One of my favorite films of the 1940s is A Letter for Three Wives (1949), a suspenseful and romantic story. The film was adapted from the novel, A Letter to Wive Fives by John Klempner, published three years prior. I’ve never read the book and after researching the plot, probably wouldn’t if I ever found a copy that is long out of print. After two years of various writers trying to adapt the novel, what Vera Caspary and Joseph L. Mankiewicz did was write a final script with not only good dialogue but characters that have depth and complexity that is refreshing, especially for the actresses. Though the entire cast delivers strong performances. The story is about three wives who are about to board a riverboat outing for children in the community when a messenger delivers a letter, from “frenemy” Addie Ross, that she’s run away with one of their husbands. Throughout the trip the women speculate which one of them the note is intended for and recall key moments that define their relationships.
I want to apologize for the quality of my screen caps this time around, it was difficult to get detail but I tried my best. Now let’s take a look at the three women who truly stand as their own by studying the costumes designed by Kay Nelson.
Jeanne Crain plays Deborah Bishop, who is soft spoken and kind hearted. She’s the wife of Brad Bishop, who is part of the upper class in town. Far left: The first time we see Deborah she’s on her way to pick up Rita and is wearing a mid length blazer with a polka dot scarf and a skirt with a black shoulder bag. I feel like shoulder bags from the 40s were used when one would be gone all day or for something where a clutch wouldn’t be appropriate. The dress suit it also casual but put together, implying she’s not going to be too active (where slacks/jeans might have been worn) but wants to make an impression. In this case she’s a chaperone. Middle: Deborah remembers the first time she met Brad’s friends, Rita and George. She’s wearing her only dress, a few years old and tacky showing the viewers a glimpse of her past even before the next scene where she tells Rita about growing up on a farm. We can see that she’s never had a lot of money and has never even had an occasion where she had to get dressed up before.(If you see the film compare Rita’s dress to this.) But she’s trying to assimilate into her new life and the awkward smile Crain gives tells us this. I really like this part of the film because Crain portrays the vulnerability of feeling fearful of a new beginning as well as the frustration of not being who you wish you could be in that moment. Right: At the end of the film Deborah is going to the country club again but this time her gown represents who she is right now, more comfortable in her surroundings where she’s beginning to understand the ropes and though she has a lot on her mind in this particular scene she is retaining composure and grace like a pro, not awkward at all.
Ann Sothern plays Rita Phipps, a supportive friend we all should have and a woman with her own mind (more on that later). She’s married to a schoolteacher, George. Far left: The first time we see Rita is when she’s getting picked up by Deborah. Click here for a better view of the costume. She’s also in a blazer and I really like the trimming of the lapel, the pearl earrings which sort of apt with how Rita hopes to move up in society (not with greed but she wants her writing for the radio to take her family somewhere) in the same way that she puts forth her best effort of maintaining a strong impression of a stylish but wise woman. Middle: Rita recalls a recent situation where her boss came over for dinner and the chaos that ensued. She wanted her boss to be impressed so much that she had the maid Sadie (Thelma Ritter) dress different and rearranged the living room. This costume represents the clash of trying to make an impression of your lifestyle vs reality, here she is in a beautiful gown fit more for an evening of dancing in a ballroom but she’s sitting in her living room. Right: The final sequence of the film Rita is once again in white, but a more casual style because it’s a white blouse and long skirt (the skirt was difficult to get a clear shot of because the full shots of Sothern were very brief as she was walking behind Jeanne Crain’s chair) compared to the previous one. Whether this is because Rita is among friends or has talked to her boss, this costume suggests that she is not trying to be anything, she simply is herself.
Linda Darnell plays Lora Mae, a tough talking woman with a heart beneath it all that she protects. Some critics called Darnell’s character a gold digger, but I disagree once the viewer sees the relationship she has with department chain owner, Porter Hollingsway. Far left: This is the first time we meet Lora Mae. She wears a long white trench coat with a silk scarf that reveals a little bit of her financial class being above her two friends (notice Rita and Deborah’s coats being the same length nearly, while Lora Mae’s is longer. Doesn’t that evoke how evening wear in the 30s was longer for the upper class? They could afford more material.) I love the fact that she drove herself in her own car to the port. It implies that Lora Mae she knows what she wants and she’s in the driver’s seat of her life. Click here for a second outfit that she changes into for a hike, showing the casual sweater/jean look of the era. Center: Lora Mae recalls dating Porter when she lived literally on the other side of the tracks, there’s a scene where the train rushes by outside the window and Porter’s eyes grow wide as he grabs onto the counter for stability while Sadie and mother Ruby smile totally unmoved because this surprise/oddity is their normal. Anyway, this costume is when she’s at home during New Year’s Eve and Porter comes by to tell her what he should have before she broke up with him. The lack of jewelry adds to the fact that Lora Mae isn’t rich but the clothes are clean and actually in style because she works at the store and earns her own way. Right: Here’s Lora Mae in the final scene, in an off the shoulder dark gown with diamonds and brooch that represents the confidence she has yet the ability to also be vulnerable. Similar to the change in Deborah’s life of re adjusting to a new life, Lora Mae had to do the same and both made it out alright.
