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Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas, Barbara Lawrence, Jeffrey Lynn, Connie Gilchrist
Writing Credits:
John Klempner (novel, "Letter to Five Wives"), Vera Caspary, Joseph L. Mankiewicz

All of them wondered which of them wandered!

Joseph Mankiewicz's unique intriguing comedy stars Ann Southern, Linda Darnell and Jeanne Crain as three wives who must wait out a long day to learn which of them has lost her husband to another woman.

Just as their boat sets off for the day, Deborah (Crain), Rita (Southern) and Lora Mae (Darnell) receive a letter from the alluring Addie Ross (narrator Celeste Holm) stating she has left town with one of their husbands. Each wife spends the fretful day pondering the state of her marriage and the affection each of their husbands has for Addie. By the end of the day, each woman is convinced she must surely be the betrayed wife.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Dolby 2.0
English Monaural
Spanish Dolby 2.0
French Dolby 2.0

Runtime: 103 min.
Price: $14.98
Release Date: 2/22/2005

• Audio Commentary by Director’s Son Christopher Mankiewicz with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Biographers Kenneth Geist and Cheryl Lower
• A&E Biography Episode “Linda Darnell: Hollywood’s Fallen Angel”
• Movietone News Footage
• Restoration Comparison
• Trailers


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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A Letter To Three Wives: Fox Studio Classics (1949)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 1, 2005)

In the past, I’ve griped that too many of the movies under the “Fox Studio Classics” banner only lived up to the first two words. They may have been from Fox, but stinkers like Three Coins In the Fountain and The Snake Pit sure didn’t look like classics to me. Frankly, I didn’t find much to like even in more highly regarded flicks like The Three Faces of Eve or Zorba the Greek.

This means that when I find a Fox Studio Classics release that I do enjoy, it becomes all the more special to me. I figure the series only offers up winners about a third of the time, so I heartily embrace the better flicks.

Into the category of “winner” falls 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives. The movie quickly sets up three married couples. We meet suave and sophisticated Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) and his wife Deborah (Jeanne Crain). She’s a former country bumpkin who feels inadequate and out of place among his urbane set.

The second of three wives is Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), an upward-mover who works in radio. Husband George (Kirk Douglas) teaches college, and she’s the main breadwinner in the family. This causes some tensions since Rita clearly aspires to wealthier surroundings and she devotes more time to work than family.

Finally, we get to know Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) and her husband Porter. The most loveless of the three marriages, Lora Mae comes from underprivileged circumstances and she latched onto wealthy business owner Porter to rake in all the money and accoutrements that accompany him. The pair bicker constantly and display little affection for each other.

In the shadows lurks a ghost who haunts all three women: Addie Ross. Apparently a perfect woman, all three husbands know her and clearly harbor affection for her. She was part of the three wives’ friendship but at the start of the film, she abruptly leaves town. After she splits, she complicates the wives’ lives when she sends them a letter. It states that she’s not coming back because she ran off with one of their husbands.

The wives get this note while they chaperone a picnic with a group of children, so they can’t confirm their fears. The movie shows flashbacks to depict various issues in their relationships as it builds toward a climax that reveals the truth behind Addie’s letter.

With a story that revolves around suspicions of infidelity and the fears of three married women, Letter could - and probably should - have been melodramatic swill. However, writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz ensures that this never happens. Based on the subject matter, one wouldn’t guess that Mankiewicz plays Letter for laughs, and I wouldn’t call it a rollicking comedy. However, the film consistently features Mankiewicz’s form of darkly humorous dialogue.

As we’ve seen in other Mankiewicz flicks like All About Eve, the director excels at societal insight, and he brings out those moments with great wit. No one’s idea of a visual director, Mankiewicz’s movies work due to the depth of the dialogue, and Letter overcomes potential sappiness due to its underlying sense of antagonism. Conflict of some sort usually remains at the center of the film, as we see the problems that lead the women to question their relationships. This makes the first flashback with Deborah and Brad probably the most ordinary of the bunch, whereas the other two benefit from snappy patter and parodic elements.

For me, the Phipps segment fares the best. Not only do we get the issues between Rita and George, but also we find a fine mockery of cheesy radio shows and the generally consumerist nature of society. Mankiewicz is at his best when he digs his teeth into these topics, and the scenes crackle.

I love the fact that Letter consistently avoids any tendencies toward soap opera. I think Mankiewicz realized how easily the material could have gone down that path, so he steered it in the other direction. This doesn’t mean that it comes across as a straight parody or a soulless farce. We buy into the characters and really do care about them. But the film plays matters with too much of an edge to ever veer toward gooeyness.

