A Letter to Three Wives
                   a commentary by Tony McRae

It's 1949, the war has been over for four years, Rosie the Riveter has been eased out of the factory by returning GIs and is back in the home doing her wifely chores.  Towns and cities are getting back to normal(1); the well-off have moved away from commercial centers to tree-lined suburbia(2).  "A Letter to Three Wives" tells the story of three women learning to adjust to their new roles in post-war suburbia with its country club dances and leisure time.  Their challenges are a kind of reverse mirror image of the veterans and their problems, which was the subject of so many movies, most notably "The Best Years of Our Lives."  

Deborah (Jeanne Crain), an ex-Wave, grew up on a farm, married Brad Bishop who comes from an old moneyed family; Rita (Ann Sothern) is a working mom and wife--she writes radio soaps and makes more money than her school teacher husband George; Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) lived on the wrong side of the tracks (actually the tracks were outside her house) and has married a rich, older business man.

"To begin with..." a female narrator says as a commuter train is pulling into a station in a nameless town on the East Coast.  The voice belongs to Addie Ross whom we never see.  She's the perfect post-war woman, the belle idéale the three wives--and their husbands--are clearly taken with, the arbiter of social graces and upper-crust mores.  In a word, Addie possesses pedigree, something the three women do not have.  

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz introduces the three women as they are setting out to chaperone a bunch of school kids on a Saturday boat ride and picnic.  Just as they are boarding the boat a letter is handed to them.  It's from Addie Ross who tells them she has gone off with one of their husbands(3).  It could be Deborah's husband Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) who would probably have married Addie but for the war; or maybe it's George Phipps (Curt Douglas) who was in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with Addie back in high school and who seems to resent his wife's making money writing soap opera trash; or it could even be the gruff Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), the hardware store magnet who seems to do nothing but fight with Lora Mae.  Each woman has been aware of the hold Addie has on her husband, and so the three spend the rest of the morning and afternoon looking after the children in quiet anguish, not knowing which one will come home to an empty house.

Each woman is given her own flashback, starting with Deborah, followed by Rita and Lora Mae.  

Wife #1.  Barbara Bishop's transformation from farm girl to high society wife is the most striking (see pictures 4 and 5) of the three, yet she suspects her husband would throw her over for Addie Ross if the opportunity presented itself.  Brad Bishop, as played by Jeffrey Lynn, is a handsomely bland person, giving the impression that he's done Barbara a great service by taking her from rustic, farm life  We find out about Brad from Addie Ross's voice-over:  "It was Brad who gave me my first black eye...and my first kiss," she intones somewhat nostalgically.  Brad talks to his wife in an offhanded, noblesse-oblige manner, ever the patrician.  In the course of the story Barbara has become more her own woman, perhaps not independent but certainly mindful of her own worth.

Wife #2.  At the start of Rita's flashback, Mankiewicz uses a dissolve--a fade-out of Rita's face and a slow fade-in of a small radio(6) to let us know where her priorities are.  It's that little box that gives the Phipps the lifestyle she and George have become accustomed to.  Addie describes Rita and George as "on the way up...at least if Rita has her way.  And that's the only way she'll have any part of it, thank you."  Rita knows that her husband holds her radio work in low esteem--he's made that very clear(7).  He's a bit too idealistic for her taste, but she also realizes she has made little effort to broaden her own tastes to include, say, Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto, a particular favorite of Georges's.  Addie no doubt shares George's interest in classical music as well as in good writing.  If George is home when she gets back from the picnic, she will make every effort to adapt, yet she's not about to role over.  On the contrary, her feistiness is one of her endearing traits, and we learn that George loves her for it (8).   She hopes he'll quit school teaching and go to work in commercial radio also.  She accuses him of "an overdeveloped sense of taste and discrimination," and then adds a zinger, "...which is apparently only equaled by that Addie Ross.  I'm fed up with your nobility and wisdom and superiority.  And your contempt for me and everything I try to do....I'm fed up with Addie Ross."  George hints that he and Addie did more in school than rehearse their lines in the school play.  He tells Rita that her  independence has turned to fear.  "I want my own wife back," he shouts and storms out of the house.

Wife #3.  Lora Mae will not be surprised to return to an empty mansion.  Well, not exactly empty since her mother has moved in.  She knows all too well that Porter Hollingsway, despite his blue-collar roots and gruff manner, has tons of money and would be a feather in Addie Ross's hat.  Lora Mae can't really fault Addie if she does steal Porter, since that's how she, Lora Mae, hauled him in, using her breathtaking beauty and coy hard-to-get charm(8).  She'd played it note perfect, wearing the guy down.  "Okay.  Okay, you win," Porter says.  "I'll marry you...you made a good deal, Lora Mae."(9)  It wasn't a real proposal but it was enough.  The omniscient Addie, however, knows that's not really true.  "You haven't gotten everything that you wanted after all," she purrs.  Lora Mae knows that's the truth.  When she does get home she finds that Porter is there after all.  Yet they still fight.  "I've been a good wife," she screams at him.  "The best wife money could buy."  Both she and Porter are too alike.  

The joy of this movie for me is the manner in which Mankiewicz wraps his stories in three different styles that suit each couple.   

Our first couple, Deborah and Brad Bishop, live in handsome splendor, yet this is also the funniest segment with its country club ball sequence right out of a screwball comedy--the farm girl being thrown into high society, and yet having the spunk to make it on her own terms.  Couple two, the Phipps, have a set-to à la Tracy and Hepburn, and still manage to emerge with respect for each other.  Couple three, the Hollingsways, are a different breed, both coming from unpolished situations.  This last segment recalls those pictures in which a woman from lowly circumstances is able to stand up for herself and even triumph.  

Flashbacks in movies of this era are usually spurred by a narrator wanting to convey something to another character in the movie, e.g., Walter Ness explaining to Keyes why he went wrong (Double Indemnity), Jeff Bailly revealing his past to the woman he loves (Out of the Past); or someone uncovering someone's past:  the newspaper reporter in Citizen Kane trying to find the key to Rosebud.  

Mankiewicz's flashbacks serve a different purpose  Not only do we, the audience, come to understand appreciably more about the three couples, but, more importantly, each woman is able to compare her present self with her earlier self, and to understand what she has had to do to reinvent herself for her husband.  She may not always like that reinvention, but she has the courage and grace to compromise without demeaning herself.  

It isn't a stretch to say that Mankiewicz introduced a new vocabulary for women in 1949, a fresh way for them to see themselves.  What "A Letter to Three Wives" does perhaps better than any movie of the post-war era, is to show that women can indeed accommodate themselves to multiple roles, and still keep their own identity.  




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