Popcorn & Inspiration: ‘A Letter to Three Wives’ From 1949: Remembering Kirk Douglas

Films that uplift the soul
February 27, 2020 Updated: March 16, 2020
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Not Rated | | DramaRomance | 3 February 1949 (USA)

On Feb. 5, Kirk Douglas died at 103, leaving an impressive legacy in many fields, as well as 86 films. One of his early films, 1949’s “A Letter to Three Wives,” follows three couples in an unnamed American town. It reminds us that every marriage endures trials that only love, trust, and understanding can overcome.

The film is inspiring because it shows how these three couples form deeper bonds by conquering one woman’s influence.

Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), and Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) take a boat trip to a picnic. At the dock, they receive a letter from another woman in their social circle, Addie Ross. This divorcée is the town’s most glamorous woman, whom the others resent because their husbands admire her. The letter declares that she has left town with one of their husbands but doesn’t state which one. Throughout the day, each woman remembers incidents that might indicate her husband left with Addie.

three wives
The three wives—Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern, L), Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell, C), and Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain, R)—featured in the 1949 film “A Letter to Three Wives.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

Deborah remembers her first dance after marrying Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn). They met in the Navy, but she felt like a gawky farm girl when meeting Brad’s friends and drank too many martinis. Although Rita tried to help, Deborah felt humiliated.

After a few years of marriage, Deborah has become sophisticated, but she still fears that Brad prefers Addie, who always does “the right thing at the right time.” Remembering her husband’s surprise business trip that morning, she wonders if he ran away with his childhood sweetheart.

Epoch Times Photo
Deborah (Jeanne Crain) and Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn). (Twentieth Century Fox)

Rita recalls the pretentious dinner party she gave for her radio magnate employers (Florence Bates and Hobart Cavanaugh). With twins to support, the Phippses have struggled on the income George (Kirk Douglas) makes as a schoolteacher. Thus, Rita supplements their finances by writing radio programs at night.

Rita flattered the radio producers all evening, while George winced at the programs they insisted on playing. He didn’t know that Rita had planned the evening to make him a radio editor. As she remembers their argument, she wonders if he left her for the woman who shares his “taste and discrimination,” Addie.

Kirk Douglas and Ann Sothern
George (Kirk Douglas) and Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern). (Twentieth Century Fox)

Lora Mae, whose marriage is strained and full of bickering, remembers how she got her husband. She was a poor girl determined to marry up. When working in a department store, she began dating the wealthy owner, Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), who was casually attracted to her beauty. She made it clear that she wanted a man who would marry her and used every possible scheme to gain his interest, eventually earning a proposal.

As Mrs. Hollingsway, she has wealth, position, and luxury. However, she has always felt that Porter considers her a gold-digger. She fears that he went with Addie, whom he has always admired for the class Lora Mae lacks.

There is nothing the wives can do but wait through the miserable day, remembering their marriages’ faults. They won’t know anything until evening, when they will discover which husband is absent.

One Cause of Dissension

We never see Addie Ross, but Celeste Holm provides her uncredited narration. We know her mostly from the onscreen characters’ conversations. The three husbands admire her greatly, which makes their wives jealous.

Each man has a special connection to Addie. Brad was Addie’s first love; Deborah thinks she is his ideal. Addie shares George’s appreciation for fine music and literature; she gives him a thoughtful gift while Rita forgets his birthday. Porter admires Addie’s class; since Lora Mae first saw her picture on Porter’s piano, she believed he would have married her if he thought he could have. Each wife resents Addie.

Although we never see Addie, her presence is tangible. She is mentioned or discussed in almost every scene; she is brought up abruptly in many conversations. When arguing with their husbands, both Deborah and Rita resentfully mention Addie. Each wife is so sure that her husband prefers Addie that each constantly thinks about Addie, compares herself to Addie, and assumes her husband does the same. This obsession creates strife between the spouses. The divorcée adds an uncomfortable dimension to the group, which only her departure can alleviate.

Calamity can sometimes make us realize how we are harming ourselves. Fearing her husband has left, each wife remembers her marital mistakes. The solutions are clear, if it isn’t too late. The Bishops’ marriage is hindered because Deborah feels inadequate, which makes her think that Brad compares her to Addie. She must replace her insecurity with trust. Rita is too busy and preoccupied with her writing to care for her husband and children. She must confront her employer and prioritize her family. Lora Mae says she has everything she wants, but all she really wants is Porter’s love. During their marriage, she has come to love him deeply, yet she is afraid to say so. She must tell him how she feels in order to build a relationship based on more than money.

Paul Douglas and Linda Darnell
Porter (Paul Douglas) and Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell). (Twentieth Century Fox)

A Different Kirk Douglas

As George Phipps, Kirk Douglas plays an unusual role, a likeable character. Although known for tough or intensely dramatic roles, Mr. Douglas convincingly played a genial, patient man. George describes himself as “a slightly comic figure, an educated man.” He is a schoolteacher, which is “even worse than being an intellectual.”

Although other jobs pay more, George can’t imagine doing anything else. He believes his calling is to open young minds. He defends grammar and good writing tirelessly. In our age of texting, fabricated words, and slang, his fight for proper English is poignant!

Kirk Douglas is thoroughly amusing as George Phipps. He wittily comments on every situation, sarcastically responds to Porter, and wryly pans radio. Mr. Douglas is unusually fun-loving as George but also serious. His intensity culminates in a biting reproach of radio after the dinner party. After the guests leave, he sensitively tells Rita that he must honor his beliefs. He also bemoans how she has changed. Before storming out, he declares, “I want my own wife back!”

Now that Kirk Douglas is gone, few Golden Age actors are left. However, he and the other stars who have flickered out are not forgotten. They and their talent will live forever through the wonderful films they made.

‘A Letter to Three Wives’
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, and Paul Douglas
Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Released: Feb. 3, 1949 (USA)
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Tiffany Brannan is an 18-year old opera singer, Hollywood historian, travel writer, film blogger, vintage fashion expert, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.