Fashion Spotlight on A Letter to Three Wives
Have I lured you all in with that gorgeous Jeanne Crain photo? Well, the Fashion in Film Blogathon has arrived, courtesy of the lovely and stylish Angela over at The Hollywood Revue. In honor of the day, I'm going to try something a little different from my usual list-making and movie-reviewing habits. I'm going to do a scene-by-scene fashion analysis of one of my favorite movies, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's A Letter to Three Wives.
I love this movie for many reasons. Its witty script, the talented cast, the biting social commentary, I could go on. But I also love the way it uses costume. Even though the film is about three beautiful, upper-class women, the costuming isn't used just as a glamor assault (although that would be fun), but as a way to subtly comment on class and character differences. Each of our three main protagonists has her own look and her own place on the social ladder.
For those who are unfamiliar with the plot of A Letter to Three Wives, I'll do my best to give the context for each scene. While I normally avoid recapping films, I think in this case, a little plot summary is required. Now, on to your irregularly scheduled fashion spotlight.
Let's start with two of our protagonists: Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) and Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain). Rita, on the left, is married to a schoolteacher and brings in some much-needed money for the family with her radio writing. She is the mother of twins. Deborah, on the right, is a farmer's daughter who met her wealthy husband while they were both in the Navy during World War II. They're on their way to a charity event (taking underprivileged children on a riverboat ride and picnic). Rita and Deborah both belong to the country club set and their clothes reflect that. They're not overdressed but they still care enough to wear jewelry and white gloves, along with their sharply tailored jackets. Could you guess that these two were on their way to a picnic?
Enter our third wife, Lora Mae Hollingway (Linda Darnell). She's the young wife of wealthy businessman Porter Hollingsway, the richest man in town. Lora Mae is even more dramatically dressed than her friends, befitting her status. That jacket is more blindingly white than sunshine glinting off the polar ice caps. Personally, I would worry about some kid putting their sticky hands all over it, but I'm not the wealthiest woman in town.
The plot thickens. Their absent fourth friend Addie Ross has left them a note, telling them she's run off with one of their husbands. But she doesn't tell them which husband. This shot has nothing to do with costume but I have to say, I love Addie's handwriting.
This is a superb example of what I'd call "costume choreography." When the wives huddle together, we suddenly see how perfectly their outfits complement each other. Notice how Ann Sothern, with her dark jacket, white blouse, and blond hair is an almost perfect photo-negative of Linda Darnell's white jacket, dark scarf, and brunette hair. Jeanne Crain would be odd woman out, except that her polka-dotted scarf ties her visually to the other two, as well as contrasting with Sothern's striped collar. It makes complete sense for the wives to be visually linked because at this moment, they're all thinking the same thing. "Is it my husband?"
We flashback to Deborah as a new bride, on the night of her first country club dance. Deborah is practically tearing her hair out with anxiety because she has no experience with this kind of crowd. Her husband Brad tries in vain to console her. Here she is in her robe. Note the floral pattern and girlish ruffle. This robe probably comes from back home on the farm; she hasn't had time to get any new things.
After knocking back way too many martinis, Deborah comes downstairs in the only party dress she owns. And I have to say, this is the dress that made me pick A Letter to Three Wives for my blogathon entry. This thing is a genuine miracle of costuming, a valentine to bad taste. The bunchy sleeves, the big flounce at the bottom, those giant fake flowers that look like a space alien attack...it's so great. As much fun as it is to see Hollywood designers dress a woman beautifully, it can be equally fun to see them dress her horribly. This dress is a smacking visual reminder of the huge gaping difference between Deborah's simple farming background and the glittering social set she's married into.
The first meeting of Deborah and Rita. While Deborah collapses in despair, let's take a look at Rita. I'm not wild about this dress: it's sort of giving me a "Little-Miss-Muffet-Sat-On-Her-Tuffet" vibe. But it does provide a strong contrast to Deborah's floral disaster; unlike Deborah, Rita is an experienced wife and mother. Her dress is black, in a sober, conservative style that the country club set would find age-appropriate. By 1940s standards, Rita is moving into the "matronly" category.
Rita and Deborah bond as they attempt to improve Deborah's dress. Incidentally, the husbands are waiting outside, completely oblivious to the costuming turmoil.
We arrive at the country club dance to meet Lora Mae and her husband Porter (Paul Douglas). The gruff and tough Porter looks on as his wife dances with another man. "If she was dancing with a tramp, she'd look like a tramp, got no class of her own. I like class." This is our first hint that Lora Mae and her husband aren't exactly the silver spoon type. We get another, much subtler, hint with Lora Mae's dress. Unlike Rita, Lora Mae has gone for a much more striking and sexy look, with bared shoulders and glittering collar and cuffs. While it keeps well within the bounds of taste, there's something about all the sparkle and skin. Rita seems to be hiding. Lora Mae is displaying herself.
Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) drags his wife Deborah onto the dance floor, failing to realize that she's completely drunk. As she tries to plead with him, Brad goes for a spin, only to rip the remaining flower off Deborah's dress. The flower lands on someone's plate, there's a hole in the dress, and Brad can't understand what just happened.
As Deborah's flashback ends, she reflects on how the mysterious Addie Ross would never have blundered in such a way. Unlike Deborah, Addie comes from Brad's social class.
We leave Deborah and enter Rita's backstory. Rita is planning a big dinner party to impress her employer, the formidable Mrs. Manleigh. Unlike the other two couples, Rita and her husband George (Kirk Douglas) belong to the upper class only by birth, not by money. They have to scrimp and save to support a family on his teaching income and her radio writing money. But Rita is ambitious and eager to succeed in her career. Here she is getting ready with her maid Sadie (Thelma Ritter). Got to love that Lucy Ricardo-esque hairdo that Ann Sothern's sporting.
When we get to the party, Rita's pretensions become painfully obvious. In her desire to impress the Manleighs, she appears in this glittering white dress, trying to act as if this is normal dinner wear for her. It's beautiful and flattering, but there's something a little off about it too. Rita's the mother of twins, she's a career woman, she's smart and sophisticated and yet this dress is so demure, so innocent. It's a fake.
Get a load of Sadie's formal outfit here. Rita is trying so hard to act as if her income was three times what it is.
A brief shot of Mrs. Manleigh (Florence Bates). Not much to point out here as Mrs. Manleigh is dressed respectably for a middle-aged woman, but you can see at a glance that she probably didn't take much time at all to get dressed for this party. It's a huge deal for Rita but it means very little to her. In the next scene, Mrs. Manleigh will end up breaking George's classical record, a birthday gift from Addie Ross.
And we can see that Lora Mae is just amused by the goings-on. This shot doesn't give the full effect of Lora Mae's dress which is simple enough except for the floor-length overskirt that ties in the middle. It's an unusual enough style that I tried to find out if Lora Mae is showing off some 1940s trend, but my research yielded nothing. Still, look how she's comfortably sprawled, while Rita, in her dainty white dress, has to sit with perfect china-doll posture.
Rita's party ends in disaster when George, fed up with Mrs. Manleigh's constant rudeness the whole night long, tells her exactly what he thinks about schlocky radio writing. George and Rita have a fight. As George storms off, Rita thinks bitterly about Addie Ross. Addie who remembered George's birthday when Rita didn't. Addie wouldn't have been caught in this mess.
Rita's flashback ends and we're back in the present. Rita confronts Lora Mae about their problem, but Lora Mae insists that it doesn't matter whether or not her husband ran off with Addie Ross. She's got Porter's money and that's all that matters. Apparently Lora Mae is the only woman who thought to bring along pants and boots to this picnic. Oddly appropriate for a scene in which she's talking about how she doesn't need a man.
Sadie: "If I was you, I'd show more o' what I got. Maybe wear somethin' with beads."
Lora Mae: "What I got don't need beads."
Now, we come to the third segment of our program: Lora Mae and her gold digging past. She didn't just come from the wrong side of the tracks, she came from a house right next to the tracks (in a running gag, the house shakes like mad with every passing train). Poor but gorgeous Lora Mae has snagged a date with her boss, the wealthy Porter Hollingsway. While her family frets over the indecency of it, in strolls Lora Mae, cool as a cucumber, in this elegant little black dress. The neckline's low without showing a hint of inappropriate cleavage and it hugs her figure without clinging. Unlike the stereotypical gold digger, Lora Mae subverts expectations by showing us (and Porter) that she's got "class."
Lora Mae has grabbed Porter's attention, but she's angling for more than that. After finding a portrait of Addie Ross adorning Porter's piano, she tells him what she wants. "I want to be in a silver frame on a piano. My own piano in my own home." Note Lora Mae's look here, just a simple blouse and a skirt. Again, she's not going for anything flashy, but she's doing her best to look attractive and respectable. It's all to show Porter that she's no cheap girl on the side.
Having made her point, Lora Mae puts on a plain coat and striped scarf that undermine the sophisticated, "woman-of-the-world" attitude she was going for earlier. It's a quick reminder that Lora Mae, for all her attempts to dress well, is still poor. She's probably had that scarf since high school.
Porter is infatuated with Lora Mae but refuses to marry her. We cut to New Years at Lora Mae's house. Her sister, Babe (Barbara Lawrence), is borrowing Lora Mae's best dress for a date. And here, the costumers made a grave error. No way was that fussy little dress, with those puffed sleeves and cheap, crinkly material, Lora Mae's best dress. When she was fourteen, maybe.
