A Letter To Three Wives, 1949. 9/10

Clever premise for this star-powered romantic drama. Three married women out for a cruise with a bunch of kids each get a message: the town homewrecker, Addie (Celeste Holm’s voice), has run off with one of their husbands. They (Linda Darnell, Ann Southern, and Jeanne Crain as Lora Mae, Rita, and Deborah) are flummoxed because it’s not clear which one of them the letter “To Three Wives” is directed at.

I guess this means that these ladies haven’t got the best marriages. We’ll see, as we’ve got husbands Brad (Jeffrey Lynn with Crain), Porter (Paul Douglas with Darnell), and Kirk Douglass as George (with Southern). In supporting roles, as we look back on each woman’s history, we find Lora Mae’s mom and sister (Barbara Lawrence and Connie Gilchrist, as Babe) and Sadie (Thelma Ritter). Among other things, this is known for a thoughtful and humorous script.

We get an overview of the town from Addie. First we meet Deborah and Brad, in their rather swanky home. She’s bemoaning having to go to a dance without him; Addie’s name comes up, as Brad apparently bought Deb a dress that was identical to one that Addie had been parading around in.

Anyway, Deb’s picking up Rita for the day’s event. Addie’s narration works superbly; making transitions and explanatory notes while laying down a thick smug gloss on everyone else. Debby and Rita wind up talking about guess who?–Addie. Anyway, here we are at the boat.

There they discover from Lora that Addie has just left town. And, here comes the mailman guy with the note. Well, it’s on nice art-deco stationary. Off they go. Looks like the threesome is helping out chaperoning the kids, giving them time to…chat.

When one of the kids wants to read a fairy story aloud, Lora says “Fairy story? My favorite kind; I grew up on ’em. Only, I wrote my own.” As the girl begins to read, Debby reminisces to just after the war, and coming home to Brad. She’s a fish out of water, as she’ll meet his friends for the first time: George and Rita, that is.

The first topic is Addie. Thing is, Debby is obviously uncomfortable …why? She doesn’t wanna go; “I’m so scared [of the country club set] I’m sick.” Rita covers for her; then they talk. Time for Deb’s life story–in the Navy, at home. In a word, she’s insecure; Rita tells her “you must think we’re an awful bunch of snobs.” She does.

Anyway, they finally get to the country club. There, Lora and Porter join them. Porter, a world-weary, older guy, knows everyone, including Addie. Apparently, Addie and Brad were once an item. They’re expecting Addie; we learn from Lora that Addie’s husband “took a powder.” Nonetheless, she’s their “absentee host.”

Brad doesn’t know that Deb is having what we would now call a wardrobe malfunction. Brad is out on the veranda, talking to Addie. Hmm, that memory jogs Deb back to the present, at the picnic.

Rita points out that Porter was possibly going out of town (a rendevous?hint, hint); as he was seen at the station along with Brad. “We’re beginning to behave like some movie about a woman’s prison” says Deb of all the gossip and rumors.

Now, it’s Rita’s turn to reminisce. She’s going over dinner plans with Sadie. The big deal is for impressing studio execs, the Manleighs (Hobart Cavanaugh and Florence Bates). George is poking fun at her for her new-fangled pretentiousness. Addie seems to have the drop on everyone, as just then George gets a birthday present from her.

Anyway, Rita and George suffer through the evening with the persnickety Manleighs; at least Porter and Lora are there too. Sadie fumbles around with the furniture, and announces dinner “soup’s on.” After a round of quips between Lora and Sadie, Mrs. Manleigh asks if they’re related. “No,” replies Lora, “we just had the same governess.” Excellent.

Sadie’s not done, neither is Lora. As they listen to one of the Manleighs’ sponsored radio shows with a Latin American actor who says “gracias.” Mrs. Manleigh can’t help being helpful by translating; and Lora can’t help thanking her with a “gracias.”

Well, looks like the Manleighs will call it a night. But not before some intelligent commentary from Mrs. Manleigh “Radio writing is the literature of today.” George responds by counter-punching about the shallowness of advertising. It’s easy to forget that he’s an English teacher. This scene is good; but the follow-up between George and Rita is a bit long; finally they get around to Addie. But what’s she got to do with it?

Good, we segue back to the picnic. Time for Lora’s story, which promises to be the most interesting. She says she doesn’t care if Porter is the stray husband. The sound of a leaky bathroom sink prods her memory–specifically of the old home’s nearness to the tracks. Her sister is complaining about her going out with Porter, who’s officially an old guy.

