Woman-Centric Classic Movie Review: A Letter to Three Wives

Marriage isn’t always easy, and when outside forces make you question it, it can often make things seem worse than they really are. Three wives each receive a letter from one of their “good friends” warning them that one of their husbands has run off with her, and each one is unsure of whether or not her husband is the one their “friend” is talking about. In the film, “A Letter to Three Wives,” made in 1949 and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, we see the dynamics of each of the three marriages and why each wife thinks her husband is going to run away with their so-called friend, Addie Ross.

Left to right: Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Jeanne Crain
The Bishops

The first wife, Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), met her husband, Brad (Jeffrey Lynn), during World War II while serving in the Navy WAVES. After the war, they marry and return to Brad’s hometown to live. Deborah, who was raised on a farm, doesn’t think she fits in with her husband’s upper-middle-class, country-club life. While everyone else around her seems to be so sophisticated and confident, Deborah feels like a gauche little country girl. It makes matters worse when she finds out that before her husband left to serve in the war, everyone expected that he would marry Addie, who was considered a “goddess” by all the men around her.

The second wife, Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), writes for a radio soap opera and is the breadwinner in her family, while her husband, George (Kirk Douglas), is a teacher. Rita struggles with balancing her demanding career and her life at home, as her boss is quite demanding, and it’s something that she and her husband are at odds about quite often. The thing that sparks Rita’s concern about the letter is that she forgot her husband’s birthday while throwing a dinner party for her boss, and she only remembered when George received a record of classical music from Addie Ross.

The Phipps

Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell), the third wife, is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who made good by marrying Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), the owner of the department store chain where she was once employed. Porter had already been divorced by the time he and Lora Mae met, and she was determined to marry him even though he had no desire to marry again. She sees a picture of Addie Ross on his piano while at his house for dinner, and she immediately ends their relationship after making it clear that she’d like to see her picture on the piano like that. Porter–who is passionately in love with Lora Mae – finally breaks down and asks her to marry him. By the time the letter arrives, their marriage is on the rocks, as Lora Mae seems to see her marriage to a wealthy man as a way of moving up in the world, and as Porter, who drinks too much, is openly hostile toward and disparaging of his wife.

The Hollingsways

The dynamics of each marriage in the film are all very different, yet the film itself is extremely timely given the return of the troops from World War II and the urge for each gender to return to the roles tradition dictated. However, because so many women had joined the workforce and filled up the jobs traditionally done by men, there seemed to be an extreme emphasis on women returning to the domestic sphere and once again settling into the role of wife and mother. The only way a woman can do this is really through marrying, and in order for things to go back to where they were and remain as they “should” be, it was important for marriages to last, as they were an important foundation of society. We see this in each of the three marriages.

The Bishops are young and still getting used to the idea of marriage, but at the same time, they need to get a good, firm start to their marriage. Deborah almost overcompensates in wanting to be the perfect wife for her husband. Her desire to live up to society’s ideal is a big source of her insecurity, particularly once she discovers the letter from Addie. But there is more to her overcompensation: she served in the war, and now that she is home, things are different. She’s returning to that role of wife and homemaker as society dictates she should, and the extreme emphasis of this is causing her to place unrealistic expectations on herself.

The Phipps, who have been married longer, also struggle with the idea of gender roles in their marriage. Both Rita and George work, and they have a housekeeper who helps raise their children and with the running of the house. Rita, however, feels the pressure of being a wife and mother and a career woman, and George’s nose is out of joint because he knows that she makes a lot more money than he does. They both like the lifestyle they have, and their marriage works for the most part, yet there are also times that they both think about going down to just one income with Rita staying home. They evaluate the pros and cons for each, yet they both know that even though their marriage might not be the ideal arrangement that society dictates, they love each other, and they do make it work, which is also very important.

The Hollingsways are a couple who are miserable in their marriage and who keep contemplating divorce, but they really take no action when it comes to it. The dynamic between Lora Mae and her husband is one that, for many people nowadays, would end in divorce. Porter drinks too much and is verbally abusive to his wife. Lora Mae herself is no angel; she spends too much money and is just as quarrelsome as Porter, but she is also a woman who knows what she wants and who is very direct about it. But much like her husband, she can’t always convey her softer emotions effectively. The problems in this marriage are presented with both parties “at fault,” but with Lora Mae shouldering more of the blame as she hasn’t always been the loving, tender, supportive wife. At this time, it’s almost always the wife’s responsibility to show that she loves her husband so that he’ll return her affection, because apparently men just aren’t good with the feelz.

So while this is an interesting film, because you want to figure out whose husband runs off with Addie Ross, it also delivers a picture of what society expected women to be and how they were the ones who shouldered the brunt of making the marriage work. It does sound very Dr. Laura, but – unlike with Dr. Laura – we can understand what the expectations of gender roles at the time and the whys and wherefores of it all. And while this movie can get a pass because it’s old, Dr. Laura certainly can’t.

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