Arrogant Bastard’s Contempt Enlivens Waspish Melodrama

Darryl Zanuck loved the story but hated the choice of writer-director-an “arrogant bastard” with “four flops” to his name already, as he blustered to the producer, Sol C. Siegel. Zanuck wanted Ernst Lubitsch for the job, but Lubitsch already had three heart attacks to his name; and so, judged the better risk, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, was picked to helm A Letter to Four Wives. About Mankiewicz, Zanuck hadn’t been strictly correct: “Mank’s” career as a producer had led to some successes, including Fritz Lang’s masterful Fury (1936), The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Woman of the Year (1942); and his third directorial outing, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), rated a moderate hit.

But Zanuck was dead right about one thing. “You’ve got one wife too many,” he told Mankiewicz, who dutifully dropped one from the script. Thus was born the perfectly weird, and weirdly perfect, mix of postwar optimism, cynicism, cigarettes and cocktails that is A Letter to Three Wives (1949), a movie that might have been regarded as Mankiewicz’s masterpiece had he not followed it up a year later with the nearly flawless All About Eve. As it is, A Letter to Three Wives comes in for its share of dim half-remembrance and polite admiration. (Inevitably so: It’s the unofficial precursor to Desperate Housewives, and it did win a pair of Oscars, Best Director and Best Screenplay.) But save up your decorous appreciation for the next Anthony Minghella. This film deserves to be watched-with the same waspish relish with which it was made.

“To begin with,” a voiceover tells us, as standard images of middle-class affluence pass across the screen, “all the incidents and characters in this story might be fictitious and any resemblance to you-or me-might be purely coincidental.” The opening shots are nothing more than postwar B-Roll-a commuter train, cars drifting by like chrome wedding cakes, a wide and busy main street; the only thing fixing our attention is the boredom and condescension of that voice. “Just plain Main,” it says, dropping the words like petals into a bowl. “Drug, dry goods, and those horrible little chain stores that breed like rabbits.”

The exquisite contempt belongs to Addie Ross (played by Celeste Holm, whom we never see), who with every lilting syllable tells us she is way too fine for just plain Main. The vignettish opening scenes introduce us to three married couples, each with a husband who nurses an obsession for Addie, their childhood friend. Addie Ross, we learn, is the answer to every man’s second guess. Just as the three wives are boarding a ferry for an all-day outing, they discover that one husband-they don’t know whose-has fled town with Addie. The story of each marriage, and the shadow thrown over it by Addie’s perfection, is then told in three successive flashbacks.

What lifts A Letter to Three Wives above melodrama? The movie is saturated with Mankiewicz’s intelligence, of course, but also something more. Richard Burton once described Mankiewicz, for his wit and lack of Hollywood ostentation, as an “Oxford don manqué.” It ran in the family: Older brother Herman, screenwriter for Citizen Kane, assembled a distinguished library of first editions and could be happened upon reading aloud from Finnegans Wake. (Herman was famously unable to keep silent in the face of the rich philistine. When Columbia Pictures kingmaker Harry Cohn once said he knew a picture was bad when “my ass wiggles all over the chair,” Herman asked if Cohn’s ass was “wired to a hundred and forty millionother American asses?” Cohn promptlyfired him.) Their father, a German immigrant, toiled virtually his whole life to become a college professor, which he finally did at the age of 59.

JosephMan-kiewiczwasto Hollywood, and to the Cosmopolitan story from which A Letter to Three Wives was derived, what Addie Ross was to just plain Main: an arrogant bastard who filled his best movies with an enlivening contempt. Addie is an honorary Mankiewicz, but so too is a young Kirk Douglas as Husband No. 2, George, a schoolteacher whose wife out-earns him by writing radio dramas. George’s pedantry, his love of Schubert and Brahms and Keats’ odes, is made up for by his great good humor; and when his wife invites a sponsor, the hatched-faced Mrs. Manleigh, over for a formal dinner, George can barely contain himself. (“Sadie may not realize it,” Mrs. Manleigh says of George’s housekeeper, who plays the radio while she cleans, “but whether or not she thinks she’s listening, she’s being penetrated.” George: “Good thing she didn’t hear you say that.”) Next, Mrs. Manleigh claims that “Radio writing is the literature of today, the literature of the masses”; Herman-like, George explodes: “Worry, says the radio. Will you lose your teeth? Will your cigarettes give you cancer? Will your body function after you’re 35? If you don’t use our product, you’ll lose your husband, your job, and die! Use our product, and we’ll make you rich, we’ll make you famous!”

In A Letter to Three Wives, Mankiewicz captured the gathering hysteria that was to be America going forward. It’s all there: advertising, housewives and nerves drawn taut like piano wires. In later years, Mankiewicz liked to catch his movie on the tube, to see if stations would cut George’s angry speech. Typically, they did.