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Tag Archives: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

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 Ghost and Mrs. Muir (June 26, 1947)

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
20th Century-Fox

Gene Tierney is one of my favorite actresses from the ’40s. (What can I say? I’m a sucker for a cute overbite.) She’s often criticized for being more of a pretty face than a talented performer, but I think that’s unfair. Maybe some of these criticisms spring from her most famous role — Laura (1944) — in which she literally played a painting. I don’t know. What I do know is that when she was given good material and paired with a good director and co-stars, she really shone.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who made another wonderful film starring Tierney, Dragonwyck (1946). Mankiewicz clearly cared about helping Tierney craft a fully realized character. And it doesn’t hurt that in this film, she is paired with the great Rex Harrison, who plays the ghost of the title.

Harrison’s scenes with Tierney are the highlights of the film, and the two actors play off each other beautifully. Their relationship runs the gamut of human emotion, from fear to amusement, anger to warmth, reproach to acceptance, and eventually even into the uncharted territory of human-spectral love.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir takes place in England at the turn of the century. Tierney plays a widow named Lucy Muir who moves with her young daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and her maid Martha Huggins (Edna Best) to Gull Cottage at Whitecliff-by-the-Sea. Unlike her real estate agent, Mr. Coombe (Robert Coote), who flees from ghostly laughter when showing Lucy the house, Mrs. Muir is sanguine about the prospect of moving in with a ghost. “Haunted,” she says. “How perfectly fascinating.”

Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison

Of course, she’s also a skeptic who doesn’t believe that medieval nonsense like ghosts and hauntings could ever exist in the 20th century. The painting of the fearsome-looking former owner of the house — Capt. Daniel Gregg — is certainly lifelike, but it takes the appearance of the salty old seaman “in the flesh” to convince Lucy that she’s not imagining things.

Philip Dunne’s screenplay for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is based on a novel by Josephine Leslie, who published it under the masculine-sounding pseudonym “R.A. Dick.” (I’m not sure if that pen name is supposed to be as funny as I find it.) In the novel, Capt. Gregg was just a voice inside Mrs. Muir’s head. He manifests more literally in the film, but in many ways he still symbolizes Lucy’s personal journey from a black crepe-wearing widow bound by convention to a liberated woman who writes and publishes a very unladylike book entitled Blood and Swash (with Capt. Gregg’s help, of course).

Ironically, the ghost of the Captain has no use for superstition or fear, and his plain, unvarnished speech, peppered with curses, speaks the truths that everyone in Lucy’s life has been too straitlaced to ever acknowledge. Also, because he has no corporeal form, the film is able to get away with things that otherwise wouldn’t have been acceptable under the Hay’s Code, such as a widow and a virile man sharing a room and intimate talk. He insists she call him by his Christian name, “Daniel,” and he decides her name should be something more exotic than Lucy, so he calls her “Lucia.”

“Keep on believing in me, and I’ll always be real,” Capt. Gregg tells Lucy, but eventually a real man enters her life — a slippery lothario named Miles Fairley (George Sanders) who writes children’s books under the name “Uncle Neddy” — and the jealous ghost must fade away.

The scene in which he says goodbye to her might be the most weirdly erotic and deeply romantic scenes of all time. She lies down in bed, her eyes close, and he sits down next to her, his face very close to hers as he says, “It’s been a dream, Lucia. And in the morning, and the years after, you’ll only remember it as a dream, and it’ll die, as all dreams must die at waking.”

Mankiewicz’s able direction is aided by the brilliant cinematography of Charles Lang and the luscious musical score of the great Bernard Herrmann. Together, they craft a film that nimbly moves from horror film to comedy, and then from romance to drama. I can’t recommend The Ghost and Mrs. Muir highly enough for lovers of classic cinema.

Somewhere in the Night (June 12, 1946)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night looks like a noir, talks like a noir, and walks like a noir. But when the credits rolled I felt more like I’d watched a light-hearted mystery farce than a noir. This isn’t to say that Somewhere in the Night is a bad movie. It’s actually a really fun one. But the dark journey promised by the film’s opening never pans out, and the plot twists grow increasingly ludicrous as the picture goes on.

The first few minutes of the picture are mostly shot in first-person P.O.V., as a man (played by John Hodiak) wakes up in an Army field hospital. Through voiceover and the images in front of his face, we learn that he has no idea who he is, and doesn’t remember anything leading up to this point. This opening presages Robert Montgomery’s ill-advised first-person P.O.V. extravaganza Lady in the Lake (1947). Luckily, unlike that picture, the technique is used judiciously in Somewhere in the Night.

Hodiak’s character has Army identification in the name of “George Taylor,” a Dear John letter (it’s really more of an “I Hate You, John” letter), and a letter of credit from someone named “Larry Cravat.” What’s a noir protagonist to do? Clearly, the best course of action is to head for the mean streets of Los Angeles and attempt to track down Larry Cravat, even though “Taylor” has no idea what he’s doing or who all these people are who seem to want him dead. Why should that stop him? Taylor is a Purple Heart recipient and seems to be able to handle himself. It doesn’t hurt that the briefcase he picks up in a Los Angeles train station contains a gun and a letter from Larry Cravat telling Taylor that there is $5,000 deposited in his name in an L.A. bank.

For the first half hour or so, Somewhere in the Night has a few things to say about the plight of returning G.I.s, in particular the disappointments handed them by the women they came home to (or didn’t come home to, in Taylor’s case), and the resentment some servicemen must have felt upon their return.

