George Phipps: The purpose of radio writing, as far as I can see, is to prove to the masses that a deodorant can bring happiness, a mouth wash guarantees success and a laxative attracts romance.
Just one year before Joseph L. Mankiewicz would write and direct ALL ABOUT EVE, one of the finest examples of cinematic back-stabbery ever to be seen, Mankiewicz directed another film that carries much of the same acerbic wit that would be carried into his later films. A LETTER TO THREE WIVES may exist somewhat in the shadows of his other great films such as THE QUIET AMERICAN, GUYS AND DOLLS, or SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER, but this film surely ranks along side these other great titles for it’s clever and astute dialogue, which Mankiewicz became famous for.
On the morning that a group of friends are to supervise a school outing to a small island, one of these friends, Addie Ross (Celeste Holm), has decided to not show up. In her place, she sends a letter addressed to Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) and Rita Philipps (Ann Sothern), letting them know that she has run away with one of their husbands, and doesn’t identify which. Forgoing the hysterics that I would be sent into, the three responsible women get on the boat and fulfill their duties to make food and watch over the children. Of course, being away from home has each woman obsessively suspecting their husbands (obviously, who wouldn’t??) and replaying the morning’s events in their heads.
A LETTER TO THREE WIVES blends together the story of the three wives as told through three separate vignettes, while simultaneously shedding light on the socio-economic statuses of the women, their ideals and of course, a little bit about their husbands as well. The scenes can seem a little long at times, leaving the viewer to wonder when the main story will continue, but these short stories are moments where motives, beliefs and information about the characters come out and we begin to see what these women are about.
Addie Ross, the elusive and omniscient narrator of the story is ever present, even though she is never seen once on screen. She always seems to be stirring up some sort of trouble in each story, whether it’s the curious and often lustful glances by nearby men or the jealous fits she sends her female friends into. These are all part of the building blocks of this mystery, that being just which husband did she run away with. Part of the fun of watching this movie for the first time is trying to guess the outcome, almost like a “whodunnit” but without the murder.
A LETTER TO THREE WIVES is quite funny and the dialogue so full of wit that you have to pay close attention to catch all the little snippy remarks that come from each of the characters. Typical of Mankiewicz’s work, he places the female front and centre and shows the audience how catty, conniving, intelligent, smart and powerful they can be, with or without the presence of men. While the men do play important roles in this film, it is truly a movie about women and friendship above anything else, and a great one at that.