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Thursday, January 08, 2015

The 1949 Maker Of Mankiewicz


Fox Has a Saucy Hit in A Letter To Three Wives (1949)

The critic and popular success that rocketed Joseph Mankiewicz to a summit among 20th Fox directors. Was Zanuck jealous? Memos suggest he was antsy with credit going all for Mank with less acknowledge of DFZ story and edit supervision, these a Zanuck stronghold no matter who directed (even John Ford no exception). Three Wives is three segments, reduced from four, which was wise, as the trio is enough. They get better with progress thru 103 minutes, as who cares so much how war bride Jeanne Crain of opener segment will cope with a mail order dress she'll wear to the Country Club dance? Mankiewicz gets in his dig at class stratas in a mid-size town, haves and have-nots maintaining friendships going back to childhood. The fuss is over an unseen character who's evidently run off with a husband, but which one? The guess game is well maintained, although the ending is ambiguous as to which has actually scooted (deliberately?, or did the audience outguess Mankiewicz?).


Dialogue was this writer/director's gift. Audiences after the war liked his trenchant wit and recognition of what made real folks tick. Mank mounts the soapbox in the guise of Kirk Douglas' (underpaid, natch) schoolteacher and uses him to voice disgust with easy targets like radio, cultural malaise, modern fail to appreciate great music, etc. Would that serious lectures along such lines were as much fun. The players generally keep pace, Crain a little out of her depth beside old pros among the six, of which Linda Darnell emerges most triumphant. Any consensus would say she's the most compelling of the Three Wives. Pity that age would push her out of Fox within a few years of a marvelous act given here. Darnell was so effective with Paul Douglas as to inspire further teaming, in Everybody Does It, a good comedy, and The Guy Who Came Back. They were an earthy couple who knew ropes and spoke plain to each other and us. A Letter To Three Wives wraps on a high note thanks to them. Available from Fox on Blu-Ray.

6 Comments:

Blogger antoniod said...

This was on TV when I was a little kid, and what stuck with me was the "HE'S CRAAAAAAAAAAAZY" used car ad heard on Ann Southern's radio. My Mommy said it was one of the era's swing records, unaware that it was a parody of "Mad Man Muntz".

12:47 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

When I first began collecting films, another collector gave me a print of "A Letter to Three Wives," which I thought was awfully nice of him, until I unspooled what I'd gotten. It was a well-used TV print that had been edited down to 68 minutes. More like "A Short Note to Three Wives." He wasn't giving it away so much as he was unloading it on someone else.

Oh, the joys of collecting 16mm!

3:15 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Have to agree about the last segment being the best, but I find it's more because of Gilchrist, Ritter and Douglas than Darnell -- while admittedly her best work, to me, that's not saying much.

Also have to part company here with you on Crain -- I'm totally invested in her plight in the first sequence, but then as I've said before, I have a real soft spot for her.

Also, it's a credit to Celeste Holm's wonderful voicing of Addie Ross that, after my first viewing of this 30 or so years ago, I somehow remembered her as having appeared -- she crafted a fully rounded character with just her voice, something which, as an audiobook narrator, I particularly appreciate.

4:59 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

Didn't Mankiewicz once say of Crain that, of all the people he met in the industry, she had the least business being there? She was magazine cover pretty and utterly uninteresting. Maybe the forties needed her, and Allyson and the other bland girls, but they remain totally discarded today. Contemporary viewers prefer the darker ladies, the Tierney's and the Lake's. Darnell, though only marginally a better actress than Crain, had the interesting look of an adventuress and a lower voice that wobbled in pitch. These ladies always looked killer in stills, disappointingly projecting less when they showed up onscreen. They usually had week, untrained voices. But Crain getting top billing in "Letters", or the lead in "Pinky" (again over Darnell) is a wonder, today.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

"Totally discarded" is in the eye of the beholder. I admire both Crain and Darnell and have championed films and performances by both actresses on my blog, included STATE FAIR, MARGIE, APARTMENT FOR PEGGY, and A LETTER TO THREE WIVES -- I agree with John that Darnell's performance is a highlight of the latter film.

Farran Nehme (the "Self-Styled Siren") has just written a lovely piece on Crain's MARGIE which I'd like to recommend:

http://www.filmcomment.com/article/henry-king-margie

As always, John, thank you for sharing these gorgeous stills!

Best wishes,
Laura

5:52 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon shares fond recollection of "A Letter To Three Wives":


John,

Enjoyed your recent post re: "Letter to Three Wives". To say why would only be to recapitulate all that you said about it, only better than I could. I love the movie. There's a feel to this movie, and a rare few others made at Fox postwar, that does still give a redolent sense of a living era. I feel that way about other such disparate Fox films as "Miracle on 34th Street", "Panic in the Streets", and "Thieves Highway", too, both of those done by three other brilliant directors...so, perhaps there is something to the notion that there was an outside element that influenced these movies, and their house style, and that element may perhaps indeed have been DFZ. Certainly he'd stocked his studio with some remarkable talent in the areas of camera and music and art direction, not merely actor/stars and directors and writers. The location work in "Letter..." is really gorgeous, somehow. It's so understated, almost throw-away, and yet so graceful and convincing. You feel like you are somewhere...if that makes sense, and I know it nearly doesn't. But, there have been later movies set in various actual American locations that oddly, curiously felt false, or distanced. These don't, and I cannot account for why that is! I otherwise intend to stick to my comment about your summing up of this great film, and I do think it is a great film. The ending is one of the most beautiful in all commercial Hollywood films, making a richly-wise statement about what makes a successful marriage---chemistry, luck, and something in common, the last being the most important of all.

8:23 AM  

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