Film Title: Three on a Match
Studio: Warner Brothers
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Joan Blondell
- Ann Dvorak
- Bette Davis
- Warren William
When we consider the harshness of modern film, the pre-code era looks especially tame. But in an age where such behavior was often swept under the rug, it was all the more taboo. Pre-code films were rough, raw, and free from censorship. There was no explanation or separate category; they simply threw tact and caution to the wind. 1932’s Three on a Match, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is a tale of warped innocence and falling into the trap of social pressure.
Mary Keaton, Vivian Revere, and Ruth Wescott are three young girls attending elementary school together. Days are spent as one would expect: a bit of schoolwork here, a bit of recreation there. But the three have very different personalities. Vivian and Ruth are the more obedient students, while Mary is rebellious and sneaks away during school hours to smoke cigarettes with some of her male classmates. Her behavior nearly causes her to be denied graduation, but the principal allows her to join the rest of her class when she promises to straighten up. After the diplomas are handed out, Vivian and Ruth are discussing their future plans. Ruth is looking to attend a trade school so she can begin working and Vivian’s parents have arranged to send her to an upscale boarding school. Both girls agree that Mary will probably end up in reform school. Some years pass and the girls are now visibly older. Each has done exactly what they said they would. Ruth (Bette Davis) is in a stenographer training program, learning to type furiously in a room full of girls just like her. Vivian (Ann Dvorak) is in an expensive boarding school, delighting her classmates at bedtime by reading risqué stories from a book. Lastly, Mary (Joan Blondell) has indeed found herself in reform school. One of her reform school classmates plays the piano while singing a song about heaven. With the overall gloom of the establishment, the music is a welcomed change of ambiance. But not everyone seems to agree. Mary makes a few cynical remarks before heading to bed for the night.
A few more years pass and Mary has gotten out of reform school. Despite her resistance to the school’s strict rules, it seems to have done her a world of good. She’s become an entertainer and changed her last name to Bernard. One night while Mary is backstage getting her hair ready for an act, she’s told that an old classmate of hers is in the next room. Low and behold, it’s Vivian. Mary and Vivian spend some time laughing and catching up. Vivian is married to a wealthy man named Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), though she seems less than thrilled. Since Vivian claims to be in touch with Ruth, she and Mary agree that the three of them should meet for lunch the following day. At lunch, the girls light their cigarettes from a single match and reminisce about childhood. Vivian brushes over the subject of her marriage to Robert, clearly wanting to avoid talking about it. Aside from Mary’s entertainment career and Ruth’s mundane office job, there doesn’t seem to be much else to discuss. Outside, Vivian is ushered off in an extravagant chauffeur-driven limousine while Mary and Ruth all but roll their eyes. A few nights later, Vivian and Robert return home after being out on the town. It’s obvious that Robert has a “plan” for the evening but Vivian wants no part of it. She doesn’t even seem to like the idea of kissing him. Confused and upset, Robert (who hasn’t done anything to deserve such a cold shoulder), asks Vivian why she continues to avoid him. She gives him the “it’s not you, it’s me” routine, to which he replies that a vacation abroad may rejuvenate her and provide for a better outlook. She agrees, but opts to travel with only their son “Junior”, as Robert being with her would create the same problems in a different location. Robert joins her aboard the ship the day of departure to see her off. Shortly thereafter, Vivian runs into Mary in the ship’s hallway. Mary is not sailing anywhere, but is on board momentarily and on her way to party with a group of friends. She convinces Vivian to join them, noting that one of the ship’s stewardesses could watch Junior. Mary’s friend, Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot), is a wannabe hoodlum who clings to Vivian for the remainder of the evening. The two party for hours, much to the dismay of Mary, who notices Vivian’s indifference to the well-being of Junior. Soon, it’s reported that Vivian and Junior have disappeared from the ship (with Michael in tow).
The news of his wife’s and son’s disappearance has reached Robert and left him frantically searching for answers. Meanwhile, Vivian is living the high life with Michael, partying carelessly and ignoring Junior’s basic needs. Despite an on-going search, nothing seems to materialize. That is, until Mary shows up at Robert’s office and reassures him that Junior is fine, and that he and Vivian are there in New York City. Mary also convinces Vivian to let her care for Junior while she “decides what she wants to do” (read: until she’s gotten the party life out of her system). Vivian doesn’t like the idea at first, but relents and continues on her downward spiral with Michael. Robert accepts Vivian’s behavior as proof that she’s no longer interested in their marriage, so he files for divorce. Mary and Ruth have taken care of Junior like two stepmothers, but it’s Mary that has caught Robert’s eye. He asks Mary to marry him as soon as his divorce is finalized and she accepts. Vivian and Mary have switched places: Vivian is the wild girl and Mary is dressed in expensive furs. This is never more evident than when Vivian desperately waits for Mary outside of a store. She confesses to being broke and, though ashamed, asks Mary for money. As it happens, Mary’s generous donation ($80) actually winds up in Michael’s hands. Michael has gotten himself into financial trouble with a group of roughneck gangsters and needs every little bit to pay off his debt. Michael takes the $80 offering to the boss, “Ace” (Edward Arnold). Ace is insulted by the meager amount and has his main goon “Harve” (Humphrey Bogart in a very small role) threaten Michael with an “or else” ultimatum.
