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Tag Archives: Celeste Holm

A Letter to Three Wives (Jan. 20, 1949)

A Letter to Three Wives
A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
20th Century-Fox

At the 22nd Academy Awards in 1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz received two Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives. One was for best director and the other was for best screenplay. (A Letter to Three Wives was also nominated for best picture, but didn’t win.)

The film was based on a novel by John Klempner originally published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1945. The novel was called Letter to Five Wives, but the original script for the film version omitted one of the wives and was called A Letter to Four Wives.

Mankiewicz felt the shooting script was still too long, so he cut out one of the four wives. (Sorry, Anne Baxter.)

A Letter to Three Wives is divided into three sections, each dominated by a flashback sequence.

The first section focuses on Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) and her husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn), who met when they were both serving in the Navy.

The second section focuses on Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), a writer of radio dramas, and her husband George (Kirk Douglas), a schoolteacher.

The final section of the film focuses on Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) and her husband Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), an appliance-store magnate.

While each section focuses on a different couple, this is not an anthology film. The viewer meets all the characters in the early going, but sometimes just for a moment. Watching A Letter to Three Wives is a little like being introduced to a rush of people at a party. As the evening wears on, you become better acquainted with everyone and you learn how their lives intersect in often messy and hilarious ways.

A Letter to Three Wives takes place in an upper-middle-class Eastern community that’s 28 minutes from the big city, or “23 if you catch the morning express,” as Addie Ross tells the viewer. Addie Ross is the most beautiful and alluring woman in town, and although her presence dominates the film, we never see her. We only hear her voice as she cuts in to narrate and comment on bits of the story. (Addie Ross is voiced by the uncredited Celeste Holm).

Rita, Lora Mae, and Deborah are on their way to help run a day trip for underprivileged children when they receive a letter from Addie informing them that she’s leaving town for good, but she’s not leaving empty-handed — she’s taking one of their husbands with her. The three friends are forced to board the boat, and all of them stare longingly at the public telephone on the dock as they drift into the water. They won’t be able to find out which one of their husbands is missing in action until the day is done.

Sothern Darnell and Crain

Mankiewicz directed some fine films before this one, including the Gothic thriller Dragonwyck (1946), the film noir Somewhere in the Night (1946), and the brilliant romantic comedy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), but A Letter to Three Wives is head and shoulders above all of them.

Mankiewicz was a witty, intelligent, and acerbic writer-director, and A Letter to Three Wives shows him in top form. It’s one of the smartest and funniest films I’ve seen from the ’40s about marriage and the American class structure. Deborah is a farm girl and never feels at home with the country-club set she’s married into. Rita has a demanding, high-paying job, and she makes a lot more money than her schoolteacher husband. Lora Mae is a trophy wife to a fabulously wealthy, boorish, and bullheaded man.

Kirk Douglas, who plays Rita’s schoolteacher husband, is fantastic in this film, and delivers one of the most eviscerating speeches I’ve ever heard about anti-intellectualism and the idiocy of appealing to the lowest common denominator. And Paul Douglas, who plays Lora Mae’s husband, gives a phenomenal performance as well. He was a stage actor, and this was his first appearance in a feature film, but he owns the screen, and would go on to have an interesting career.

A Letter to Three Wives is a masterpiece of scriptwriting and direction. Addie Ross is really just a plot device to tell a character-driven story, and toward the end of the film, I realized that I’d been told a very different story than the one I thought I was watching.

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The Snake Pit (Nov. 13, 1948)

The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit (1948)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
20th Century-Fox

The Snake Pit wasn’t the first film about mental illness, but it’s one of the most significant.

German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and M (1931) are powerful films about mental illness, but they’re more horror films than they are dramas, and they don’t explore the day-to-day reality of life in mental asylums. Films like Maniac (1934) and Dead of Night (1945) are at least partially about “crazy people,” but again, mental illness is used as a horror trope, not a sad and difficult fact of life.

The Seventh Veil (1945) and Spellbound (1945) both dealt with psychoanalysis, but they were designed to appeal to a public newly interested in Freudian theory, and didn’t touch on the facts of life in state mental institutions.

In fact, the only movie I can remember seeing before The Snake Pit that really dealt with life inside a mental institution was Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946), but the fact that it was both a horror film and a period piece gave audiences a comfortable sense of remove.

Olivia de Havilland

The Snake Pit changed all that. It was based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward, who spent eight and a half months in a mental hospital. She was institutionalized for schizophrenia, which was possibly misdiagnosed. The Snake Pit was rejected by several publishers. When it was eventually released in a small print run in 1946 it became an unexpected bestseller and was reprinted many times. It was a novel, not a memoir, but it contained autobiographical elements and most of the characters were based on people Ward had known in Rockland State Hospital.

