Dateline #FlashbackFriday: Some quiet evenings, when we’re home alone with Miss Hannah Joy the Beardoodle, tending to something extra-exciting—like stuffing envelopes, folding laundry, or sewing buttons back on shirts—we like to find an old movie to watch on TV. If the Samsung spies on us, it’s in for a big disappointment: For this one night, at least, we’re just a couple of homebodies, quietly matching socks, applying stamps, and threading needles. One of us, in fact, is snoring.
But don’t let that fool you: We’ve got dreams—and determination, too. Just like Mildred Pierce (1945, Warner Brothers), who, for the record, we’ve always thought gets sort of a bum rap.
You #womenwhowork out there know what we’re talking about: Imagine, after a long day, coming home to your “shack and its cheap furniture,” eager to leave behind “everything that smells of grease” (except your hair and clothes, which you can’t wait to wash immediately), only to have to deal with a stack of bills, a demanding child, and an unfaithful (and unemployed) partner who spends his time shopping for polo gear and bespoke shirts, expecting you to write the checks? What?!
Enough is enough already. Here’s a woman who can bake pies, open a chain of successful restaurants and still the people around her are not satisfied. Look at how she climbs the ladder of success in high-heel slingbacks paired with practical plaid flannel, getting rid of all that dust and grime that has accumulated in the ceiling fixtures of her DIY fixer-upper restaurant. But more spring cleaning tips another day. This is movie night.
We have a soft spot in our hearts for vintage films with complex female characters who’ve been permitted to reveal a few character flaws. Even when the acting is over the top or the plot’s as thin as tulle, we can find ourselves sucked in by the costumes (Mildred’s pinstripe suit does lend the intended air of credibility while tacking accounting duties), the credit graphics, the accents, and, being home- and-garden obsessed, the landscapes, scenery, and set design.
Who wouldn’t dream of exploring the English countryside that young Elizabeth Taylor, as the horse-obsessed Velvet Brown, galloped through in National Velvet (1944, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)—even though, like Mildred Pierce, the entire movie was shot in California?
Or how about spending an hour or two perusing the stacks of the Greenwich Village bookstore aspiring intellectual Jo Stockton monitored—before being “discovered” as a fashion model and swept off to (the real) Paris in Funny Face (1957, Paramount Pictures)?
The bookstore was a Hollywood set, not really in New York. But the model Dovima— featured in the bookstore scene as the elegant model Marion—represents her hometown authentically, with a beefed-up version of the accent the Queens native (born Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba) came by honestly.
We confess: We’re not die-hard fans of Funny Face’s Cinderella-fantasy plot, but it’s hard to resist the runway glamour, multiple Givenchy gowns and fit-like-a-glove Edith Head costumes, Richard Avedon photographs, and Parisian landmarks like the Louvre’s Daru Staircase (above, with Ms. Hepburn under an arch of red chiffon, wearing a strapless red Givenchy), none of which we get to see every day.
And we had to smile (a little guiltily) at the scene where the highly opinionated and perfectionistic magazine editor Maggie Prescott, played by Kay Thompson, invades Jo’s bookshop unannounced, accompanied by a gaggle of models, immediately starts rearranging everything, and takes off hours later with only the promise of giving the bookstore location credit in the magazine. All in a day’s work.
Our laundry-folding hour doesn’t always coincide with quality TV programming. There have been many nights when we’ve checked the offerings on 700+ channels and come up empty. But sometimes we get lucky: Last week, we decided to check out A Letter to Three Wives (1949, 20th Century Fox), which was streaming Free on Demand. FXM billed Three Wives as a comedy, and with a snappy script and the great Thelma Ritter in her first motion picture role (as, of course, a housekeeper), there are laughs to be had. But, being the portrait of three marriages…well, “it’s complicated.”
A Letter to Three Wives is an interesting hybrid of a movie, the sometimes funny, sometimes poignant tale of modern marriage seen through the eyes of three (plus one offscreen “Other”) women who, just as they are about to depart on a Saturday morning cruise and picnic for disadvantaged children, receive a letter via messenger from the notorious fourth female in their cocktail-swigging suburban social circle.
“You see girls,” the letter concludes, “I’ve run off with one of your husbands.” (Gasp!)
Alas, in 1949, with neither mobile phones nor GPS devices to assist them in tracking their husbands down, the women on the day cruise, as the studio poster puts it, were all left to wonder, “while one of them wandered.” In a series of flashbacks, each of the three potentially scorned women recalls recent scenes from her imperfect marriage, secretly considering if the man on the lamb might be her own.
The whodunit-style storyline is saved from sappy soap-opera sentimentality by its snappy script and some excellent acting by Anne Sothern, Lynda Darnell, Jeanne Craig, Celeste Holm (voice only), Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas, Florence Bates, the aforementioned Ms. Ritter, et al. Three Wives earned two Oscars at the 1950 Academy Awards, one for Best Director and another for Best Original Screenplay for Joseph L. Mankiewicz , who went on to win the Best Motion Picture award the following year for All About Eve.
The element that intrigued us most about Three Wives, though, was the scenery. We kept wondering: Haven’t we seen that bandstand near the boat dock somewhere before? Wait: Wasn’t that the old lumberyard, and the waterfront hotel, obscured behind those camp buses?
The reason for déjà vu became clear after the women board the boat, and the camera pans out to reveal glimpses of Storm King, Mount Taurus, and Breakneck Ridge. The narrative of Three Wives strives to make the suburb in which the couples live anonymous: This could happen anywhere, to anyone, the message implies. But the film’s cruise scenes were not staged on a Hollywood set: They were shot right here in the Hudson Highlands.
Old movies can provide a fun escape. And sometimes they bring us home again.