Michael’s initial plan is to blackmail Robert into giving him a large sum of money in exchange for a story about Mary’s juvenile escapades as a grand larcenist. He knows that a man of Robert’s stature wouldn’t want his wife plastered in the newspapers as a criminal. Michael makes his move, but Robert belittles the attempt, claiming that no reputable newspaper would print such rubbish. Then, he throws Michael out of his office. Distressed and frightened, Michael finds his way to the park, where Ruth is watching Junior play with a toy sailboat in the water. Michael hides conspicuously behind a newspaper until Junior is out of Ruth’s range of vision and then tells the boy that his mother wants to see him. Junior leaves the park with Michael and another frantic search gets underway once Robert realizes that his son is missing. In reality, the boy is at Michael and Vivian’s apartment. Harve follows up on Michael’s debt by busting into the apartment the following night with the rest of his muscle. Vivian comes out of the bedroom wiping her nose (an obvious cocaine problem that even Harve notices). Within a few minutes, police sirens begin ringing in the distance. Harve tells Michael to kill Junior. Michael refuses to kill a child, but he knows that his refusal puts his own life in danger. Vivian is caught in the middle, under the influence of drugs and powerless. The gang wants the balance of Michael’s debt, the cops are closing in, Junior is in danger and time is running out for everyone. It’s anyone’s game.
The tail end of Three on a Match touches on gangs and drug abuse, but the entire plot is buried in ill deeds. When the film begins, those ill deeds are under the guise of mischievous rabble-rousing, mostly Mary’s. All in all, the girls are just kids, anxious about their futures and unsure about the real world. When they come of age, there are no more excuses. Mary’s juvenile behavior lands her among other girls with an aversion to authority figures. It’s somewhat surprising that she eventually grew up and became a respected entertainer. Joan Blondell was very fitting as the delinquent girl turned caretaker. She’d only started her film career two years earlier in 1930 with Broadway’s Like That, a short that also featured Humphrey Bogart and his second wife Mary Philips. In the short two-year period, Blondell managed to rack up over 20 film credits, including the role of Mamie in the 1931 classic The Public Enemy. Bette Davis, as Ruth, actually had a limited role. The Ruth character was intentionally confining. She was caught between the two extremes of Vivian and Mary. The middle left no room to branch out, but rather to act stoic in the wake of everything happening. Throughout, Ruth was never seen with a romantic interest. Her main purpose seemed to revolve around being the best friend who is just “there”. Ann Dvorak’s career began in 1916 as a baby, appearing with her mother, Anna Lehr, in Lehr’s silent films. But her subsequent roles were uncredited all the way up until 1932’s Sky Devils. 1932 was a big year for Dvorak. Besides Three on a Match, she appeared in The Crowd Roars, Crooner, Stranger in Town, Love is a Racket, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, and the Paul Muni classic Scarface. Here, as Vivian, Dvorak worked well as a woman drowning in her own apathy. The beginning of the film gives the impression that the Vivian character will be the least important. She’s almost too normal to matter in the grand scheme of the plot. But as a grown woman, unhappy with her marriage, Vivian unleashes her passive-aggressive personality as soon as she has the opportunity. Humphrey Bogart does indeed make a brief appearance as Harve. Bogart was still four years away from his role in 1936’s The Petrified Forest, which gave him his first taste of major exposure. Everything prior was a smaller, back-burner type of assignment. But in this film, Bogart is in great company. Last but not least, Warren William plays Robert Kirkwood as if begging for a sympathetic ear. Granted, he never outwardly falls apart, but he screams inside while maintaining a cool demeanor. He doesn’t seem easily shaken, yet he appears emotionally fragile. The audience resents Vivian for running off on him. A veteran of World War I, William began his film career in 1922 under his birth name of Warren Krech (William was his middle name). The term “Three on a Match” actually has significance, though revealing it could spoil the film.
Three on a Match was released on DVD in 2008 as part of Warner Bros. Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 2. Prior to the DVD release, the film was only available as a 1998 VHS release and becoming a bit scarce at that. The new transfer is very well done, despite a rough spot here and there. The rougher moments are still no detriment to the film’s overall appeal. Three is one of five pre-code films in the set. Warner Bros. has done a wonderful job presenting these groundbreaking films both to the people that love them and to a new audience. The theatrical trailer is included with the film.
Three on a match? What’s in a superstition? Apparently, a great film if nothing else. The girls are strong then the girls are weak. We could use a good seesaw ride every once in a while. If this film has one major point of interest, it’s that very few things are predictable in it. When you couple that with a cast full of superstars who hadn’t really broken through yet, you get this 1932 drama. The fact that it’s pre-code is an added bonus. Sometimes, the world is not a place that can be restricted by guidelines.
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