Three on a Match is a 1932 American pre-Code crime drama released by Warner Bros. The film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and stars Joan Blondell, Warren William, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis. The film also features Lyle Talbot, Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins and Edward Arnold
Three women who went to the same elementary school, Mary (Joan Blondell), Ruth (Bette Davis), and Vivian (Ann Dvorak), meet again as young adults after some time apart. They each light a cigarette from the same match and discuss the superstition that such an act is unlucky and that Vivian, the last to light her cigarette, will be the first to die.
Mary is a show girl who has established stability in her life after spending some time in a reform school, while Ruth works as a stenographer. Vivian is the best off of the three, married to successful lawyer Robert Kirkwood (Warren William) and with a young son Robert Jr. (Buster Phelps), but she has grown dissatisfied with her life. Just before she is about to leave on an ocean cruiser with her son, Mary comes along with two men going to a party on the ship, before it leaves. Gambler Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot) one of the two men flirts around with Vivian and persuades her to run away with him.
Vivian and Michael Loftus run a very shabby life, so that Mary concerned about Vivian’s neglect of her son, tells Robert (nearly mad about the disappearance of his son) where to find his boy. Mary and Ruth are very fond of Junior so that Robert proposes to Mary and hires Ruth to look after the child. Mary and Robert marry the same day his divorce from Vivian becomes final.
Meanwhile, Vivian’s money runs out and Michael owes $2,000 to gangster Ace (Edward Arnold), who tells him to pay up or else. Desperate, Michael tries to blackmail Robert by threatening to inform the press about Mary’s criminal background. When that does not work, he kidnaps Robert’s boy. However, Vivian scrawls a message in lipstick on her nightgown and throws herself out the window of the fourth-floor apartment where she and her son are being held, leading to the child’s rescue.
A fresh, fast, surprising, excellent ride!
Three on a Match (1932)
A tightly interwoven plot about three “types” of women, from their school days into adulthood, played out with snap and sizzle. This is one fast, loaded movie, playing loose with morals and fast with stereotypes, and playing against them at times. There is little more painful than a man or woman falling to ruins, and it’s made so reasonable, so nearly exciting, and so really reprehensible it’s a surprise and a cinematic thrill.
Yes, a terrific movie, and not just for 1932. The interplay between the lead women (including a tart young Bette Davis) is great, and as the plot moves into a full blooded crime film (with Warner Brothers knew how to make better than any of them), it really screams. Throw in Humphrey Bogart (a decade before Casablanca) and you have something you have to watch.
But these are the obvious reasons, the film buff draws. Watch lead actresses Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak for their sheer ability, and their likability. And for how they can be themselves before the code kicked in in two years. Mervin Leroy is a great director, of course (the same year he did the incomparable I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) and seeing his range and control is a treat. Don’t miss it. Just an hour long, too.
Will Hayes Would Have Loved This
Author: howdymax from Las Cruces, New Mexico
15 October 2002
Warner Bros had a reputation for pumping them out in the early 30’s like chocolate covered Goobers at a Saturday Matinee. The story was typical Warner Bros from that time period.
Anne Dvorak, married to a successful lawyer and mother of a cute little 6 year old boy, becomes restless and looking for excitement, takes the boy and runs off with a small time hood. She eventually turns into a drunk (and worse). Her best friends (played by Joan Blondell and Bette Davis) give up on her and turn the boy over to his father. She continues to sink deeper and deeper into the filth as her husband divorces her and marries her best friend Joan. Meanwhile, her boyfriend, in a desperate attempt to pay off a gambling debt, kidnaps and holds the boy for ransom. The end is melodramatic and no real surprise, but it is exciting.
This film is interesting for a couple of reasons. It represents the kind of film that Warners did best in those years. Action, pathos, and the underworld. It is also interesting because of the casting. Although Humphrey Bogart plays a thug, he wasn’t Mr Big in this one. He was just a run of the mill thug. Ann Dvorak seems to have switched characters with Bette Davis or Joan Blondell. She becomes more and more corrupt as the picture wears on until you are convinced she is beyond redemption. Bette and Joan, on the other hand, become more and more saintly until they are practically beatified by pictures end. I should mention the stock support players as well. Add Lyle Talbot (as the dispicable boyfriend), Edward Arnold (as Mr Big), Jack La Rue and Allen Jenkins (as the reliable hoods), and you have a Warner Bros winner.
