Sunday, November 20, 2022

Joseph Mankiewicz Moves to the Cinematic Fore with A Letter to Three Wives


               Offering one of filmdom’s slyest, most trenchant looks at marriage among the social classes, 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives granted Joseph Mankiewicz his ticket to major acclaim as one of the pre-eminent writer/directors of his era, while setting up a one-two punch of him winning four Oscars in the space of two years for writing and directing (with 1950’s legendary All About Eve matching Letter’s success). The film details the plight of three women who discover, while out on a country fieldtrip with nary a cell phone to be found, that one of their spouses may have deserted them for Addie Ross, a cunning friend of the trio adored by the husbands and tolerated by the wives. In flashbacks the audience is introduced to the women’s various backgrounds and interactions with their spouses and others as each woman ponders her fate. Helming with aplomb, Mankiewicz provides a truly first-rate cast with sparkling dialogue and situations, which they enact with great skill and verve, resulting in career-best work for several players, and close-to-it for just about everyone else.           

                After the introductory passage compellingly sets up the basic plotline, Mankiewicz adeptly highlights each of the three primary relationships, which become more enthralling as each marriage is depicted. The first segment details war bride Deborah’s (Jeanne Crain) union, as she finds herself a fish-out-of-water post-war while attempting to adapt to a life of affluence after marrying the town’s major catch, Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn). Although Mankiewicz reportedly didn’t think Crain was up to the level of the rest of the cast, the young star disproves this idea; as was the case in her best roles, Crain exhibits a warmth and a calm, subtle presence that proves ideal for Deborah, and she also adds elements of insecurity and bitterness that make the character much more intriguing to watch than the average ingénue of the period. Crain would also score the same year in a more dramatic vein and gain her sole Oscar nod for fine work as the title character in Pinky (one of the most successful, in box-office terms at least, of a spat of racially-themed films of the time), before returning to more standard fare during the 1950’s. As Brad, Lynn does good work with Crain and also adds a little edge to his character, but of the six principles he’s seen the least, and is literally out of the picture as the film moves into its two most entertaining acts.

                Mankiewicz tackles a fairly progressive take on marital bliss (for the 1940’s, in any case) as the film depicts a day in the life of Rita and George Phipps, with radio writer Rita shown as the family breadwinner over her sensible, English teacher husband. As Rita, Ann Sothern has perhaps her best role after spending years paying her dues in a variety of films, such as the Maisie series and the occasional grade-A production (MGM’s Lady Be Good comes to mind). Sothern has a wonderful, casual delivery style and ace timing, throwing out her lines in a natural, bemused way much of the time, while also vividly illustrating Rita’s concern for her marriage as her ambitious plans to better George’s position brings conflict to their previous idyllic partnership. Kirk Douglas, just before major stardom arrived with Champion, is also spot-on cast against-type (or what would become an against-type role for him, post-stardom) as the calm, introspective George, although in his biggest moment wherein George spouts a diatribe regarding the inanities involved in radio advertising to Rita’s employers, plenty of the patented Douglas forcefulness that would drive many of his greatest roles is in full evidence.

                The centerpiece of this section involves a dinner party, which allows for the introduction of Thelma Ritter in her breakthrough role as the Phipp’s direct, no-nonsense maid Sadie. After years of stage work, Ritter made a strong impression in her Miracle on 34th Street film debut as a stern mother taking on Santa Claus at Macy’s, and her beguiling talent for effortless scene-stealing was given its most prominent showcase to date in Letter, her third film, opening the door for a thriving career throughout the 1950’s and beyond as everyone’s favorite supporting player, amassing six Oscar nominations in the process but no wins, which to this day serves as a great party game among movie buffs discussing the question of the Ritter performance that should have gained her the prize (her sparkling work in 1951’s The Mating Season gets at least one Ritter fan’s vote). Florence Bates, who never shied away from playing unpleasant characters with great relish and without a care concerning gaining any audience sympathy (most famously in Rebecca), is also in her element as Rita’s boss, the caustic, overbearing Mrs. Manleigh,  who forthrightly shares her notions regarding the value of radio broadcasts, while Hobart Cavanaugh is on point as her milquetoast husband. The dinner also introduces the couple who’ll factor in the film’s most memorable sequence, Lora Mae and Porter Hollingsway, vividly enacted by Linda Darnell and, in his film debut, Paul Douglas.

