By: Megan McGurk
Let me begin by saying that I adore Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949), even more so than his follow up All About Eve (1950). He has a knack for shining a searchlight on the way tiny details infiltrate a woman’s life to the point of absurd distraction. Nuance, minutia, small shades of meaning gain momentous importance that require surgical grade analysis. Everything means something more, a casual remark bears the hallmark of doom if not properly deciphered. Eve Harrington was an amateur next to Addie Ross’ game playing repertoire. Eve only wants a stage career; Addie wants every man in town at her feet. Addie, who sends the three wives a letter saying she ran off with one of their husbands, may stand as one of film’s most notorious frenemies, but the husbands in this picture represent some of the most vile men in cinema, so much so that every time I watch it, I hope each husband has hightailed it out of town with the man-eater and done the wives a solid. Three wives endure hearing their husbands unite in their unqualified praise of Addie Ross, how she’s always the ideal woman:
That’s Addie for you. Always the right thing at the right time.
What Addie has is taste.
Addie has class.
Like a queen oughta look.
Mankiewicz’s film asks us to consider several questions (other than who ran off with Addie), including: what should you do with rude dinner guests who stay too long, spoil the courses by moving the meal from the dining table to trays in the living room, trade conversation for their choice of radio programme for entertainment, and break your husband’s favourite record? Well, if you value the work they provide, you keep your mouth shut, let them have their way, while you maintain a grin-fecker amiable countenance. The hostess, Ann Sothern’s Rita, writes five scripts a week for the radio advertising executives coming to dinner. If we apply the screenwriting rule that one page fills one minute of screen time, she’s writing 150 pages a week if they’re 30 minute programmes, or 300 pages if they run to an hour. Girlfriend juggles a busy schedule, and on top of that she knows she must stay up after the dinner guests leave to make the revisions they demand.
Among bad company, a wife depends on her husband to smooth things over, to help ease the strain of an evening. Unfortunately, Kirk Douglas, in the role of George, displays behaviour far worse than the dinner guests, Mrs and Mr Manleigh (Florence Bates and Hobart Cavanaugh). Rita supports the household with income from radio plays that her husband misses no opportunity to disparage. As the breadwinner, she absorbs withering comments about her creative efforts in an industry George likens to the decline of civilisation, a social problem on par with juvenile delinquency. Even though his wife pays the bills, George can’t be bothered to pick up scotch on the way home like Rita asked, because he thinks it’s too expensive. He debates the logic of filling candy dishes and cigarette boxes on the grounds of pretence, that the gesture supposes that they don’t eat or smoke when guests aren’t there, which makes absolutely no sense. Filling the dishes extends a touch of generosity, so guests have what they might need or want in abundance. Penny-pinchers never make gracious hosts, especially when some men stop at nothing to impress the boss, like allowing executives to serial harass the typing pool in his apartment without receiving any blame, like Jack Lemmon in The Apartment. George’s objection to Rita’s efforts to impress the Manleighs stems from a tiresome belief that women shouldn’t be ambitious about a career.
Women have had plenty of practice in the supportive role. They remember to pick up the scotch, fill the candy dish, create a delicious menu among many other items on a long checklist when it comes to hosting a dinner party. As Mankiewicz’s film reminds us, husbands often rankle in the backseat role. Waste three hours of his time with dullards and it’s a capital offence, one that culminates in a scathing rebuke for guests at the front door. Wives, on the other hand, host so many boring dinners for their husband’s career that catalogued, they would fill the pages of a tedious book bound for the remainders table.
Before Mrs and Mr Manleigh arrive, Rita rushes around the house attending to the last minute details. She’s annoyed that George chose a cheaper bourbon over scotch when he stopped on the way home.
Rita: People in the show business, you know what I mean, those kind of people always drink scotch.
George: Well, I know what you mean, but I wish you wouldn’t say it in radio English. “That kind”, not “those kind”.
Rita: There are men who say “those kind” who earn $100,000 dollars a year.
George: There are men who say “stick ’em up” who earn more. I don’t expect to do either.
Husband and wife draw battle lines over their right to speak. Rita objects to correction. In her view, daily expression should reflect the way that people use language. Rather than a professional hindrance, she identifies colloquialisms as regular signposts of successful people who earn six figures, a staggering amount in 1949. In a creative field, standard usage may not merit as much acclaim or capture someone’s imagination with how real language sounds. We can classify Rita as a descriptivist in the grammar wars. George, on the other hand, remains a steadfast prescriptivist. For him, the rules govern usage and delimit the line between anarchy and culture. People must abide the rules and cleave to the standard for proper usage or else we’re headed toward a slippery slope to oblivion. George’s position seems persuasive, because folks like to believe that if they just learn the rules, they will never make mistakes or be wrong (the reason ugly little books like Eat, Shoots & Leaves become bestsellers). The first problem with George’s position surfaces in the huge gap between what’s correct and what’s good. Prose or speech without error doesn’t guarantee it’s interesting or worth your time. Second, grammar scolds are the worst. Correct your children, your students (if you have them), but no one else. When Blanche DuBois declared she could not abide deliberate cruelty, she was really talking about grammar scolds (in addition to gossip mongers and rape-minded men). When you correct someone, it’s never about teaching them, it’s always about making yourself bigger and someone else diminished, insignificant. The English language will survive without self-appointed police like George. And clearly, his obsession with correcting his wife, friends and guests compensates for a lack of prestige and small penis-I-mean-salary as a school teacher. George uses language rules to restore or reclaim a position of manly dominance in the household. Like many snobs, George presents his knowledge of high culture as proof of his supposed superiority.
