mr. (Hobart Cavanaugh) and Mrs. (Florence Bates) Manleigh).  Kirk Douglas plays George as an educated, reasonable and progressive man; he really doesn't mind that his wife works and that she out-earns him by quite a bit.  Her job and her impressive salary afford them all a good life, and enable him to pursue his career - an underpaid high school teacher - without guilt.  George loves his job and his wife.  He just wishes that she wasn't constantly afraid, and would occasional say no to her clients unreasonable demands.
In flashback, we see the courtship of Lora May Finney (Linda Darnell) and Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas).  Both are from the wrong side of the tracks (in Lora May's case, quite literally - she lives with her sister Georgianna (Barbara Lawrence) and mother, Ruth (Connie Gilchrist) on the edge of the train tracks).  But Porter, the owner of a successful department store, is now well-off, and enamored of Lora May's beauty.  But he is not interested in marriage; Porter's been married, and he didn't care for it. Plus, his ideal is Addie Ross - he keeps her picture on his piano, and talks about her "class," a quality he doesn't find in Lora May.

Linda Darnell is impressive as the tough talking Lora May.  The viewer is quick to realize that, despite her comments to the contrary, she loves Porter.  But she knows the only way to keep him is to play the game his way - Porter likes to fight, and Lora May is more than willing to oblige him to get what she wants.  To a point, of course.  When Porter shows up at her front door, honking his horn for her to come out, Lora May ignores it: "Anybody wants me can come in and get me, this ain't a drive-in." For more on the life of Ms. Darnell, please see our blog post on her work in The Mark of Zorro (1940).
The third story, the marriage of Deborah and Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) is possibly the weakest of the three.  It's not bad, its just that Deborah seems weak next to these two dynamic women. One sympathizes with her truly ugly dress, since we know she's not had time to procure a new one, but really, it is so hideous, it's hard to understand why even a simple farm girl would purchase it.  And WHY does Rita have to TELL her to cut off those ugly flowers? But it should be acknowledged that Deborah has left the farm, the WACs, and her past life for a new, more upscale environment with a husband she really doesn't know - the story of Brad and Deborah is a brief glimpse into the marriages that began because of the war.

Jeanne Crain began her film career at age 18, with a bit part in The Gang's All Here (1943).  Winner of the Miss Pan Pacific pageant, she attracted the attention of film scouts; by 1945, she was starring in State Fair and Leave Her to Heaven. She could sing, dance, ice skate, and she was a pretty good actress, but also in 1945 she married Paul Brinkman, and began having babies - seven in total.  She was pregnant during the filming of this movie, and may have lost the role of Eve in All About Eve due to one of her pregnancies. Regardless, her portfolio is quite impressive: I'm particularly fond of Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) and People Will Talk (1951)   Ms. Crain and her husband remained married until his death in 2003, but after a messy divorce proceeding (which was never completed), they lived apart.  She also lost two of her sons before she died in 2003 of a heart attack at age 78.
We've raved about Thelma Ritter (here playing Sadie Dugan) before, and she does not disappoint in this film.  Whether it is her interactions with her pal, Ruth Finney or her sass when she is working as a maid for Rita Phipps, Ms. Ritter is the queen of the bon mot. Take, for example, her response to Rita's request that she wear a uniform: "The cap's out. Makes me look like a lamb chop with pants on." or her answer to the Manleighs about their radio program: "You know what I like about your program? Even when I'm running the vacuum I can understand it."  At the same time, it is Sadie who cautions Ruth about her passion for her new refrigerator, when Ruth seemingly puts keeping it (in many respects, for Ruth, the refrigerator is a symbol of respectability) above her daughter's happiness: " You got to make up your mind whether you want your kids happy or your icebox paid up." 

A number of different actors were proposed for the film, including both Joan Crawford and Ida Lupino as the voice of Addie Ross (AFI catalog). Though the film was nominated for Best Picture, Screenplay, and Directing Oscars (winning the latter two), no acting nominations came its way. Interestingly, Jeanne Crain, Kirk Douglas, and Celeste Holm were all nominated for other film work that same year (none of them won, however).

Contemporary critics received the film enthusiastically (see this New York Times review and this TCM article).  Since then, regard for the film has increased, as is evident by this New Yorker discussion, especially as a sophisticated examination of marriage.  As Jeanine Basinger notes in her book I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies, films that actually examine marriage itself are rare.  A Letter to Three Wives does this, and does it well.
Both Lux Radio Theatre (1950) and Screen Players Guild (1952) performed radio versions of the play.  Then, in 1985, the story made its way to television, with Ann Sothern appearing as Ruth Finney in a version which starred  Loni Anderson, Michele Lee, Stephanie Zimbalist as the three wives. 

We'll leave you with a scene from the film - the arrival of the letter.  

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