Being raised on a steady diet of radio storytelling and appreciation, I better understand my affinity for early cinema that employed quick, witty banter. This proclivity was not discerned until hearing Professor Matthew Solomon speak about radiogenic qualities of A Letter to Three Wives along with other notable films such as Welles’s Citizen Kane and Hawks’s His Girl Friday.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed the rehashed script treatment from John Klempner’s original novel A Letter to Five Wives published in Cosmopolitan Magazine A few ladies had been removed or consolidated into one character for narrative strength. The Graduate Center at CUNY, the Cinema Studies Group offered a free screening and discussion of this film with an introduction by Professor Matthew Solomon on December 7th. Professor Solomon touched upon the years spent reworking the screenplay and enlightened the audience to the film’s noticeable radio qualities. As soon as Mankiewicz’s misogynistic tendencies were mentioned, unavoidable examples could be found.
The narrator and God-like figure is female. Unwed (and therefore dangerous) Addie chides her lady friends in voiceover about their insecurities and takes snappish jabs at her “chums” in a knowing tone. Her explosive letter addressed to all three wives announces her departure from town. Her fleeing partner is one of their husbands. Which one? That is left in question. Self-doubt festers in each wife.
Employing a musical overlay to initiate flashbacks is another device recalling radio programming. Postwar gender roles dismantled the old structure which is demonstrated in how each woman had an independent sense of self or career. Often the job was limiting or temporary, but purposeful work and monetary gains were tied to their identity. In each scenario, cracklines are evident between the couples. All marital or courtship issues reach new levels worry and act as sources of dread. Addie is referenced in all three sequences yet never seen directly. She acts as this elusive menace and threat which is more irksome when perceived as a critique on the Hollywood manufactured unsavory nature of single females. If classy, attractive Addie had been married, then these women could relax and by extension, not relinquish agency in their relationships…but transient because there could be future female tomcats. Two of the ladies, Lora Mae (gorgeous Linda Darnell) and Deborah (Jeanne Crain of Leave Her To Heaven costarring Gene Tierney) have pitiful relationships that make single life vastly satisfying in contrast. Masculine and charming actor Kirk Douglas (son Michael Douglas married to Catherine Zeta-Jones) playing George Phipps husband to Rita where her job provides the income heft. Their relationship is closer to neutrality and accord than depressing dynamics in the other two couples. The flashbacks dominate the film, and the fillers prove to be the action occurring in the present. Audiences brace themselves to learn which husband has violated his marital vows.
Are all husbands accounted for? Yes and no. The husband who left yet ultimately returned is celebrated despite his cowardice, and another husband remains conspicuously absent from the gala. Each woman loses.
The final camera moment is watching an imaginary force (Addie?) turning over a glass, and it breaking. This shattered cup harks back to Jewish wedding’s blessing and mocks harmony. Has this experience reset gender roles? If so, the resolution is bothersome.
Thoughtful discussion followed the screening about symbols of masculine and feminine objects added to the event.
For an exhaustive analysis, click here.