Love Letter

Eve of destruction

Every New Year's Eve, I watch my favorite movie. I used to think that everyone had a favorite film until a few years ago, when I hosted a party to which I asked each guest to bring a clip from their most-loved movie. One by one the invitees phoned to tell me that they didn't have a single favorite film, but instead a number of them.

"You can't have more than one favorite film," I explained. "You can only have one. That's what makes it your favorite."

Up until then, I assumed that, like me, every adult person had chosen as their own a favorite song, film, and book; a definitive list of beloved things that helped define who they are and to which they planned to remain loyal forever. My spouse, a patient man who thinks I'm insane, told me I'd read too many issues of Tiger Beat as a child. Having favorites, he told me, is something sane people eventually grow out of.

Going postal: From left, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern and Jeanne Crain receive a mysterious parcel in A Letter to Three Wives.
Going postal: From left, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern and Jeanne Crain receive a mysterious parcel in A Letter to Three Wives.

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Not me. Ever since November 7, 1976, my favorite film has been Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1949 masterpiece A Letter to Three Wives. That's the date when I first saw this gorgeous comedy on an installment of Nick Salerno's Cinema Classics, a popular "late show" program on the local PBS affiliate. Every Saturday night throughout much of the '70s and '80s, Nick would screen a different movie from Hollywood's golden era, and afterward he'd discuss the film he'd just shown. I don't remember what Nick said about my new favorite movie that first night. He must have mentioned that Mankiewicz won Oscars for Letter's direction and screenplay, and that he would go on to win the same awards the very next year for his more-famous All About Eve. He probably noted that A Letter to Three Wives was nominated for Oscar's Best Picture award as well. I couldn't tell you. I was still recovering from having watched cameraman Arthur Miller's stunning black-and-white photography; from having heard Mankiewicz's arch, literate dialogue read by the gorgeous men and women he'd cast in this enormously sentimental, brilliantly crafted movie.

Letter's story is uncomplicated yet sophisticated: Just as they're about to leave on a boat for an all-day island picnic, three women (Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, and Jeanne Crain) receive a letter from a friend who's written to say she won't be joining them that day because she's left town and taken one of their husbands with her. It's 1949, so, rather than cell-phone their spouses, the three are left to ponder their lives in a series of flashbacks that reveal what's wrong with each of their marriages.

I can't tell you how many times I've seen A Letter to Three Wives, although 30 viewings seems like a reasonable guess. I haven't committed every minute of the movie to memory, nor can I pause my DVD copy to point out the continuity flaws in the rear-projection scenes. I'm not that kind of fan. And although I'm not the sort of fellow who runs around quoting lines from his favorite film, I did, in an essay I wrote only yesterday, use the phrase "breeding like rabbits," which is from Letter's charming opening sequence. And I have on occasion quoted Ann Sothern's line about why her character, Rita Phipps, works as a writer: "Because each week I receive in return an envelope filled with the most restful shade of green in the world."

But I can tell you I haven't seen a movie in the past 30 years that I like half as well as this one — and I've seen hundreds of movies, many of them excellent, during that time. I'll admit that A Letter to Three Wives is not a flawless film. As one of the wealthy husbands, Jeffrey Lynn gives a perfectly terrible performance. There's an annoying synthesized voice used to introduce each of the film's three flashback sequences. And the movie's ending is so ambiguous that the first time, I (and, according to film lore, tens of thousands of others who have seen Letter over the years) wasn't entirely sure I understood the story's solemn windup.

But A Letter to Three Wives is a superior film despite these flaws. Kirk Douglas is perfect as the suave schoolteacher whose wife earns more writing illiterate radio scripts than he does in academia. As the lecherous department store owner, Paul Douglas is grumpily beguiling, especially in the film's longish New Year's Eve sequence. But what truly sets this movie apart is Mankiewicz's obvious love of his female characters. Rather than the idealized, inert pinup girls popular in films of the era, Mankiewicz has written three smart, funny, deeply flawed females who predate Annie Hall by decades.

But what I love most about A Letter to Three Wives is that it's mine. I never tire of its soothing narration (by an uncredited Celeste Holm), sparkling dialogue, and glamorous sets filled with beautiful people. And I never watch this film, on New Year's Eve or any other day, without recalling my teenaged thrill in discovering a wonderful movie, and the joy of making it my own.

 
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