Moments before they board a riverboat for a day-trip with underprivileged children, three women receive a letter from a fourth telling them she will not be able to join them on the day’s excursion. Her regretful reason is that she’s run off with one of their husbands, and conveniently she neglects to name names in her telegram. Through a series of flashbacks, each woman begins to build a mental case as to how her husband could be the scoundrel who has run off and left her on a boat full of children. With enough effort, an angry and loving mind can convince itself of almost anything.
Instead of defying a “moral” Code by figuring out how to show or talk about sex without actually showing or talking about it, writers face the new challenge of eliminating any form of problem-solving that involves a cell phone. All I could think about during Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives was how perhaps storytelling has lost its way. Any setback that technology now solves – contacting your husband with the phone you pull out of your purse, for instance – has also made a dent in creating conflict necessary for storytelling. As they sail away on the riverboat, the three women stare at a phone booth on the dock as it shrinks in the distance. A simple solution has abandoned them as each woman hopes for the best and assumes the worst about her man. My vote for the best of the three plot lines involves the braiding of Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, and Thelma Ritter in something of an acting dance off – each comic performer attempting to steal the scene from the others, all three of them successful. Their hilarious timing arrives hand-in-hand with a well-formulated script that perhaps could not survive the “that could never happen” iAudience of today.
Letters and phone booths . . . emails and cell phones . . . sometimes I’m just a cranky old man; I have been since I was a child. My love/hate relationship with technology shifts easily towards the negative when I see a film in which, had the characters access to those tiny machines none of us can put down today, the story would lack the element of conflict. When I persuade others to watch an old film with me, it breaks my heart a little that my fellow viewers are incapable of putting down their phones during the experience. Consider for a moment the consequences if Crawford found out you were playing an electronic word game during her performance – it is this thought that keeps my phone resting comfortably (and silently) in my bag on the other side of the room. Although the temptation to grab their phones from them is boiling inside of me, I convince myself that in fact they’re texting everyone they know about this amazingly wonderful old film and how they can’t wait to watch a hundred more.
With enough effort, my angry and loving mind can convince me of almost anything.
Academy Awards for A Letter to Three Wives (1950): Best Director and Best Writing (Screenplay)