Finally, there is the pre-code shenanigans. For a change, Joan Blondell doesn’t sit on the edge of the bed, in her slip, rolling on a pair of stockings. Bette Davis does. By the way, this is the only picture I have ever seen where Bette Davis shamelessly displays her legs. And a fine set of legs at that. Look for the scene I just described as well as a scene at the beach. In another scene that would never have made it past the Hayes Office, Ann Dvorak comes out of the bedroom rubbing her nose when she realizes her son was kidnapped. Humphrey Bogart glances knowingly at the boys, rubs his nose, and sarcastically winks. A DOPE FIEND! There is a scene where she is passed out on the double bed. There is booze, cigarettes and ashtray on the bed, and a couple of cigars on the nightstand. In another scene she is splayed out on the couch with a drink in her hand, booze bottles all over the apartment when her little boy walks into the room. His face and clothes are filthy and he says he is hungry. She glances over at him, points to a tray of half eaten o’rdoevres, and says “eat that”.
These little tidbits don’t necessarily make it a great movie, but the cast and the story do.
“Would you stop remindin’ me of heaven when I’m so close to the other place.”
Author: classicsoncall from Florida, New York
15 January 2006
Critic Leonard Maltin describes “Three On A Match” as a “hard hitting example of forbidden Hollywood”. That it is, no happy endings here, as this depression era film follows the rise and fall of childhood friends who get caught up in the seamy underworld of booze, drugs and gambling, ultimately trading places along the way.
The three friends are Mary Keaton Bernard (Joan Blondell), Vivian Revere Kirkwood (Ann Dvorak) and Ruth Wescott (Bette Davis), shown growing up between 1919 and 1932 as a montage of newspaper headlines place the story in a historical context. Blondell’s character is a reform school standout, whose life experience puts her in a position to counsel a depressed and “fed up with everything” Vivian. Viv takes up with small time hood Mike Loftus (Lyle Talbot) after disappearing with her young son from a cruise ship. Loftus ingratiates himself with mobster Harve (Humphrey Bogart in a minor role) and his boss Ace (Edward Arnold) by going into debt for two grand. The desperate creep attempts to blackmail the boy’s father, wealthy lawyer Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), but that plan heads south as the cops quickly close in. Vivian’s resolution is one of the more depressing finales to a tale that realistically depicts a pair of unfortunate souls whose lives spiral completely out of control.
The film does have it’s share of light moments; one of the newspaper clippings describes the new fashion trend in beachwear, a “brief” sun suit, ably modeled by Bette Davis. In stark contrast, Mr. Kirkwood’s attire of choice is a business suit and tie while sitting under a beach umbrella, hard to work up a good tan that way. Davis’ screen time is limited but effective, with a sit up and take notice scene where she’s shown wearing just a slip early in the film, rather daring for the era and showing more skin than one might expect.
Warner Brothers/First National masterfully portrayed the down and out, seamy underside of life during the 1930’s, ’40’s and ’50’s, tackling all manner of subjects in their movies. “Three On A Match” tells it’s tale without a wasted moment, sometimes relying on scenes that only last a few seconds to move the story along. It’s hard edged and no nonsense, all the more provocative for it’s mature subject matter and realistic portrayals; highly recommended.
The Three Matchkateers
Author: lugonian from Kissimmee, Florida
8 November 2002
THREE ON A MATCH (First National Pictures, 1932), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is a realistic account into the lives of three former classmates who meet again as adults, and how one of the three goes through her path of self destruction.
The story begins in 1919 where the song, “Smiles” is on top of the charts. Jack Dempsey wins his championship title by knocking out Jess Willard, and the advent of the Prohibition era. Three girls, Mary (Virginia Davis), Vivian (Dawn O’Day) and Ruth (Betty Carrs) are students at Public School 62. Mary is a wild girl who cuts class to smoke “cigarettes”; Ruth is a studious girl with the highest grades in her class; and Vivian is a snob voted the most popular girl in her class. Next segment: 1921, Warren G. Harding is elected as president of the United States with his campaign slogan, “the era of good feeling.” The girls graduate and go on their separate ways, with the troublesome Mary, who will face her future serving time in reform school.