Add a stellar cast from top to bottom and Letter is a real winner. A bright and brisk tale, it presents compelling characters, intriguing situations, and dynamic dialogue. On the surface, this should be a chick flick, but as executed, it should work for all.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus B

A Letter to Three Wives appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite a few minor concerns, Letter usually presented a solid transfer.

For the most part, sharpness came across well. Occasionally I saw a few shots that were slightly soft and ill-defined. However, those occurred infrequently, as the majority of the movie was acceptably distinctive and detailed. No noticeable problems with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, but I saw mild edge enhancement through the flick.

Although a smattering of source flaws appeared, these remained pretty insubstantial for a 55-year-old movie. I noticed occasional examples of specks, grit and blotches, but nothing terribly distracting. Black levels were nicely deep and firm, and low-light shots usually came across as smooth and well-defined. A couple of awkward day for night scenes popped up, but otherwise the shadows looked clear. Overall, I felt pleased with the transfer.

Like most Fox Studio Classics DVDs, A Letter to Three Wives came with a remixed stereo soundtrack. Unlike most Fox Studio Classics DVDs, this one’s remix sounded fine. Perhaps that’s because it was virtually identical to the original monaural audio, which also appeared on the DVD. If the mix ever spread to the side channels, I didn’t hear it.

And that was fine with me. The vast majority of the stereo remixes often suffered from awkward delineation and excessive reverb, but those concerns never cropped up here. Speech showed the moderate tinniness that one expects of a movie from the Forties, but the lines stayed easily intelligible and lacked any defects. Effects played a minor role in this chatty flick, as they stayed in the background. Those elements were acceptably defined and clean; I noticed nothing special about them, but they lacked distortion or problems.

Music was also subdued. Only sporadic examples of score or source music popped up, and those pieces sounded reasonably clear and distinctive. They lacked much breadth, though, and didn’t add much. A little background popping appeared at times, but otherwise the movie didn’t suffer from any source defects. I wouldn’t call this an impressive soundtrack, but given the constraints of the era and the genre, it worked fine.

As we head to the DVD’s extras, we begin with an audio commentary from Joseph Mankiewicz biographers Kenneth Geist and Cheryl Lower and director’s son Christopher Mankiewicz. All three sit separately and the track edits together their remarks. We get the usual look at the lives and careers of various actors as well as many notes about Mankiewicz. We also learn about adapting the original text, casting, Mankiewicz’s dealings with the Production Code, and other topics connected to the film’s creation. One of the better insights looks at the way many people misinterpreted the ending and the director’s last word about that. All in all, the commentary covers appropriate topics and gives us a nice glimpse at the movie.

Next we find an episode of A&E’s Biography series entitled Linda Darnell: Hollywood’s Fallen Angel. It runs 44 minutes and 13 seconds and includes the usual mix of film clips, archival materials, and interviews. We hear from biographer Ronald Davis, sister Undeen Darnell Hunter, daughter Lola Marley, producer AC Lyles, film historian James Robert Parish, actresses Alice Faye and Dorris Bowdon Johnson, and actors Roddy McDowall and Richard Widmark.

Like all of the Biography episodes, “Angel” follows its subject’s ups and downs. In this case, however, the dark moments don’t seem forced, as Darnell clearly went through many bad times. We learn of all the pressure put on the actress by her pushy stage mother Pearl, and we see Darnell’s successes and failures. Alcoholism mars her career and other negatives dominate her relatively short life. The program balances the good and bad sides well and offers a solid portrait of the actress.

One Movietone News reels shows up via “Oscars Presented for Achievements in Motion Pictures”. We watch some celebrities arrive and check out as they hand out some prizes; Letter director/writer Joe Mankiewicz pops up there. The disc also includes a trailer for Letter. Finally, a Restoration Comparison provides text that covers the work done for this DVD and then shows splitscreen images of a mix of different versions of the film.

A pleasant surprise, A Letter to Three Wives came out of nowhere and really impressed me. Granted, based on prior experiences with the work of Joseph Mankiewicz, I should have expected the zippy and amusing effort I saw, but I nonetheless took it as an unanticipated delight. The DVD presents pretty positive picture and audio along with some nice extras such as a quality audio commentary. With a low list price of less than $15, Letter is a true bargain and it earns my recommendation.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.6 Stars Number of Votes: 20
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