The film version of the the novel stars bona fide superstar Olivia de Havilland in an unglamorous, makeup-free performance as Virginia Stuart Cunningham. The film drops us into Virginia’s schizophrenic experience in media res. She’s sitting on a park bench, looking up at the sun shining through the branches of a tree. On the surface, it’s idyllic, but we soon notice that her clothes are threadbare and her nylons have a run in them. Her voiceover conveys how confused she is about where she is and what she’s doing there.

Her fellow inmate, Grace (Celeste Holm), is more aware of what’s going on and guides Virginia into the group of women when the noontime break is over. They are shuttled inside by the nurses, and Virginia’s surroundings resemble a prison. There are even iron bars.

This is a major theme in the film. Virginia is locked in a prison of her mind’s own making — her mental illness. But she is also locked in a very real prison — a mental institution where electroshock treatments, cruel staff, and harsh conditions are the norm.

Snake Pit 1948

The one bright spot for Virginia inside the institution is Dr. Mark van Kensdelaerik (Leo Genn), who is only ever referred to as “Dr. Kik,” because Americans find his surname too hard to pronounce. Dr. Kik has a picture of Freud hanging in his office, and believes psychoanalysis is the key to Virginia’s recovery.

I had some uncharitable things to say about Leo Genn in my review of Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), but that was more about his miscasting than anything else. He’s perfectly cast in The Snake Pit, and his performance is wonderful. His Freudian explanation of Virginia’s condition is a bit too neat, but audiences in the 1940s liked their stories with every T crossed and every I dotted.

The other man in Virginia’s life who cares for her is her husband, Robert Cunningham (Mark Stevens), but there’s very little he can do for her. Through a series of heartbreaking flashbacks, we see her grow increasingly fearful of him and confused about reality.

The Snake Pit was directed by Anatole Litvak, a Ukrainian director who became an American citizen in 1940. Litvak’s previous couple of films, The Long Night (1947) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), were both beautifully crafted, but they weren’t as powerful or as resonant as The Snake Pit. The scene in which the title of the film is realized visually is one of the most haunting I’ve ever seen.

Litvak’s direction is wonderful, but none of it would work without Olivia de Havilland’s phenomenal performance. She was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, but she lost out to Jane Wyman for her role in Johnny Belinda (1948). The Snake Pit actually had an extremely high portion of its budget devoted to hiring seasoned and professional actors, since Litvak wanted even the small roles in the film to be convincing. It paid off.

In addition to de Havilland’s nomination, The Snake Pit was nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best screenplay, best score, and best sound recording, which is the only Oscar that it actually won.

Road House (Sept. 22, 1948)

Road HouseThe second feature in our Jean Negulesco double bill is a tad less serious than the first.

Negulesco’s film Johnny Belinda (1948) is the story of a poor, uneducated deaf-mute girl played by Jane Wyman. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, and won one — Wyman took home the Oscar for Best Actress.

Road House, on the other hand, was nominated for zero Academy Awards.

But they’re both very good films, and watched back to back, they really show Negulesco’s facility with both A-quality material and B-quality material.

A truly good potboiler is as hard to pull off as a truly good drama is, and Road House is a truly good potboiler.

In an interview he gave in 1969, Negulesco recalled being given the assignment to direct Road House by 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. Negulesco said that Zanuck told him, “This is a bad script. Three directors have refused it. They don’t know what they’re doing, because basically it’s quite good. Remember those pictures we used to make at Warner Bros., with Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney, in which every time the action flagged we staged a fight and every time a man passed a girl she’d adjust her stocking or something, trying to be sexy? That’s the kind of picture we have to have with ‘Road House.'”

Negulesco knew exactly what kind of picture he was directing, and he directed the hell out of it. The first shot of Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) shows her with her bare leg up on a desk. She’s dealing cards alone, and there’s a smoldering cigarette next to her bare foot.

Lupino was smart, sexy, and talented, and she’s a joy to watch in Road House. When she played a singer in The Man I Love (1947), all of her performances were dubbed by Peg La Centra, but this film finally gave moviegoers an opportunity to hear her real singing voice. As Susie Smith (Celeste Holm) says in the film, “She does more without a voice than anybody I’ve ever heard.”

Lupino may not have been the most impressive chanteuse working in Hollywood, but when she sings “One for My Baby and One More for the Road” in Road House, it’s an emotional scene that tells us more about her character than pages of expository dialogue ever could.

Besides the lovely Lupino and the talented Holm, Road House also features chiseled hunk Cornel Wilde. My favorite scene is the one in which he gives Lupino the angriest, most sexually charged bowling lesson I’ve ever seen in a film.