                This final segment details the unorthodox romance between Lora Mae, a girl living literally besides the railroad tracks, and her boss, department store honcho Porter. Mankiewicz does a fantastic job relating the clever maneuvers and assets Lora Mae utilizes to hook Porter, and Linda Darnell comes through in memorable fashion. The lushly beautiful Darnell had started her leading-lady career at 20th-Century Fox in 1939 at 15(!) and, after spending several years as the sweet, charming ingénue in hits such as The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand, which showcased both her and Rita Hayworth in their prime Technicolor loveliness, with 1944’s Summer Storm she made a startling switch to playing tough, no-nonsense gals looking out for their best interests and using their seductive powers to move ahead in the world. She’s in peak form in this mode as the world-weary waitress driving Dana Andrews to distraction in 1945’s great film noir, Fallen Angel then, after fine work in another classic, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, got her biggest chance as the title character in 1947’s Forever Amber, the film adaptation of one of the biggest novels of the decade, which scored heavily with post-war audiences but was largely bypassed by critics.

Darnell was competent in Amber, but Lora Mae provides a much better vehicle for the star to display her talent for depicting a ambitious, street-smart characters- it’s great to watch Darnell alertly taking in every situation, showing how Lora Mae is constantly accessing her relations with Porter and others to maintain the upper hand; check out her brief initial introduction to the other Douglas’ character, George, as Lora Mae dines with Porter, for a chief example of the deft manner Darnell adopts to show Lora Mae sizing up a situation. Beyond the character’s calculating demeanor, Darnell also reveals a forlorn side to Lora Mae, as she struggles to keep up a detached front with Porter as simultaneously the couple’s feelings for each other deepen. Darnell would continue to produce good work into the 1950’s, most notably in a Mankiewicz dramatic follow-up to Letter, 1950’s tense No Way Out, but Lora Mae represents one of the signature roles in her career, and possibly the peak of her reign among the top 20th-Century Fox players.

As Porter, Douglas puts over his first film role with the expertise of a film veteran, and underplays with great maturity and dexterity. He appears so unaffected and spontaneous that the viewer is immediately fascinated by exactly what Porter’s motives are in regards to Lora Mae, and what makes this self-made man click in general. There’s a great scene wherein Porter is leaving Lora Mae after a date, and you see him sitting alone in a car in deep thought, reflecting on where their relationship stands. Without a word, Douglas conveys to the audience how emotionally involved Porter has become with Lora Mae, and the fact this attachment may be dawning on Porter for the first time, as he lights a cigarette and tosses the car lighter out the window as he would with a match before driving on, without a care or any realization as to his miscue. He and Darnell also generate great chemistry throughout, clearly depicting both the combative nature and the strong desire that bond them together.

Great support is also featured in this portion of the film, with Ritter again scoring, due to Sadie being the best friend of Lora Mae’s warm-yet-forthright mother, Ruby Finney, played to perfection by Connie Gilchrist. A highlight of the film involves Sadie and Ruby at the Finney’s kitchen table prior to Lora Mae’s first date with Porter, as the women discuss Lora Mae’s possible motives behind dating the boss, as the trains roll by and shake the house to the rafters. This is followed by Porter’s arrival, and Gilchrist does an exceptional job switching between awed reverence towards the tycoon Porter, to a very direct, scene-ending assessment with Ritter of Lora Mae putting on airs as she and Porter depart. Gilchrist also makes “Bingo” a key line in the movie, and one of the funniest. Additionally, Barbara Lawrence is seen to good effect as Lora Mae’s sassy, knowing younger sister, Babe, having her great moment giving a sage, “I know the score with these two” look at Lora Mae and Porter as Babe leaves the house with her date for New Year’s Eve.

Regarding overall support in the film, as the unseen Addie Ross who narrates the proceedings Celeste Holm provides one of the best voice-overs ever, richly imparting the guile and high-toned airs that draw men to Addie while turning off even her closest female friends. I love the way Holm mentions Crain for the first time, saying “Deborah,” in a terse, disapproving manner, making you understand how the highly competitive Addie views all other women as adversaries more than allies, whether this attitude is warranted or not. Also, there’s been speculation over the years the ending of the film is left open to interpretation, but this idea doesn’t give proper credit to Holm for clearly emphasizing the movie’s conclusion via her final line as Addie.

Upon its release in early 1949, A Letter to Three Wives received top notices and solid box-office returns ($2,750,000 in film rentals, according to Variety, placing it just inside the top 25 grossers of the year in the U.S.). The film went on to earn an ample share of plaudits, including placement on both The New York Times and The National Board of Review’s top ten list, Writer’s Guild of America and Director’s Guild of America prizes for Mankiewicz, and an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, to go with the two wins for Mankiewicz. Although none of the film’s terrific cast were nominated (possible due to the ensemble nature of the piece- back then stars didn’t normally try for nominations in the Supporting categories, as is the norm today, whether the role be supportive or lead), their striking work has held up beautifully over seventy years and, along with Mankiewicz’s paramount contribution, assures Letter will continue to be regarded as one of the most perceptive and wittiest comedy-dramas of its era.

            I recently completed a video tribute to Ms. Darnell’s career, which includes clips from Letter and many other of her top films. It can be viewed here at YouTube: