Friday, December 9, 2016

KIRK DOUGLAS 100TH BIRTHDAY BLOGATHON: A Letter to Three Wives (1949)



Karen of shadowsandsatin is hosting a celebratory blogathon in honour of the 100th birthday of Mr. Kirk Douglas, and we've all been invited.  To join the party, click HERE.

I always think of A Letter to Three Wives as an elegant movie. Certainly, it is not elegant in the idea that we are peering into the lives of these three couples, but in its elegant in its execution.  Joseph Mankiewicz won Oscars for directing and for best screenplay. Vera Caspry (Laura) adapted from a story by John Klempner and shared in a Writers Guild of America win with Mankiewicz. As both writer and director Mankiewicz crafted the story of three marriages at a crisis point and the woman behind them all into a seamless vision. Poignant and humourous flashbacks smoothly reveal the regrets and love at stake.

Most elegant of all is the coolly ironic voice of Celeste Holm introducing us to her town and her friends.  She is Addie Ross and Addie Ross has a connection to each of the men in our story.  To rich and handsome Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) she shared her first black eye and her first kiss.  To department store magnate Porter Hollingway (Paul Douglas) she is the embodiment of class and everything to which he aspires.  To George Phipps (Kirk Douglas) she is an old pal, someone who understands and remembers.  To the wives, Debra Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) and Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), Addie Ross is, to be polite, a thorn in their collective sides. Addie is a reminder of all the things that they are not.  Addie's connection to the three men is so deep and the animosity that has built up with their wives so pervasive that when Addie writes a farewell letter to her friends letting them know that she has left town with one of their husbands, they believe her.



Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas

In celebration of Kirk Douglas' centenary we will now turn our attention to George Phipps. George and Rita, according to their friend Brad, were engaged at the age of five by an exchange of beetles. George, like Addie, is a commentator on the state of affairs. He has strong opinions and is not averse to making those opinions known, in his own wry manner. George is considered something of an oddball and he likes it that way.  George is a schoolteacher, a man of limited earning potential, but one completely happy in his chosen career.  He loves his wife Rita for her independence and supports her career as a writer for a radio program. Rita's work outside the home has certainly made life more comfortable for the couple who are also the parents of twins. Nonetheless, in one of the most popular scenes from the movie, George lets his uncomplimentary opinion of radio and popular conteporary culture be known to the producers of Rita's show. Florence Bates and Hobart Cavanagh are not impressed.

"The purpose of radio writing, as far as I can see, is to prove to the masses that a deodorant can bring happiness, a mouthwash guarantee success and a laxative attract romance."  And that's just the start of his rant!

George, in a most modern attitude, works hard to not resent Rita's superior role in the family finances. He overlooks her forgetting his birthday or being too distracted to take an interest in good news he tries to impart. What bothers George, along with Rita's foolish jealousy of Addie, is her subverting her true character in order to please her producers. 

George Phipps is a find. George Phipps is a keeper. George Phipps is the Kirk Douglas that I fell in love with as a teenager. My other Kirk experiences at the time were multiple viewings of The Vikings and Detective Story. The violent Einar and the obsessive Detective McLeod were performances that impressed me, but the characters did not make my heart smile.

The devil-may-care attitude found in other Douglas characterizations such as Ned Land in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Dempsey Ray in Man Without a Star , along with his Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie also get a high crush rating, but none of them have pushed George Phipps off his throne. I realize there is a healthy dose of Mankiewicz in those feelings, but I can't imagine a better performance than the one given by Kirk Douglas to bring all the facets of George Phipps to life in A Letter to Three Wives.






19 comments:

  1. George Phipps is a very modern character - everything he sees and does is foward-thinking for 1949, and even for today in some places. This movie is adorable, and George is one of my favorite characters in it (alongside Debra Bishop and Addie Ross).
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. Yes, that forward thinking is part of George's oddball charm. The character cultivates and uses it.

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  2. George Phipps IS a keeper! I love Kirk Douglas in this role. I agree with Le in the comment above – Kirk Douglas was a very forward-thinking character for 1949.

    I really enjoyed your look at this film. You reminded me it's been way too long since I've seen it. :)

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    1. It is one of those movies that stands up to re-watches very well. In fact, I think there are times when nothing else will do.