Lora Mae has stayed home to mope. And she's put on her moping clothes, a big-buttoned cardigan, a white blouse, and a scarf to tie back her hair. I love this costuming detail, really I do. Classic movies often chose to ignore the fact that beautiful women didn't always lounge at home in perfectly pressed skirts and pearl necklaces. So it's jarring and rather wonderful to see Linda Darnell appear in something so ordinary. Stripped of her armor, so to speak. So of course, this is the moment when Porter barges in to tell Lora Mae that he can't bear to let her go. "Okay you win, I'll marry you."
Our flashback ends and we cut back to the present. The wives have all gone home, frantic to see if they've lost their husbands. Rita rushes home and finds her husband waiting. Turns out he's been helping his students rehearse for the school play. Thrilled, Rita calls up Mrs. Manleigh to tell her that while she likes her work, she's not going to be bossed around anymore. No costume changes although Rita's jacket and George's robe match up well together. They're now in sync.
Deborah comes home and discovers that Brad has stayed away overnight. She is now convinced that her husband has run off with Addie. Note that the color of Deborah's jacket almost exactly matches the wall. She's disappearing into her big, expensive, and empty house.
Lora Mae, trying to act unconcerned, comes home and tells her mother that Porter probably won't come back, only to have her grumpy husband stroll through the door. The two snipe at each other.
Lora Mae has switched her outfit and now appears in a dramatic two-tone dress, with a sash at the waist and those Mildred Pierce shoulder pads. I could make an elaborate metaphor here about the contrasting colors and how it represents Lora Mae's divided nature, but you know, I just think the 40s really liked two-tone dresses.
It's the night of the country club dance. Rita and George go to Deborah's house where the icily controlled Deborah informs them that Brad isn't coming. And just look at Deborah! She's gone from looking like a hayride hallucination to an elegant society woman in this black evening gown. The glittering metallic detail adds to the frosty impression that Deborah is giving off. She's also trailing what looks like a very expensive fur. In a way, this costume is a moment of triumph for Deborah, proving that she can play the society game. But there's a sting in it. As we found out in an earlier scene, Brad picked this dress for her...because it was one that Addie wore once.
Rita on the other hand, has gone in an opposite direction. She looks almost too casual in a white buttoned-up blouse and long skirt. However, while it makes me a little sad that Ann Sothern won't be glammed up for the finale, it does make sense for the character. Now that Rita has given up the fawning, socially pretentious attitude she put on for Mrs. Manleigh, she's not going to pretend to be any wealthier than she is.
We get to the dance and meet Porter and Lora Mae. Porter looks over at his wife dancing with another man and grumbles. Deborah tells him off. "Have you any idea how much Lora Mae's in love with you? So much, she's afraid to tell you. Afraid you'd laugh at her." Tired of pretending everything's alright, Deborah stands up and tells them all, in a perfectly calm voice, that her husband has just ran off with Addie Ross.
As Lora Mae and Porter look on in disbelief, let's look at Lora Mae's dress. It's very similar to her earlier party dress except that she's gone for a statelier look with a rolled collar and cuffs, looser sleeves, and no metallic detail on the dress. Her one extravagance is that long, dangling necklace. Fittingly, it stops right at her heart. Porter is convinced that Lora Mae is in love with his money. Does her heart belong to the jewelry or to him?
Porter reveals the truth. Brad didn't run away with Addie Ross. Porter did...until he changed his mind. He turns to his wife. "They all heard me say I ran away with another woman. You've got everything you need, you can take me for everything you'll ever want."
But Lora Mae won't have it. "If you said anything, I just didn't hear it." Porter looks over at her, realizing for the first time how they really feel about each other. Lora Mae's bare shoulders, instead of playing up her sexuality, now seem to make her more vulnerable to Porter's searching gaze.
Our comedy ends. Deborah goes home to wait for Brad and our other two couples begin to dance. Addie Ross is gone and suddenly the future seems a whole lot brighter.
The prolific Charles Le Maire was the wardrobe director for A Letter to Three Wives, while the underrated Kay Nelson (Oscar-nominated for Mother is a Freshman) designed the costumes. While her designs here aren't the kind of bravura work that wins awards, they are an excellent example of classic Hollywood costuming that works at every level to enhance the story. Each of our three protagonists has her own style, her own concerns, and her own budget to work with. And by the end of the film, Rita, Deborah, and Lora Mae have all gone through a journey that is perfectly visible through their costume changes. A great bit of costuming from a great and fun film.
Have a happy Fashion in Film Blogathon, everybody!
The lovely Jeanne Crain image is credited to a link from Dr. Macro.