And last but not least, Road House was the third time Richard Widmark appeared on film, and it was the third time he played a memorable villain. He plays Jefferson T. “Jefty” Robbins, the owner of the juke joint that gives the film its name, and his character is a scheming chump who just can’t take no for an answer.

Gentleman’s Agreement (Nov. 11, 1947)

Director Elia Kazan’s fourth film, Gentleman’s Agreement, dominated the 20th Academy Awards.

It was nominated for eight Oscars and took home three — best picture for producer Darryl F. Zanuck, best director for Kazan, and best supporting actress for Celeste Holm.

It was also incredibly popular, and was the eighth highest grossing film of the year, earning more than $4 million at the box office.

This was a remarkable feat for a sober black and white drama about anti-Semitism, especially considering that most of the ten highest grossing films of 1947 were either comedies or Technicolor spectacles.

Before embarking on this project, I’d never had much desire to see Gentleman’s Agreement, despite my love of Kazan’s other films. It has a reputation for being heavy-handed, and I dislike movies with good intentions that spoon-feed the audience a simplistic message.

So I was really happy to discover that Gentleman’s Agreement is a much more subtle and thought-provoking film than its reputation suggests. It’s a little dry in stretches, but it wasn’t nearly as preachy as I was expecting.

In fact, it’s still a unique movie because it addresses not active, virulent anti-Semitism but the silent majority that allows prejudice to flourish. In other words, if there are ten people at a table and one person tells a nasty joke about Jews and the other nine people either chuckle politely or feel offended but don’t say anything, the problem is not the one anti-Semite, but the other nine people.

Most movies made after Gentleman’s Agreement still focus on active, violent hatred, which lets the audience off the hook to some degree. Someone can watch Mississippi Burning (1988) and come away with the feeling that they’re not a racist, because they’d never burn a cross in a black family’s yard or participate in a lynching.

Gentleman’s Agreement, on the other hand, never really lets the audience off the hook, and now that I’ve seen it, I suspect that part of its reputation for preachiness comes from the discomfort it causes.

For instance, there’s a great scene in which writer Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who is pretending to be Jewish in order to write an exposé on anti-Semitism, tries to get a hotel manager to tell him if the hotel is restricted. The manager refuses to answer the question, but still steers Green out of the hotel, saying things like “Maybe you would be more comfortable in another establishment.” The viewer expects Green to get somewhere and it’s incredibly frustrating when he doesn’t. Eventually he leaves and all the people in the lobby watch him go. Probably many of them feel bad about what’s happening, but no one speaks up. It’s a maddening, intensely uncomfortable scene, and begs the question, “What would you do if no one else was speaking up?”

Another scene that really stuck with me was the one in which Green’s son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) comes home crying after a group of boys call him a “stinking kike” and “dirty yid.” Green’s fiancée Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) is upset, as anyone would be, but she comforts Tommy by hugging him and telling him that it’s all a mistake, and he isn’t really Jewish.

This causes Green to fly into a rage, and he lectures Kathy that her attitude is what allows prejudice to flourish unchecked.

I think that Gregory Peck’s humorless performance and holier-than-thou attitude is what turns off some viewers, but I couldn’t find fault in the logic of anything he says in the film.

His relationship with his secretary Elaine (June Havoc) is particularly interesting, since she’s Jewish but pretends not to be. Early in the film, when she still believes Green is Jewish, she expresses dismay that the magazine they work for is courting Jewish applicants. She tells Green, “Just let them get one wrong one in here and it’ll come out of us. It’s no fun being the fall guy for the kikey ones.”

Green’s childhood friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield) tells him that he’s having such strong reactions to anti-Semitism because he’s experiencing it all at once. Dave grew up experiencing subtle prejudice, so he’s learned to filter a lot of it out. There’s something else, however, that I think is unspoken in the film, which is that Green is experiencing the passion of the newly converted.

He may not have converted to Judaism, but he’s committed to his subterfuge, and takes all the slings and arrows of anti-Semitism intensely personally.

Apparently many Hollywood studio heads, most of whom were Jewish, didn’t want Darryl F. Zanuck (who wasn’t Jewish) to make Gentleman’s Agreement. They feared that it would stir up trouble, and that directly confronting anti-Semitism would only make things worse.

One of the big themes of Gentleman’s Agreement is how wrong-headed this notion is, and that failing to confront things is never the right move.

It’s a really good movie, and not just because its philosophy is “politically correct.” The actors all play their parts perfectly, and it’s a really well-made film about people, and how people relate to each other. Most of the “big ideas” in the film are expressed the way they are in real life — by people who have opinions.