When George corrects Rita, it isn’t because he loves the language so much and hates to hear a mangled ‘those’ for ‘that’. No, he savours his ability to prove her wrong and himself right, with a microaggression that over time chips away at her self-esteem and builds his own. He denigrates her word choice as ‘radio English’, and as viewers learn later in the scene, George has nothing positive to say about radio. Incarnations of the popular culture alarmist hold hands with the grammar scold. He’s always concerned, Chicken Little writ large, that the sky falls on what people consume for pleasure. If you like slang, radio shows, television programmes, movies, social media, internet memes, he’s a perennial voice that yearns for the good old days, one assumes, when we sat around the campfire listening to men tell tall tales about the woolly mammoth.
Kirk Douglas the English teacher denounces the Manleigh’s industry (advertising) and their medium (radio) in a tantrum that spirals out in a violent manner. The audience may feel him justified for correcting advertising’s banal excess and cultural dumbing-down in some grand battle in the high versus low culture war. Fans of woman’s pictures instead identify an explosion once the power divide shifts in a marriage. If a husband isn’t the centre of attention, if his birthday becomes footnote, if his classical music tastes not sufficiently praised, he turns sour. If it’s not all about him, duck and cover. He’ll browbeat an older woman about misusing ‘badly’, issuing a harsh lecture at top volume.
Mankiewicz’s picture invites viewers to acknowledge frequent quotidian frustrations and humiliations in store for the average middle-class wife. She may have servants, material wealth and comfort, yet the barrage of psychological distress in everyday affairs remains persistent and proves nerve-wracking. For Jeanne Crain’s character, Deborah Bishop, a young veteran wife, assuming her position creates more anxiety than she experienced in wartime service. She can’t even sit down to breakfast without husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) citing a copy of Vogue and nagging her about what she’s wearing to the country club dance and in what colour. Deborah she points out how his story doesn’t wash, that he didn’t just find the dress he hectors her to wear in a copy of Vogue some woman left on the train. She corrects him, to clarify that the dress he told her to buy in black matches the exact dress Addie Ross wore to a concert two weeks ago. She need not finish the thought, that Brad wishes to make her over in his own version of Addie. He wasn’t reading Vogue; he was looking at Addie.
Too busy doing things like serving her country, Deborah hasn’t had time to catch up on fashion trends or shop. Somehow the only dress she owns to meet Brad’s friends pre-dates the war. A mail-order horror show of tatty faux-organza, irregular tiers and misplaced, random floral appliqués at the elbows, waist and thigh, the gown approximates humiliation in garment form. Sartorial disaster, it renders Deborah’s self-confidence threadbare. She downs a pitcher of martinis to complete a ready-made cocktail of shame. While praising Addie, he reserves cracks about his wife’s frizzy hair and tells her to have another try at taming it. Throwaway comments snowball for an insecure wife like Deborah.
In a smart black or navy frock with an understated peplum, Ann Sothern’s style underscores Crain’s fashion wreckage. Crain exemplifies the rule to never leave the house in a dress that makes you uncomfortable. Spun around a dance floor, she and the dress inevitably come undone. Farm-girl rube, blow-in, she looks like the perpetual outsider, a woman not up to local standards of feminine glamour. Lora Mae hails from a shack by the railyard and yet even she enacts poised, faultless style even when she was just a shop girl. In a style vacuum awkwardness and self-doubt breed. And a crappy husband doesn’t help.
For Linda Darnell’s Lora Mae, instead of being worshipped as a queen in a silver frame, she’s likened to a bill of goods, a piece of inventory that her big lummox of a husband, Porter, played by Paul Douglas, wishes he could trade in at the customer service counter, like one of his iceboxes. Lora Mae’s character has the least room to negotiate from a family homestead that’s located virtually on the train tracks, which sways with each boxcar’s passing rumble. Then in other ways, Lora Mae escapes the problems Rita and Deborah grapple with. She’s in no way overworked and she suffers not a hint of damaged self-esteem. She was born for the part of a pampered wife. She’s sharp and a quick study. She knows what she wants and won’t settle for less. Lora Mae has developed taste for what to wear for any occasion and never would have turned up to the country club in a frightful dress. She’s the only one who changes during the settlement house outing, in a little collegiate number to hike with the kids, when it looks like something most young women would wear tail-gaiting for a university football weekend. She won’t sit around and stew over Addie’s letter. Lora Mae has confidence Deborah could only dream of.
From the beginning with Porter, she claims the right to avoid any gold digging label or agenda since he was the boss and picked her, when the woods are full of girls. When Thelma Ritter’s delightful Sadie tells her that she ought to show more of what she’s got, maybe something with beads, Lora Mae responds with the conviction as sturdy as the rails outside the window: What I got don’t need beads. She’s not throwing herself at men or dressing in a desperate attempt to lure them.
Darnell’s skin looks so soft it would make velvet blush and no frock in Porter’s shops would be silkier than her black tresses. She has never looked more beautiful on film. And yet she marries a man one remove from gorilla, who glowers at her, tells her to shut up constantly, insults her family name, and basically calls her a whore for dancing with other men at the club because he refuses to. Porter tells her often that she made a good deal and that he’s a cash register, that she sticks around to get paid off. She laments:
If you only made me feel like a woman instead of a piece of merchandise.
Triple goddess among the knuckle-dragging unworthy.