“You know there’s been a terrible shortage of men,” a beautiful young woman named Phyllis (Margo Woode) tells Taylor.

“Yeah, so we heard in the Pacific,” he responds. “This war must have been murder on you poor women. We used to cry our eyes out about it.”

But, as I said, the longer Somewhere in the Night goes on, the more plot points stack up, and the less time the film has to do anything but crank through its story.

When Taylor goes to the bank to try and collect his $5,000 he arouses the suspicion of the cashier and he ends up fleeing empty-handed. He follows leads to a Turkish bath and then to a nightclub. Set up at the club by the bartender, he ends up hiding from a couple of mugs in the dressing room of a pretty singer named Christy Smith, who is played by the 20-year old Nancy Guild (rhymes with “wild”).

Guild is fresh-faced, has a beautiful voice, and plays her role well. She’s not outstanding, but she does a good job, especially considering this was her first role in a film; not just as leading lady, her first film role, period. Apparently she felt out of her depth, and the production was a struggle for her. In later interviews, she credited Mankiewicz’s generous nature and sensitive direction, and said he was a real father figure to her.

Hodiak also does a decent job, but it’s a one-note performance. He sweats profusely and looks haunted, and does a great job with lines like, “I’m tired of being pushed around. The war’s over for me. I don’t have to live afraid anymore.” He sounds genuinely angry, and he also sounds as if he doesn’t believe his own words one bit.

It wasn’t until after I finished watching Somewhere in the Night that I learned that while Hodiak was born in the United States, he grew up in an immigrant family, spoke Hungarian and Polish at home, and always had to work hard at his English diction. “No part has ever come easily to me,” Hodiak once said. “Every one has been a challenge. I’ve worked as hard as I could on them all.” I never would have guessed from this film that his first language wasn’t English, but there is something about his delivery that is strange and stilted.

Luckily, Guild and Hodiak have wonderful support from two great actors who straddled the line between character actor and leading man; Lloyd Nolan and Richard Conte.

Nolan plays a police detective, Lt. Donald Kendall, who doesn’t eat lunch because it puts him to sleep and doesn’t drink coffee because it keeps him awake. He also wonders aloud several times why detectives in the movies don’t ever take their hats off. (He figures it out by the end of the picture.) And he has plenty of great lines, which he delivers in his trademark wry fashion, like “Big post-war boom in homicide.”

Conte plays a nightclub owner named Mel Phillips, who’s smooth without seeming oily, and whose motives aren’t initially clear. (If you had $5 for every time Conte played a nightclub owner in a noir, you could probably take your whole family out to a nice dinner.)

Somewhere in the Night is a good picture; well-made and a lot of fun. It was all just a little silly for my taste, though.

Dragonwyck (April 10, 1946)

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck was adapted from Anya Seton’s best-selling 1944 historical novel of the same name. I haven’t read Seton’s novel, but I loved this film, and would like to dig into the book some day. Based on the description on the back cover, the introduction, and the first several pages that I leafed through, the film is a relatively faithful adaptation, as far as these things go. Neither Edgar Allan Poe nor Herman Melville make an appearance in the film, however, and the Astor Place massacre and steamboat racing both, sadly, fell outside the scope of the film.

But that’s par for the course in any 100-minute long adaptation of a 350-page novel. Taken purely as a cinematic experience, Dragonwyck is an engrossing Gothic melodrama that treads lightly the tricky boundary between romance and horror. As a Vincent Price fan, I especially loved his performance in this film. In my review of Shock, which was released earlier the same year, I mentioned that it was the first role I’d seen Vincent Price play in which there was a glimmering of the horror icon he would become. Well, he continued to blossom in this role. While never descending into outright horror territory, Dragonwyck gave Price an opportunity to exhibit more range than any role I’d seen him play previously, and the way his character changes drives the film; from coldly aristocratic to warmly romantic, and from a wielder of petty power to a broken drug addict.

The film begins in 1844. Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) is a bright, beautiful young woman who longs to see the world. She lives on a small New England farm with her younger siblings, her mother Abigail (Anne Revere), and her deeply religious and strait-laced father Ephraim (Walter Huston). The Wellses receive a letter from their distant cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn (Price), who wishes to take Miranda away from her simple surroundings and employ her as a governess and companion to his young daughter at his home, Dragonwyck Manor, on the Hudson River. After much deliberation, Ephraim assents, even though Van Ryn’s wealth and atheism distress him. Like everything else in the film, Huston’s portrayal is fully realized. The character could have been portrayed as a two-dimensional Bible-thumper, but Huston crafts a believable and sympathetic character.

Once Miranda arrives at Dragonwyck, the obvious touchstone is Jane Eyre, but instead of a madwoman locked in the attic, there is merely Van Ryn’s fussy, compulsively overeating wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne). Theirs is clearly a loveless marriage, and as soon as we learn that Van Ryn is not really Miranda’s cousin by blood, we can read the handwriting on the wall.

The story takes a lot of interesting turns, however, and I wasn’t ever quite sure what was going to happen next. While Van Ryn is portrayed sympathetically, he is also deeply flawed. A “patroon,” he forces his tenant farmers to pay tribute to him while he sits on a throne. It’s an anachronistic display of power, even for the mid-nineteenth century, and shows early in the film that all may not be well in Dragonwyck.

Dragonwyck also has an excellent sense of place. As Seton said in her introduction to the novel, “There was, on the Hudson, a way of life such as this, and there was a house not unlike Dragonwyck. All Gothic magnificence and eerie manifestations were not at that time inevitably confined to English castles or Southern plantations!”