I think casting is a delicate art, in many ways. You need to find the right person for a role and balance them against the people they’ll be working with, mixing ages and looks and sensibilities. It gets even more complicated when you consider the old studio system; who’s fighting with who and who’s in favor with the studio and who does the director want to work with this year? We can’t have A overshadow B and oh yes C is in line for a better role after taking that supporting role last year. Looking at all of that, even before you get to the performances, I want to start with how A Letter To Three Wives is a triumph of casting. Here you have Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern, all damn fine performers but for the most part not huge stars of the sat, and they’re wonderfully balanced against each other in this tale of marital strife and sisterhood.
Three Wives starts as the three of them, all wives of successful men of the community (as the unseen female narrator describes it, a town 25 minutes from The City by train, with its own Main Street but not Broadway or Wall Street), all of them women of the country-club set of the day, are about to head out on a day trip and picnic for underprivileged children. Suddenly, a bike messenger arrives and delivers to the three of them a letter from the previously seen (and our narrator) Addie Ross. She informs them that she has left town suddenly and most importantly, she has run off with one of their husbands.
Naturally, the letter doesn’t bother to say which one.
Here is where I’m going to go a little vague because, even though this movie is 70 years old this year, I feel like it’s never been as seen as much as it should have. It won best director and screenplay for Joseph L. Mankiewicz, wins which he would repeat the next year with All About Eve, and that movie I think has overshadowed Three Wives over the years. That letter lands among the three wives like a grenade and while they initially dismiss the letter as Addie, supposedly the epitome of women in town, just playing a mean trick on them they spend their day on the trip speculating in their memories about Addie and how she’s been a figure in each of their husband’s lives.
Deborah (Jeanne Crain), the one woman not from the town who came as a war bride after she and her husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) met in the Navy has to deal with her insecurities of being a former farm girl who still feels like her friends can smell the cowpats. Rita (Ann Sothern) has to deal with an overbearing boss at her radio play job and the very 1949 problem of how she makes more money than her husband George, a schoolteacher (Kirk Douglas, as far as I can tell the last main cast member still alive as of 2019). Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) is from the wrong side of the tracks (literally; there is a great visual gag in her flashback of their little home shaking back and forth as a train goes by) who has married an older, wealthy man (Paul Douglas) and neither of them are 100% sure of just how real their relationship is. All of them have to deal with the shadow of Addie, that lady of the town who for many of them is an epitome, for some of them a curse and who looms over all of them as someone who had known their husbands for forever and their is just a small, poisonous seed of a doubt as to whether their husband is the one who has run off.
As I noted, this movie came out a year before All About Eve and in many ways the movies complement each other. This is in a lot of ways funnier and not with the acid bite of Eve, but it’s never naive. For instance, it’s very much worth watching a flashback scene where Rita is working very hard to get a dinner party for her boss right and seeing how it ties into the trope of Keeping Up With The Joneses, or a later reflection on such things in Douglas Sirk and John Updike and Richard Yates. (Yes, this is very much a white people movie.) The movie doesn’t ignore the dark side of what would become known as the suburbs (I imagine at this time they would still be called bedroom communities) but interestingly doesn’t wallow in that.
That final note of why, I think it doesn’t wallow in it ties into what I would love to know about the script writing process for this movie. Joseph L. Mankiewicz has the sole credit and Oscar with the Academy for this movie, but many sources also credit Vera Caspary, the author of the fantastic novel Laura. That’s a novel with several, shifting viewpoints and also revolves around interesting, independent women who struggle with their place in modern society. I’ve read Laura twice and if you asked me to choose I would 100% guess that the shooting script for Three Wives is mostly Caspary. It fits her style and sensibilities and like Three Wives, her work should not be overshadowed.
So, you may be wondering…who ran off with Addie? Well you know what, I’m not telling you. Google it if you like, but this is one movie where you should absolutely pick it up and see what happens for yourself (there is an excellent blu-ray that highlights the cinematography by Arthur Miller). Let’s just say the answer may surprise you and for that matter is interestingly ambiguous (is Addie screwing with everyone, for instance?) 1949 is a damn good movie for film and I love that we have this weird little piece, just nasty enough but also warmly humanist enough that it reminds me just a bit of Jonathan Demme.