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  3. You know, Pat, I don't think I've ever seen this film. How is this possible? I too had a big crush on Kirk Douglas (though Burt Lancaster took over at some point) when I was a kid. I remember a western with Kirk which had me fairly drooling. HA! He fell in love with an Indian girl played by, I think, Elsa Martinelli - yeah, Indian by way of Italy. :) At any rate, I lost interest in Kirk when he began playing character parts and became kind of a hambone. But when he was younger, he was larger than life and wonderful. Ah, I remember THE VIKINGS, yup. I always think of Kirk and Burt Lancaster as birds of the same feather. Same types. Both almost too large for the screen to hold them in check.
    P.S. There's a new book about the making of SPARTACUS which sounds interesting, don't know if you've heard of it or not. It's called I AM SPARTACUS and its by Kirk himself.

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  4. Oh my gosh, The Indian Fighter! I haven't seen or thought about that movie in ages. I bet it would be fun to watch again. It might be an interesting exercise to watch Kirk's movies in chronological order. TCM should have done something like that for us today.

    Kirk focusing on his writing talent introduced us to a man more interesting and accomplished than his screen characters. I'll be checking that one out.

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  5. Always wanted to see this one. How does it compare, do you think, to Mankiewicz' ALL ABOUT EVE? I can see both movies have a lot of peach roles for actresses, for one thing.

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    1. Both scripts are witty and quotable. Both stories are absorbing. Mankiewicz was really in the zone. Eve is all about career vs home life. While there is a bit of that in George and Rita's story, its focus is more on home. The story revolves around the country club set. As much of a fantasy land to me as Middle Earth, yet still relatable. I think you'll find much to admire and enjoy in the movie.

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  6. You've been to my blog, you see the type of films I usually watch, which is why people usually look at me like I have a hole in my head when I say THIS is one of my favorite movies of all time. EVERYONE is so good in this. The dynamics of each couple is so wonderful as each find love in a different way. Excellent write up!

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    1. You truly appreciate excellence in all its incarnations. I love that you can throw folks off their guard with A Letter to Three Wives.

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  7. Love the parts about your Kirk crush. No one will ever dethrone William Holden as my No. 1 classic movie crush, but Kirk does come close in this movie.

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    1. Yep. Kirk is working the charm like nobody's business as George Phipps and, for once, there's not a smidge of nasty under the smile.

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  8. I love this film! It's so clever and all the segments work so well together. Glad to see you focus in on the Kirk/Ann vignette. This is perhaps Kirk's most unusual early performance considering what he spent most of the 50's doing-the intense anti-hero. Without question his best scene in the film is the one where he dresses down Mrs. Manleigh (a wonderful Florence Bates). When he says the line about feeling badly and he flexes his fingers it cracks me up every time. He and Sothern have a great chemistry and make their scenes work, whether their main segment or when they enter the other couples spheres.

    Over at Dell on Movies site he just did a Girls Week series where he looked at films with strong female leads for an entire week and he kindly let me do a post on this film looking at the three women's aspect. Here's a link to it if you're so inclined.

    http://dellonmovies.blogspot.com/2016/11/girl-week-2016-letter-to-three-wives.html

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    1. Kirk and Ann are very real as a couple in their roles. It makes their segment memorable, and we certainly root for them.

      I am certainly so inclined to check out your article. Thanks for the link.

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  9. I only saw this film for the first time in the past year or so and I was blown away by the story and cast. Fascinating story and as others have mentioned, Kirk's character is very much a modern one.

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    1. I always think movies come to us when they are supposed to and I'm so glad you got the chance to enjoy A Letter to Three Wives.

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  11. Lovely post about Kirk Douglas in what, in hindsight, seems an atypical role for him--a middle-class breadwinner with a relaxed attitude towards life. I'm so used to see Kirk brandishing pistols or swords or a grimace that it's always a bit of a surprise to see him taking it easy while he listens to Brahms. I usually don't associate Douglas with comedy, but he strikes the perfect note in this film.

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    1. Thank you.

      Comedies do seem to take the back burner in Kirk's career (check out My Dear Secretary), but if he didn't have a strong sense of humor I don't think he would have lived this long or even survived some of those intense roles.

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