A Letter to Three Wives

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Just as they are about to take a group of underprivileged children on a riverboat ride and picnic, Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), and Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) receive a message from Addie Ross informing them that she has run off with one of their husbands. She, however, leaves them in suspense as to which one. All three marriages are shown in flashback to be strained.

Deborah grew up on a farm. Her first experience with the outside world came when she joined the Navy WAVES during World War II, where she met her future husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn). When they return to civilian life, Deborah is ill at ease in Brad’s upper class social circle. Adding to her insecurity, she learns that everyone expected Brad to marry Addie, whom all three husbands consider practically a goddess.

However, she is comforted by Brad’s friend Rita, a career woman who writes stories for sappy radio soap operas. Her husband George (Kirk Douglas), a schoolteacher, feels somewhat emasculated since she earns much more money. He is also disappointed that his wife constantly gives in to the demands of her boss, Mrs. Manleigh (Florence Bates). Rita’s flashback is to a dinner party she gave for her boss. She forgot that her husband’s birthday was that night, and only remembered when a birthday present, a rare Brahms recording, arrived from Addie Ross.

Lora Mae grew up poor, not just on the “wrong side of the tracks,” but literally next to the railroad tracks. (Passing trains shake the family home periodically.) She sets her sights on her older, divorced employer, Porter (Paul Douglas), the wealthy owner of a statewide chain of department stores. Her mother, Ruby Finney (Connie Gilchrist), is unsure what to think of her daughter’s ambition, but Ruby’s friend (and the Bishops’ servant) Sadie (an uncredited Thelma Ritter) approves. Matters come to a head when she sees a picture of Addie Ross on the piano in his home. She tells him she wants her picture on a piano: her own piano in her own home. He tells her he isn’t interested in marriage, and she breaks off their romance. However, he loves her too much, and finally gives in and proposes, skipping a New Year’s party at Addie’s house to do so.

When the women return from the picnic, Rita is overjoyed to find her husband at home. They work out their issues; she promises to not let herself be pushed around by Mrs. Manleigh.

Deborah’s houseman gives her a message stating that Brad will not be coming home that night. A heartbroken Deborah goes alone to the dance with the other two couples.

When Porter complains about his wife dancing with another man, she tells him he has no idea how much Lora Mae really loves him, but Porter is certain his wife only sees him as a “cash register.” Unable to take it anymore, Deborah gets up to leave, announcing that Brad has run off with Addie. Porter stops her, confessing it was he who started to run away with Addie, but then explains, “A man can change his mind, can’t he?” Porter then tells his wife that, with his admission in front of witnesses, she can divorce him and get what she wants. To his shock, Lora Mae claims she did not hear a word he said. He asks her to dance.

The voice of Addie Ross bids all a good night. In the film, she is shown only once and from behind.


I never watched that show Desperate Housewives, but I can see some influences in A Letter to Three Wives. As a huge fan of classic cinema, I am always looking for something great. This is one of those films that has a reputations, so I figured it’d be best to see what all the hoopla was about.

What is this about?

In this 1949 black-and-white classic, which won Joseph L. Mankiewicz an Academy Award for Best Director, three married women (Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern) vacationing on the Hudson suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of a disturbing missive: One of their husbands has broken his nuptial vows and cheated. But whose? The answer is revealed as each woman excavates the ruins of her marriage.

What did I like?

Letter. This Addie Ross person had to have some balls to write a letter to the three wives of these husbands, letting them know that she had an affair with one of them. For those of you that don’t know, a letter is an e-mail that was handwritten on paper before the days of computers, e-mail, and texting. Anyway, as you can tell by the title of the film, the letter is pretty important.

Cast. I would be hard-pressed to not praise this cast, which includes the likes of Kirk Douglas, Jeanne Crain, Celeste Holm, amongst others. Each etches their own indelible mark of history with this film, which could be another humdrum drama, but they give it that little bit of life it needs to keep audiences interested.

Addie. As important a role as she plays in the film, I appreciate how the focus is quickly taken from her after the opening narration, almost as if she is a red herring for the rest of the picture. An effective technique to be sure, and one that should be employed in some of today’s pictures.

What didn’t I like?

Flashbacks. A nice technique this film employs is the use of flashbacks. While I appreciate how these gave us some background and development of each of the characters, as well as providing something towards the mystery. My problem with the flashbacks though are how they seems to drag on. I would have preferred this to have been more concise, for the sake of the audience, though.

Subtraction. The novel this is based on is actually titled A Letter to Five Wives. For some unknown reason, they cut out the other 2 wives. Well, the fourth wife was actually supposed to be in this, but her scenes were cut to shorten the film. I don’t understand why they couldn’t have just left all 5 wives in and shorten the flashback scenes.

A Letter to Three Wives sounds like it could one of those supremely boring and depressing films. As it turns out, it isn’t that depressing, given that that alternate ending. This is one of those slow moving classic films that you need to pay attention to from beginning to end, soaking up everything from ambience to the great performances. That being said, I only recommend this to those of you with an attention span, otherwise, this will be a waste of your time.

3 1/3 out of 5 stars

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