A Letter to Three Wives
is a 1949
film which tells the story of a woman who mails a letter to three women, telling them she has left town with the husband of one of them. It stars Jeanne Crain
, Linda Darnell
, Ann Sothern
, Kirk Douglas
, Paul Douglas
(in his first film role), Jeffrey Lynn
, and Thelma Ritter
. An uncredited Celeste Holm
provides the voice of Addie Ross, the unseen
woman who authored the title letter.
The movie was adapted by Vera Caspary and Joseph L. Mankiewicz from the novel Letter to Five Wives by John Klempner. It was directed by Mankiewicz, who went on to direct All About Eve the following year.
It won the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay and was nominated for Best Picture.
The story involves three married couples in a small Westchester (NY) town. The three wives receive a message, just as they are about to take a group of school children on a riverboat ride and picnic, that a fourth woman has run off with one of their husbands. A series of flashbacks intimates the possible reasons why each wife might be deserted by her husband. One (Jeanne Crain) grew up on a farm. Her only worldliness comes from service in the Navy during World War II. She feels out of place at the social occasions that her husband enjoys (and grew up in). Another (Ann Sothern) is a career woman who writes sappy stories for radio soap operas. Her teacher husband feels somewhat emasculated since she earns a substantial portion of the household income. The third (Linda Darnell) grew up poor and married the wealthy owner of a statewide chain of department stores (she works in one of these stores). He is a bit older than she, and "knows all the answers", as she sarcastically tells him. The couple has never gotten along but still share a bond. Addie Ross, the woman with whom one of the husbands has run off, is a social butterfly and, by all accounts, very desirable. Her character never appears on camera in the movie. The movie is sustained through tableaux that demonstrate the three very different situations.
Differences between novel and film
The film was based on John Klempner's novel, "A Letter to Five Wives." Two wives were lost in the transition to the screen. At one point, the film was called "A Letter to Four Wives". Upon submitting the adapted screenplay to 20th Century-Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck, Joseph L. Mankiewicz mentioned that he found it too long and asked how he felt the movie could be shortened. "Take out one of the wives," Zanuck replied. Originally, the movie would have featured Anne Baxter as Martha, the fourth wife. Zanuck didn't feel Baxter's segment was as strong as the other three, so that one was cut. The fifth wife, Geraldine, was omitted from the outset.
All major characters differ substantially between the novel and film, and the nature of the problems with their marriages does as well. In the novel, Lora May (not Lora Mae) is less a gold digger than a woman who has always been dominated by her wealthy husband; Rita is trying to succeed in a second marriage with a man she has never felt passionate about; and Deborah is a plain and quiet ex-spinster whose "catch" of a husband has been disappointed in her lack of success in society. As for the other two wives, Martha and her husband locked horns over child-rearing issues, while Geraldine was devoting excessive time and money to her singing career with few results.
The novel also gives no indication that any of the couples will work through their problems (the film, ambiguities notwithstanding, has a decidedly happy ending), and the identity of the errant husband is different (though not his rationale).
Main cast and characters
- Thelma Ritter was cast as the down-to-earth cook and maid at the home of the radio writer and teacher (her third film and first substantial part). Her brilliant performance certainly led to her being cast in Mankiewicz's next film All About Eve.
- To get the proper look of derision from Linda Darnell in the scene where she stares at an unseen (to the audience) photo of Addie, Mankiewicz used a picture of Otto Preminger, the director who had given Darnell such a hard time on the set of Forever Amber (1947).
- General Douglas MacArthur was so confused by the ending that he had his aide write Joseph L. Mankiewicz a letter asking with whom Addie had, in fact, run off.
- The identity of the actress Celeste Holm who did the voice-over for Addie Ross was kept secret when the film was released. The studio held a number of "Who is Addie?" contests around the country where moviegoers could guess the name of the actress.
- Joseph L. Mankiewicz had a real battle with the American censors at the time who would not permit him to use words like "laxative" and "toilet" in his script. He got his revenge with a famous double-entendre laden exchange which used words like "penetration" and "saturation".
- Kirk Douglas's character misquotes Byron. The line should read: And all that's best of dark and bright, NOT good of dark ...