Summer Under the Stars: A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

TCM’s star of the day is Ann Sothern, and my film pick for the actress is A Letter to Three Wives, which airs today at 8:00 P.M. (EST).

The film recounts the lives of three women, Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell), and Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), after their friend Addie Ross writes a letter to them saying she is running off with one of their husbands but doesn’t reveal which one. The three friends then begin thinking back on each of their marriages to try to figure out which one of their husbands has been unfaithful.

Before A Letter to Three Wives became a film, it was first a magazine novel published in Cosmopolitan in 1945 as “A Letter to Five Wives”. A few months later in early 1946, the rights to John Klempner’s story were acquired by 20th Century Fox, and development soon began on the film. But for the next couple of years, the project was shelved, until Joseph L. Mankiewicz began working on it again in 1948. Vera Caspary, best-known for writing the novel Laura on which the film noir is based, then adapted the story as “A Letter to Four Wives”. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and Mankiewicz then decided it would be best to focus the film on only three marriages. While it took a few years for the film to finally be released, A Letter to Three Wives proved successful and earned three Oscar nominations including Best Picture, with Mankiewicz taking home two Academy Awards for his direction and screenplay. The filmmaker would repeat both those wins the following year with All About Eve.

Throughout the film’s years-long development, many actresses were up for consideration to play the women in A Letter to Three Wives. As the script was still being worked on for what was then “A Letter to Five Wives”, Gene Tierney, Linda Darnell, Maureen O’Hara, Dorothy McGuire, and Alice Faye were all cast to play the five wives in November 1946. About a year and a half later, Jeanne Crain, Anne Baxter, and Ann Sothern were then cast to play three of the four wives, with Darnell being the remaining actress originally cast when the story followed five wives. As is evident in the final version of the film, Baxter’s role eventually got cut to keep the story tighter. It ended up being the best decision to focus on just three women and their relationships instead of five for this screen adaptation, as Crain, Darnell, and Sothern have a pretty equal amount of screentime, with each actress getting some good moments to shine throughout the film. While A Letter to Three Wives features interesting looks at different dynamics in a marriage, Sothern’s storyline with Kirk Douglas as her husband was my personal favorite of three, as it showed the wife as the breadwinner of the family.

By the time Ann Sothern made A Letter to Three Wives, she was already a big star, having made dozens of films for nearly two decades, including her popular Maisie series which spanned ten films and also led to its own radio program. But before making this film, Sothern was primarily cast in comedies and musicals, so in her portrayal of career woman Rita Phipps, she got to show audiences her chops as a more dramatic actress. Despite the excellent reviews she received for her performance, her film career began to wane. By the early 1950s, she then turned to television, eventually starring in her own sitcom called Private Secretary from 1953 to 1957, shortly followed by The Ann Sothern Show from 1958 to 1961, earning Emmy nominations for both shows. After the latter show ended, she returned to movie screens to great acclaim in 1964’s The Best Man, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Sothern still predominately worked in television in the last decades of her career, even appearing in the TV movie remake of A Letter to Three Wives in 1985. Two years later, Sothern ended her acting career on a high note earning her first and only Oscar nomination in her final film, The Whales of August, opposite screen legends Bette Davis and Lillian Gish. Though Sothern never won a major, competitive award, she is forever immortalized with not one, but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for both her work in television and in film.

I wrote this as a part of the 2019 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, where bloggers are celebrating the channel’s honorees and movies playing throughout the month. Click the image below to read more posts!

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