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A Letter to Three Wives Blu-ray Review

A Letter to Three Wives (1949) movie poster A Letter to Three Wives

Theatrical Release: January 20, 1949 / Running Time: 103 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz / Writers: John Klempner (Cosmopolitan Magazine novel), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (screenplay), Vera Caspary (adaptation)

Cast: Jeanne Crain (Deborah Bishop), Linda Darnell (Lora Mae Hollingsway), Ann Sothern (Rita Phipps), Kirk Douglas (George Phipps), Paul Douglas (Porter Hollingsway), Barbara Lawrence (Georgiana "Babe" Finney), Jeffrey Lynn (Brad Bishop), Connie Gilchrist (Mrs. Ruby Finney), Florence Bates (Mrs. Manleigh), Hobart Cavanaugh (Mr. Manleigh) / Uncredited: Thelma Ritter (Sadie Dugan), Celeste Holm (voice of Addie Ross), George Offerman Jr. (Nick Butler), Joe Bautista (Thomasino)

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz had been writing films for nearly twenty years and producing for ten when he found his real calling: directing. An ill Ernst Lubitsch required a replacement and thus Dragonwyck (1946) became 38-year-old Mankiewicz's directorial debut. That period drama also marked the start of a productive phase in Mankiewicz's career, which saw him helming twelve 20th Century Fox films, many of which he also wrote, in just over six years.
The stretch included the classic fantasy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and the filmmaker's apex, All About Eve, the backstage drama that set a long-standing Academy Awards record with fourteen nominations and won Mankiewicz Oscars for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Mankiewicz actually repeated in those categories, because a year earlier he had also won those same honors for the romantic dramedy A Letter to Three Wives.

Adapted from a Cosmopolitan magazine novel, the film opens by introducing us to the three titular wives: Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), and Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell). On this first Saturday of May, these three best friends are helping treat local underprivileged children to a riverboat ride and picnic. But, right before the boat takes off, they get a note addressed to the three of them from one Addie Ross. Their mutual "friend" has written them to bid farewell, for she is leaving town and, she cattily adds, with one of their husbands. Which one, she doesn't say.

Addie Ross is often mentioned, but never seen (she quietly narrates the film's opening with the uncredited voice of Celeste Holm). Her words sting because mere mention of her name makes men's ears perk and heads turn. She has that effect on each of the women's husbands, with whom she goes back a ways.

Three wives (Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, and Jeanne Crain) receive a letter from a mutual friend in "A Letter to Three Wives."

Though the women try to shrug off this mystery bombshell of a missive and put on a happy face for the kids, they take turns wondering if their husband might be the one that ran away, reflecting on past marital experiences that might be clues to such a sudden departure.

Deborah goes first, recalling the anxieties experienced in her introduction to the group. A poor farm girl who met socialite Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) in the Navy, she worries she could never fit in with her old, unstylish dress.

Next comes Rita, whose underpaid schoolteacher husband George (Kirk Douglas in one of his earlier film roles) was suspiciously dressed in a blue suit this morning and not for fishing. Friends since childhood, Rita remembers the rift that occurred on a night when she put on airs to host a couple of advertisers for whom she slavishly writes radio soap operas. The rude guests get a critical earful from grammar stickler George after he's asked to give his opinion of the writing heard on radio programs.

Finally, though Lora Mae stays stone-faced, claiming she's got everything she wants, she thinks back to her poor upbringing and she managed to rope wealthy refrigerator magnate Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas) into marrying her after a long exercise in temptation, patience, and seduction.

The three extended flashbacks hint at potential dissatisfaction, without solving the agonizing mystery. The answer to that waits back at home, where the three wives and their husbands are scheduled to socialize that night.

A sharp-dressed (or is that sharply-dressed?) Kirk Douglas delivers an impassioned rant against the quality of radio programs. Bagging a husband (Paul Douglas) is a long, calculated process for gold-digging poor girl Lora Mae Finley (Linda Darnell).

Three Wives resembles All About Eve in its uses of a nonlinear narrative, a large intertwined cast, and compelling relationships defined by sharp dialogue. None of those characteristics was unique to Mankiewicz, but he does seem to have mastered such devices in short order. Like Eve, Wives is a well-crafted contemporary melodrama full of human interest and intrigue. In 103 minutes, we get the life stories and romantic histories of six distinct personalities.
And yet, none of that equips us to solve this riddle left by enigmatic, much gossiped about, never seen woman who is said to embody class and beauty. That overarching mystery is something of a magnificent MacGuffin, driving the plot and inviting retrospection without amounting to a great deal of consequence. You can argue that Wives' resolution is somewhat of a cop-out, but a satisfying one that each of these couples seems to deserve.

Mankiewicz manages to explore relationships in creative ways that elude the majority of romance screenwriters nowadays. Some of the gender depictions are outdated and will prompt viewers to cringe at certain societal norms back then. Porter is constantly telling Lora Mae to shut up and she does. For that matter, she gets him with old-fashioned golddiggery and an elaborate, questionable trap. Nary a thought is given to the fact that George passionately denounces frivolous radio entertainment, his wife's line of work. At least he explains himself and has his reasons for such a critical diatribe, which is still surprising to find in a piece of 1940s entertainment. For that matter, marital discord and separation are topics unlikely for average upper middle class Americans to wrestle with in thoughtful and serious manner. Maybe it's because this era is so closely associated with the advent of television (a medium given passing mention) that you expect a movie like this to be a sappy, tidy, squeaky clean sitcom episode.

