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Fox Home Entertainment presents
Deborah: Why is it that sooner or later, no matter what we talk about, we wind up talking about Addie Ross?
DVD Review1949 and 1950 were very good years for Joseph L. Mankiewicz. During that golden 24-month span, the once fledgling writer-director won a whopping four Oscars—two each in the screenplay and direction categories for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve—and cemented his reputation as Hollywood's most delightfully acerbic social critic. Mankiewicz's incisive skewering of American mores swathed in some of the most deliciously crafted dialogue ever to grace the silver screen makes his movies fascinating and infinitely relatable, no matter how foreign the subject matter. Saddled with universal foibles yet blessed with enviable eloquence, his characters express themselves with conviction and an acid wit that remains razor sharp a half-century later. It doesn't matter whether Cary Grant or Thelma Ritter speak his lines; the Mankiewicz tone is instantly recognizable.
All About Eve will be forever regarded as Mankiewicz's masterpiece, but even though A Letter to Three Wives unfairly lies in its shadow, the latter film remains the director's breakout picture, and stands on its own as a smart, lighthearted examination of postwar suburbia and male-female relationships. In fact, the triumvirate of Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern, and Linda Darnell could be classified as the screen's original desperate housewives.
When unseen society vixen Addie Ross (venomously voiced by Celeste Holm) sends her three "dear" friends (Crain, Sothern, and Darnell) a cryptic note telling them she's run off with one of their husbands just as the trio boards an all-day river cruise, the women spend the next several hours drifting off into regretful reveries about past episodes in their respective marriages, wondering if their choices, attitudes, and personal deficiencies caused their spouses to stray. Returning war vet Deborah Bishop (Crain) rues her rural upbringing and fears her lack of breeding and difficulty assimilating into the local country club clique might cause her well-to-do husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) to pursue the more socially equipped Addie. On the other hand, Rita Phipps (Sothern) ponders whether her demanding yet lucrative job as a radio soap opera writer has made her schoolteacher spouse George (Kirk Douglas) feel neglected and emasculated, forcing him into a "meeting of the minds" with the more intellectual Addie. And finally, wrong-side-of-the-tracks gold-digger Lora Mae Hollingsway (Darnell) muses over whether her tough-as-nails demeanor and fixation on financial security has alienated the affections of her much-older husband Porter (Paul Douglas), who seems to crave a more sophisticated mate—Addie, perhaps?
The film's clever premise, coupled with fine performances and a topnotch script (divided into three interlocking acts), makes it much more than a typical domestic romp. Like the best plays, the movie's situations act as a springboard for exploring such ideas as class conflict, upward mobility, burgeoning feminism, and the mass appeal of lowbrow art. Thankfully, though, Mankiewicz avoids the pompous preaching that sinks the far-too-loquacious People Will Talk, his self-indulgent follow-up to Letter and Eve. Instead, he allows his plot to take center stage, and as we peek in on three rocky marriages, scouring each for potential clues, Mankiewicz creates an atmosphere not unlike that of a stylish drawing-room whodunit, stringing us along and keeping us guessing until the climactic big reveal.
The third and final episode featuring Lora Mae and Porter is by far the strongest, and in it Darnell makes a lasting impression as the thick-skinned, tenderhearted social climber who falls in love with the gruff Porter against her better judgment. During her up-and-down career, Darnell's beauty often overshadowed her talent, but here she takes full advantage of Mankiewicz's terrific script and files a memorable and moving portrayal. Ditto Sothern—utterly believable as the spread-too-thin Rita—who uses her natural acting style to diffuse some of Mankiewicz's more stylized lines. It's a treat to see this multi-faceted performer (who spent far too much time languishing in B movies) as a leading lady, and creating marvelous chemistry with on-screen hubbie Kirk Douglas.
Though pert and pretty, Crain is the film's weakest link (along with Jeffrey Lynn as her stiff husband), but holds her own as the insecure Deborah, making it easy for us to identify with her character's inferiority complex. Both Paul and a young Kirk Douglas make fine foils for their respective movie spouses, and Thelma Ritter and Connie Gilchrist shine in mouthy character roles.
Often copied but rarely equaled, A Letter to Three Wives showcases Mankiewicz's uncanny ability to take an incisive story and further sharpen its talons. This infectious social comedy may not snap, crackle, and pop like All About Eve, but its identifiable characters and situations keep it both relevant and entertaining.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Fox rightfully reveres this "studio classic," and—thanks to extensive restorative work—offers up a solid transfer, marked by a clear image, light grain, and minimal blemishes. Some of the Hudson River location scenes still look a tad overexposed, but a wide grayscale adds texture to the visuals and compensates for muted contrast. Deep black levels provide richness, and lines remain well-defined but pleasantly soft. Print defects are noticeable but severely diminished and not obtrusive, and though a missed frame at the 55m:45s mark is jarring, it doesn't spoil this above average effort. Fox deserves kudos for preserving this excellent film for future generations.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Mankiewicz tosses in a few clever audio effects, which the stereo track renders well. His superb dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, and ambient sounds nicely enhance exterior scenes. Surface noise is kept to a minimum, and Alfred Newman's score—though sparingly employed—lends the film lovely atmosphere.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Christopher Mankiewicz, and biographers Kenneth Geist and Cheryl Lower
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Layers Switch: 31m:47s
By far the disc's best extra is the 1999 documentary, Linda Darnell: Hollywood's Fallen Angel, a particularly riveting installment of A&E's Biography series. Film clips, photos, and interviews with Darnell's biographer, adopted daughter, and sister bring this underrated movie queen to life, painting an absorbing portrait of a gorgeous, talented, yet often unhappy and tormented woman, who weathered more than her share of Hollywood hard knocks. The profile details Darnell's exploitation by her pushy stage mother; discovery by a Fox talent scout at the tender age of 15; marriage at 19 to a 42-year-old cameraman; on-screen transformation from "virgin" to "slut"; ill-fated romances with Howard Hughes and Joseph Mankiewicz (termed by some as "the love of her life"); and debilitating alcoholism. We learn how the demise of the studio system in the early 1950s left her career in limbo, and how financial mismanagement left her, for a time, nearly destitute. Tragically, Darnell died in a fire at a friend's townhouse in suburban Chicago at age 41, yet this fine documentary renews our interest in one of Hollywood's all-but-forgotten leading ladies, and makes us properly appreciate her contributions to many fine films.
Brief Movietone News footage from the 1950 Oscars shows Mankiewicz accepting an award, along with fellow winners Olivia de Havilland, Broderick Crawford, and Dean Jagger, and a restoration comparison provides split-screen images of the film before and after the technical tinkering. (A written explanation of the process is also included.) Finally, the movie's clever original theatrical trailer completes the extras package.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsWitty, sophisticated, and unapologetically adult, A Letter to Three Wives still stands as one of Hollywood's most polished and perceptive comedies. Sure, All About Eve eclipses it, but this engrossing domestic study from writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz deserves the accolades it received, especially the Best Screenplay Oscar. Fox's first-rate restoration, fine audio, and solid extras make it easy to stamp this memorable Letter with a hearty recommendation.
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