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.