Sadie was with them even back then–good enough. The next train spooks Porter, as well as rattling the whole house. At what must be the country club, they get chummy over dinner. At this point, she’s only his employee. She meets George, but Porter dismisses him, because “he doesn’t have a dime.”

Afterwards they park. Invariably astute, she asks “are we gonna talk about business now?” He moves in…for a trip to first base. She tells him she wants the guy that will marry her; suddenly, he’s not so interested, and takes her home. She thinks of a ruse to get him to ask her out again. But, comically, he really doesn’t seem to care much.

Until she deigns to kiss him. Next thing, she’s hanging around his mansion, listening to him play the piano. Naturally, he has a picture of Addie. We don’t get to see it–but they both admire it. Good scene follows: they accuse each other of taking advantage, he of her youth and beauty, her of his money.

“You just keep needling me!” He says; but, just like that, he gets a decent kiss. Back home, the house shakes so much that you’d think it was on the rails. They’re all arguing, Sadie notes “New Year’s Eve is when people go back to killing each other.” Nick (George Offerman, Jr.) comes calling for Babe. Shazam! There’s Porter too. He wants to take Lora to: Addie’s party.

“I can’t sleep nights thinking about you” he implores. That’s not enough “So what?” she says. “I’m not even human anymore, am I? I’m just a great big act!” Sounds like a loaded question. In what has to be the least romantic proposal ever he says “ok, you win. I’ll marry you. How ’bout it?” He takes “thanks for nuthin'” as a yes.

I was right; Lora had the best story. With segue #3, we’re back to the boat, or rather, the dock. They’re all going to see each other later, at the country club. Rita is so happy to see George safely ensconced at home. She even blows of Mrs. Manleigh’s request for her to work that night.

But, Debby discovers that Brad won’t be home that night. Red flag? Meanwhile, at Lora’s, she suspects Porter must be gone too. But there he is, as solid as he ever looked. She tells him about the Addie business; she, completely unlike Rita, almost seems disappointed that he isn’t the culprit. Rita tries to comfort gloom-and-doom Debby.

Then, the dance at the country club. Deb stands up for Lora, as Porter is full of bile. Deb wants to split. She tells Porter directly that Brad has run off with Addie. Here’s our denouement. Porter says Brad’s cool, he’s the bad guy. Ok, but, why is he there, then? Strangely, Lora pretends that nothing happened; that is, she forgives him. Now that was unexpected. Nice ending to a very entertaining movie.

This is mostly melodrama, as no one changes much. The exception, and a crucial one, is Lora accepting Porter’s infidelity. That makes everyone whole again, and completely defeats Addie, whose schemes and dalliances have driven the entire plot. It’s clever that we never see her–except a quick, meaningless look at her from the back. Almost like an alien presence, she’s everywhere and nowhere.

The boat trip gives a tangible setting for all three women to wonder and reminisce. Addie’s narrative device is an elegant way to keep the plot focused and moving along. There’s three stories within a frame story, six main characters (seven if we count Addie), and so much going on. The Manleighs and Sadie add subplots and plenty of comic relief.

What carries this episodic film are the nuanced performances all around. Having said that, though, there’s some clunky scenes; especially George going on about the dastardly ad business. And there’s too much of the old-rich-guy v. poor-pretty-girl stereotyping in the Porter/Lora relationship. It seems they stay angry most of the movie because they’re supposed to.

The Rita/George relationship kind of gets lost with the more engaging nature of the other couples. Well, we shouldn’t expect everything to be exciting. We see that Rita has the additional function of nurturing Debby.

Although this is very much a movie of its time, another aspect we would expect–kids–are only there as a reference or backdrop. Rita and George have kids, but we don’t see them; the boat trip itself is for kids, but none of them are the children of the three wives.

Obviously, the intent is on adult relationships, or, more specifically, how adults relate to each other as couples. The fact that children, of course, are certainly a part of most marriages, goes without saying. Nevertheless, the movie seems not to lack anything by not including kids in more than marginal roles.

This is worth a close look for excellent plotting and some great actors showing why they’re stars.

Farmermouse dug the woodie wagon, the ’46-’48 Lincoln Zephyr coupe, and the ’49 Lincoln convertible. He’ll give A Letter To Three Wives nine whitewalls. 9/10.

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