Usually I would talk about the individual makeup for the characters but found that Ben Nye (and uncredited Thomas Tuttle, William Tuttle’s brother) tended to keep Crain, Sothern and Darnell’s makeup nearly identical. The characters aren’t meant to be heavily made up because they’re meant to be everyday women, not movie stars. Yet makeup history tells us that this decade saw thick yet natural and groomed brows with mascara and lipstick as makeup essentials. Even though this film is in black and white, the hues indicate different shades of lipstick were used especially for country club scene and a few others that take place at night.
Art direction was by J. Russell Spencer and Lyle R. Wheeler, with set decorations by Thomas Little and Walter M. Scott. Far left: I chose to highlight the dresser/vanity of Deborah Bishop because the scene that takes place here reveals so much about her. The room itself is spacious, hence the footstool and arm chair and the candlestick is a nice touch to show the class level Deborah is now part of. A vanity would be where one would apply makeup to look their best. Yet this is where Deborah reveals her feelings first to Brad then to Rita about her new surroundings. There are no scenes where she’s applying makeup and I liked the irony that instead she sits at the vanity verbally/emotionally revealing her true identity. Center: Here’s part of the Phipp’s kitchen I chose because I loved the design of it with the shelves that act as a half wall from the foyer of the backdoor. I love the radio which seems to stand out and not only symbolizes how radio plays a role in this flashback but also how important it still was despite TVs beginning to become available. One could still see a TV on display but it wouldn’t be until the mid 50s when most Americans had one. Right: Here’s Ruby (Connie Gilchrist), Lora Mae’s mother, sitting in the living room of the Hollingsway’s listening to the results on the radio for a horse race she gambled on. I love the wall art and the radio/TV combo that is a great look at the early TV sets and clue of how wealthy the Hollingsways are. Notice the glamour shot of Lora Mae on the edge of the piano, I thought that was a really nice touch the designers did to have the frame tilted like that.
I also want to mention the actors who played the husbands. Kirk Douglas played George Phipps. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when George stands up to Rita’s boss about ads on the radio not being an indication of good writing and when he tells his wife how he didn’t like seeing her become “weak minded” in front of her boss. Paul Douglas played Porter Hollingsway and is perfectly cast as the older businessman, owner of a department store chain. I enjoyed the scenes he was in, especially the way he plays the scene when he comes to Lora Mae’s house on New Years. He portrays Porter in an understated way. Jeffrey Lynn played Brad Bishop, who I felt had less screen time than the two Douglases. However the scene where Brad tries to tell Deborah that everything will be fine is very tender.
Yes, we can acknowledge that this film and many others featuring stories about women very often directly involve a man. Some films even imply that without a man the woman is of no value. That is true of some films even today! But if we think about how these women in this particular film are portrayed, I wouldn’t say that they are belittled by men like some classic films have done. In this film there’s a scene where Sothern tells her boss that her husband dislikes her working weekends. He doesn’t command or pressure her to quit working altogether and if you see the whole movie you may guess why he thinks she needs breaks to relax.. Sothern tells her boss: “But he’s not twisting my arm about it. I made up my mind all by myself.”
A Letter to Three Wives resonates with me because it’s a suspenseful story that has heart and tackles subplots that matter even today. And that’s not something I can say about all classic films! For instance Deborah goes from being in the navy to coming to a new chapter in her life where her surroundings are vastly different. Or Rita earning more money than her husband and their conversation about that–surprisingly (in terms of the 1940s norm and possibly today) George is okay with it and loves his job–but most of all he loves his wife too much to let gender roles and ego remain. Or Lora Mae’s ability to bring Porter up and down with witty one liners, protecting her true feelings.