Wednesday, 24 June 2015

a letter to three wives

a letter to three wives is an oscar-winning film from 1949 that i’d never heard of until recently. there’s a newsreel clip on the dvd that shows part of the oscars ceremony from that year and i’d never heard of any of the films that won, which makes me wonder how many great films i’ve never heard of and whether the oscars are really that important anyway. mostly i’m just glad i got to see this film at all, because it has interesting women doing stuff and dealing with issues in a way that's often missing from contemporary films.

the film follows the titular three wives on a day trip with a group of school kids. before the boat leaves they open a letter from their mutual friend, addie ross, in which addie declares that she is going to run away with one of their husbands that day. away from the mainland and with no way of contacting their husbands, all the three wives can do is each reflect on their marriages and wonder if it’s their husband addie has stolen.

a letter to three wives is a comedy-drama, although i’ll be honest, i didn’t realise it was supposed to be a comedy until one of the jospeh l. mankiewicz biographers mentioned it on the commentary track. sure, there are funny moments but i wonder if the definition of  ‘comedy’ has changed over the years. it doesn’t really matter, because it’s the drama that’s interesting here.

the three main characters seem bold and interesting by today’s standards but whether that’s a reflection of a forward-thinking writer/director or a sad indictment of the decline of gender representation in contemporary cinema, i’m not sure. the least interesting character is probably linda darnell’s gold digging lora mae, and yet her character has the most complex relationship with her husband. she’s more than just a gold-digger, that’s the point, and her later scenes with paul douglas provide some of the more surprising and touching moments in the film.

then there’s ann sothern’s rita, a radio writer who has shot to fame and made a fortune from her career. the issue is that her husband, played brilliantly by kirk douglas, is a low-paid schoolteacher at a time when it was unusual for the woman in the relationship to be the breadwinner (to be honest, sometimes i think that’s still considered unusual, even if it is more common these days). ultimately, it’s not douglas’ character who has an issue with this, it’s rita who wants to bring him up to her level without understanding that money isn't all that important to him. in this way, the film becomes a real study of class and status, but rather than simply playing that out between the couples, the difference between the classes is more prominently represented between the individuals in the actual relationships.

this is most evident with jeanne crain’s deborah, a woman who met her husband while serving in the navy. many films of this period tackled the subject of soldiers returning from war only to struggle to fit back into society, but few of those films chose to focus on a woman in that situation. it would have been particularly difficult for women returning from war because suddenly they were expected to go from a position of authority and activity back to being housewives again, a predicament that was highlighted in betty friedan’s seminal 1963 feminist text, the feminine mystique. in deborah’s case, the difficulty of fitting back into society is made worse by the fact that she is also a small-town farm girl thrust into middle-class society because of the man she met in the navy.

all three stories here are equally interesting and thought-provoking, helped by mankiewicz’ assured direction which keeps a steady pace and gives the ideas room to breathe. structurally the film makes innovative use of flashback’s and narration to weave the various strands of the story into a compelling whole. but as great as mankiewicz is as a filmmaker, it’s the performers who really make this story work, particularly the darnell, sothern and crain.

a letter to three wives feels like a kind of film we don’t see too often anymore, certainly not among oscar-nominees. it’s a film where the stakes are domestic and the drama is familiar, and this makes it all the more emotionally charged. more than anything, this is an entertaining, accomplished film from a writer and director at the height of his powers working with a truly great cast, and for that reason alone it’s worth a watch.

eureka entertainment will be releasing a letter to three wives on blu-ray in a dual format edition as part of the masters of cinema series on 29 june 2015

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