CMBA Blogathon- Fabulous 1940s - A Letter to Three Wives (1949) is Eve's Warm Up

While Gene Kelly leaped around New York, while Olivia DeHavilland melted into Monty Clift’s embrace, and while Katharine Hepburn jabbed Spencer Tracy in the rib, Joseph Mankiewicz  geared up for the film that would garner his first of double-Oscar wins for Best Screenplay and Best Direction - A Letter to Three Wives(1949).

After years of work, this achievement , at the end of a tumultuous decade, would give him more power at his studio (20th Century Fox)  and more control over what would become one of his most famous films -All About Eve (1950). For Eve the writer-director would win the same two awards the following year and lasting credibility for that decade and beyond.

However, Letter has more in common with Eve than the awards. Letter seems to be a precursor to Eve, filled with prototypes that would be further explored in the later movie.  Letter and Eve are a diptych of films about postwar relationships, expectations and anxieties.


The crux of  Letter is discovering whose husband has run away with the omnipresent narrator,  Addie Ross (voiced by Celeste Holm). Three wives are given a letter from Addie just as they embark on a picnic that takes them far away from a telephone. This leaves each wife ample time to daydream about what has gone wrong in her marriage. This leads to flashbacks and narration – very popular storytelling method in ‘40s films. This also means the narrative is taken away from Addie for a long while and control is given to each wife.

 Although Addie is an eerie presence that we never see, she does not get to choose the ending no matter how much she’d like the wives to believe she does.

In Eve – a film about one actress’ fall in theater while another one rises – the most powerful  narrator is a theater critic named Addison Dewitt (George Sanders) who –like Addie- manipulates our story. Only, Addison sometimes manipulates the narrative physically. 

Through voiceover, Addison can turn down the audio and summarize dialogue. He can also freeze frames.  Though the two characters serve a similar function (and have similar names), Addison, the interloper in the later film, is allowed to be more powerful  than Addie. It’s as if Addison and Addie have shared notes on how to manipulate a plot and Addison is outstripping his teacher.


In  Letter, all the men  are focused on one woman – Addie Ross. They constantly recount to their wives the virtues of Addie - her poise, good taste, intelligence and class.

In Eve, all the men – the theater director, the producer, the playwright, the critic-  of necessity are focused on  and dependent upon one woman – the Broadway star, Margo Channing (Bette Davis). She resents it when their attention turns to a new actress, much like the wives in  Letter resent the possibility of their husbands running off with another woman.


The wives of  Letter bear a striking resemblance to the females in Eve. Most noticeable traits are that of the country girl, the career woman and the toughie.

The Young Country Girl

In Letter, Deborah (Jeanne Crain) is a young woman desperate to get away from the farm, so she joins the Navy and marries an officer - Brad (Jeffrey Lynn).

In Eve, the title character (Anne Baxter) is also desperate to separate herself from her provincial upbringing, and concocts a story about working in brewery and marrying a military man. It’s almost as if Eve has pieced together her life story from a movie script.

Deborah and Eve each get two makeovers. Deborah and Rita try to update Deborah’s mail order dress,  without success. Eve gets a hand-me-down suit from Margo. Later on, when they have become more sure of themselves and their place in the world, their respective looks are bespoke.

The Career Woman
In Letter, Rita Phipps (Ann Southern) is a busy career woman who juggles home and work, and forgets her husband’s birthday. Addie, the flirt, doesn’t forget and sends George Phipps (Kirk Douglas) a present. 

In Eve, Margo is a busy Broadway star who forgets her boyfriend’s birthday. Eve, the eventual flirt, doesn’t forget and - in addition to setting up a birthday call from Margo- sends Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) a telegram.

As in Letter, the birthday episode sparks suspicions of infidelity. However, Eve is a lot more subtle than Addie. It’s as if Eve has studied Addie’s performance in the other film for ideas on how to “steal” another woman’s man.

The Toughie
In  Letter, Lora May Finney Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) covers her vulnerability -the fact that she does love her husband Porter (Paul Douglas) - with wisecracks and one-liners. She is the toughest woman in the room, quick with putdowns, and yet she is also the most fragile.

In Eve, Margo is like Lora May – stalwart and strong and yet the most pathetic person in the room. Take the scene where she’s ranting over Addison’s interview of Eve, pacing back and forth, raving in loud voice.  However, when Bill comes in , she just collapses into his arms and weeps uncontrollably.