That is not what Three Wives is like. Sure, it all conforms to the production code enforced back then, with just a little entendre slipping through, but that doesn't make it toothless or corny. Perhaps the only time the movie earns such descriptions is with its portrayal of maid Sadie Dugan (an uncredited Thelma Ritter, soon to pick up the first of her six supporting actress Oscar nominations) and of Lora Mae's working class family that lives startlingly close to busy train tracks. Even these touches add some color and comedy to a film that hasn't aged poorly.

Despite the reputation of its maker, whose later directorial credits include Guys and Dolls, Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, and Sleuth, Three Wives isn't tremendously well-known. I can't remember ever hearing about the movie prior to last month's announcement that Fox was bringing it to Blu-ray. Part of that stems from the fact that despite its writing and directing Oscar wins, Three Wives fell short of the top prize, being nominated for Best Picture (back in a field of 5) but losing to the fairly forgettable All the King's Men. Meanwhile, Mankiewicz soon went on to eclipse himself in every way with the truly terrific Eve.

At least, Three Wives means enough to Fox for them to give it a proper and highly satisfying Blu-ray, which they released earlier this week.

A Letter to Three Wives: Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
1.0 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled or Captioned
Release Date: September 17, 2013
Suggested Retail Price: $24.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Eco-Friendly Blue Keepcase
Still available on DVD ($14.98 SRP) and Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Upholding the Academy Ratio and monaural sound of the film's original production, Blu-ray treats A Letter to Three Wives to great picture quality. The 1.33:1 video makes it easy to forget you're watching such an old movie. Even under close scrutiny, it's difficult to find a single imperfection. The element remains sharp and spotless throughout. This is a Criterion-quality restoration, something you'd only expect from a film with more stature than this.

Sound is offered in 1.0 DTS-HD master audio as well as a Dolby 2.0. The latter just seems to spread the lone channel into both of the stereo speakers and it features a much lower bit rate than the superior default track. By the way, I couldn't fit this in anywhere else in the review, but fans of the talk box, a precursor to Auto-Tune, should appreciate the Sonovox's exemplary use at the start and stop of the wives' pondering sequences. It's kind of a trip.

Actress Linda Darnell is given the A&E Biography treatment in the 1999 episode "Hollywood's Fallen Angel." The Fox Movietone newsreel on the 1950 Oscars ceremony abruptly ends after announcing Joseph L. Mankiewiecz's double wins for writing and directing "Three Wives."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Gladly, the Blu-ray includes all four extras found on Fox's 2005 DVD. Not terribly surprising, all of them remain in standard definition.

They begin with an audio commentary by the director's son, Christopher Mankiewicz, and biographers Kenneth Gest and Cheryl Lower. Recorded separately, they each speak knowledgeably and with reference to what's onscreen.

Lower and Gest lead the way, putting the film into the context of its time, while Mankiewicz shares some memories of his father. The group tackles production code considerations, the film's evolution from the page (where it was Letter to Five Wives), and an important scene commonly cut from television broadcasts. It's an informative and pretty easy listen.

Next, we get "Linda Darnell: Hollywood's Fallen Angel" (44:03), a 1999 episode of A&E's "Biography." This tells us all about one of the film's leading ladies, from her arrival in Hollywood at age 14, breakthrough at age 15 (being passed off as 17), years of stardom at 20th Century Fox for Darryl Zanuck, and inevitable decline. It also details Darnell's personal life, including her marriage to older cinematographer Pev Marley (an image-undermining move that prompted Zanuck to suspend her and let Marley work elsewhere), her struggles with alcohol (seemingly inherited from her embarrassing mother), her affair with director Joseph Mankiewicz, her divorce and remarriage, her fractured relationship with her daughter, and her death resulting from severe burns incurred in a house fire.

Clips from many of Darnell's movies are shared, along with then-new reflections from the actress' older sister Undeen, daughter Lola, biographer Ronald Davis, film historian James Robert Parish, and fellow actors including Roddy McDowall, Richard Widmark, and Alice Faye. As you can imagine, this is a great inclusion that sheds so much light on an accomplished actress there's a great chance you don't know about. Kudos to Fox for licensing it for a second time.

Fox Movietone News (1:15) is a short newsreel on the 22nd Annual Academy Awards, featuring clips from the 1950 ceremony.

The theatrical trailer for "A Letter to Three Wives" ends with outdated expressions you're supposed to tell to long-forgotten gossip columnists. Just because the movie is in black & white doesn't mean we can't enjoy the Three Wives in color on the Blu-ray's new cover art and top menu.

Finally, unmentioned on the case, Three Wives' rough-looking theatrical trailer (2:43) is preserved, full of narration and on-screen hyperbole typical for the era's movie marketing.

The menu attaches score to the cover art's color image. The disc kindly supports bookmarks and fully resumes playback as well. There are no inserts within the eco-friendly keepcase.

Deborah (Jeanne Crain) is devastated when the hole in her old dress is uncovered at a fancy event she attends with her socialite husband (Jeffrey Lynn). Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) is the second wife to worry that her husband may have left her.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I entered A Letter to Three Wives with no real expectations and came away highly pleased. This Joseph Mankiewicz romantic dramedy feels ahead of its time in some ways and even though some of its depictions are dated, its strengths (acting, characters, dialogue and structure) are the kind that never go out of style.

The main attraction of Fox's Blu-ray is an excellent high-def feature presentation. I can't imagine the film looking or sounding any better on this format, not that it's likely to be reissued. Complementing that commendable transfer are four valuable recycled bonus features, most notably A&E's engrossing Linda Darnell biography. Undoubtedly superior to the 2005 DVD in every way, this is a disc you can confidently add to your collection, whether as an upgrade or a first-time purchase.

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Reviewed September 21, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1949 20th Century Fox Pictures and 2013 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
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