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 and 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 united in 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 (played by 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. More likely, 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.