Just as with the ladies, the men in Letter are similar types as those in Eve - the intellectual, the lout and the lover.

The Intellectual
In  Letter, the intellectual is school teacher George Phipps. George has an opinion about everything and is the character who is given the longest amount of time to rant about his philosophies.

In Eve, you get two for the price of one.

Director Bill Sampson is the intellectual who favors long monologues and seems to be the voice of our screenwriter- Mankiewicz. With both Bill and George, the movie stops stock still for the character to jump on the proverbial soap box.

Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), the playwright in Eve, refers to himself as the brain of the team.

The Lout
When Mankiewicz makes a lout (either in the sense of being brutish or in the sense of being submissive), the guy  is characterized by his stomach. In  Letter,  roughhewn, self-made man, Porter Hollingsway cares more about his meals and his stiff drinks  than about being polite. Eve has dyspeptic producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff) who bends to everyone else’s will.

The Lover
Deborah’s husband in Letter is, at first, the calm, soothing lover of a wife frustrated with her new challenges. He later grows a bit tired of her.  Margo’s boyfriend in Eve is also a long-suffering character, until he just cannot take it anymore. This leaves both men vulnerable to the machinations of a wily female on the hunt for fresh prey.


In both  Letter and Eve, the voice of reason – and the voice of the audience- comes from Thelma Ritter’s character. In both films she plays a maid who hears and sees far more than almost any other character and tells you what’s on her mind.

Both films use daydreams of different characters to reveal the root crisis at hand. Both films utilize flashbacks for these daydreams then take you out again to the present for the ending. Both films conclude fairly ominously, or at least in a manner that leaves the conclusion up for debate.

Letter marks Makiewicz’ return to writing the films he directs after a self-imposed two year hiatus from screenplays to concentrate on honing his directorial skills.  Letter is a great movie on its own, but it is also a warm up ( in characters and in film technique), the last gasp of a decade before the making of Mankiewicz’ magnum opus – Eve.

This post  is written for the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon. Click here to read other participating reviews.


  1. Java, you had me with your marvelous opening paragraph! I've always thought A LETTER TO THREE WIVES was an intriguing film, especially the narrative structure (which was pretty unconventional for the time). I also enjoyed the structure of your clever post.

  2. Thanks! I do appreciate your comment.

  3. Fascinating comparision, and excellent discussion of these two films.

  4. Wonderful post! While I have loved both movies, I never connected them. Thanks for connecting the dots!

  5. Interesting that you see so many similarities between this and All About Eve. This is a particular favorite of mine.

  6. This is an interesting run-through of all the similarities of the two films; it's fascinating to see how many things carry over. I have to confess that I love Wives more than All About Eve but that's just personal preference.

  7. An intriguing idea, that "A Letter to Three Wives," with its multiple narrator and flashback construction. can be seen as a precursor to "All About Eve." Another big thing they have in common is a fabulous cast to put over the witty, literate screenplay. I especially like this film for giving the hard-working Ann Sothern the best role of her long film career.

  8. Java,
    I just recently saw this film for the first time and I really enjoyed it. I also enjoyed your very clever look at the film as it's compared to All About Eve. Another wonderful film. I adore George Sanders though so he gets the one up on narration over Celeste. ha ha

    I'm a big fan of Ann Sothern so it's always a treat to see a review of one of her better films. She just doesn't get enough credit for her acting chops, it seems.

    A Letter to Three Wives is an hour well spent and your review certainly points out all of the things that make this film a must see for fans of the genre.

    Nicely done and entertaining as always, Java!
    See ya soon!

  9. Absolutely fascinating. I never made the connections between two films, but you are absolutely right. A wonderful post on a wonderful film. Is this Linda Darnell's finest hour? I say yes.

  10. I haven't looked at the two films in that way before. Intriguing concept.

    On a personal note, if I were ever to leave my husband it would be George Phipps.

  11. I loved this review. I never thought about the connections between the two films, and I love each for its own merits. How great to look at these two in this way. Really fantastic!

  12. Love this movie!
    I really like movies where we see everyone's background and what makes them the way they are.
    And it pretty much has the perfect cast, though I think Kirk Douglas is probably younger than Ann Sothern.
    Excellent post!


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