1925 starts with the underscoring of “The Prison Song,” the debut of True Facts Magazine, and of how the youth of today has gone wild. The former classmates, now adults, are focused to what they are currently doing: Mary (Joan Blondell), serving time for grand larceny in a reform school; Vivian (Ann Dvorak), attending an exclusive school, and reading bedtime stories to youngsters; and Ruth (Bette Davis), in secretarial school. Next segment, 1930, with “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” heading the musical charts. Mary Keaton, a struggling actress using Mary Bernard as her stage name, is reunited with Vivian, now married to a successful attorney, Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), and mother to a little boy, Junior (Buster Phelps). Although Vivian has everything to live for, she’s unhappy, in fact, just plain bored. As for Ruth, she’s a secretary with ambition. Upon their reunion in a restaurant, they talk over old times, light up their cigarettes from a single match and laugh off the superstition, “Three on a Match,” where the third member to use the match is to become the unlucky one.
Later, while on an ocean cruise alone with Junior, Vivian meets Mike Loftus (Lyle Talbot), a compulsive gambler whom she’s immediately attracted. After going with this loser, she finds her new existence and illicit affair exciting, until realizing that too much partying, liquor and cigarettes is ruining her life as well as Junior’s. Following a brief segment of 1931, the chapter concludes in 1932, showing what happens to the “three on a match.”
Whenever THREE ON A MATCH is shown on television (presently on Turner Classic Movies) it plays as a Bette Davis movie, even though she’s the one with limited screen time, least dialog and smoking scenes. Joan Blondell, the leading member of the trio, is good in her role, but it’s Ann Dvorak giving a standout performance, in what’s considered by many to be her best screen role. Of the trio, it’s Bette Davis who worked herself to becoming the “Queen of Warner Brothers” before the end of the decade. As for Blondell, she’s as memorable as Dvorak is underrated. Warren William, then groomed to stardom, is also given little screen opportunity in this production.
This was to be his first of five films opposite Joan Blondell, and their combination together works quite well on screen. Betty Carrs, the child actress appearing as Ruth in the early portion of the story, has a striking resemblance to Bette Davis, giving the basic idea as to how Bette Davis herself looked during her childhood years; Dawn O’Day would later become known as Anne Shirley, leading adolescent actress for RKO Radio in the 1930s and early 1940s.; and Virginia Davis, the least known of the three, once known as the the live action character of Alice in cartoon shorts for Walt Disney in the 1920s.
With limited actors listed in the opening credits, there are many familiar faces from the Warners stock company to go around: Glenda Farrell (The reform school inmate); Grant Mitchell (The school principal); Clara Blandick (Mary’s mother); Frankie Darro (Bobby); Hardie Albright (Philip Randall, Kirkwood’s lawyer assistant); and Sidney Miller (Willie Goldberg). Allen Jenkins, Humphrey Bogart (in gangster debut) and Jack LaRue play the meanest looking thugs in screen history, with Edward Arnold as “Ace,” their leader, who’s introduced late in the story in front of the mirror pulling hairs from his nose with the tweezers.
Like most Warner Brothers Depression-era dramas of the 1930s, THREE ON A MATCH plays on the grim side. No nonsense, no glamor, heavy on melodrama and a touch of “film noir.” Even Blondell and Dvorak play their own down-on-their luck characters in separate scenes without the use of makeup. It’s quite grim, especially with a “too-close- for- comfort” scene involving child abduction. All in all, as depressing as it can be, it’s quite watchable, particularly since it’s a very short 63 minute production that plays like a novel with very short chapters. There’s great moments of nostalgia, especially with it’s newsreel-type opening of events that occurred during any given specific era of time giving this an added plus.
THREE ON A MATCH is also available on video cassette as part of the “FORBIDDEN Hollywood” series, hosted by respected film critic, Leonard Maltin. Over the years, THREE ON A MATCH has developed into a minor classic from the 1930s. It was remade by Warner Brothers in 1938 as Broadway MUSKETEERS with Ann Sheridan, Margaret Lindsay and Marie Wilson in the Blondell, Dvorak and Davis roles, with a little girl, Janet Chapman, filling in the role as the doomed girl’s child. The original ranks the best and stronger of the two. They can both be seen and compared on Turner Classic Movies. (*** matches)
Pre-Code Soap Opera With Style
Author: Ron Oliver (email@example.com) from Forest Ranch, CA
29 October 2002
THREE ON A MATCH turns out to be bad luck for a trio of young women meeting again years after their high school graduation.
This pre-Code Warner Bros. drama takes the old theme of a good girl gone bad, but deliberately shies away from platitudes or even any hope for redemption. The film’s fallen woman lands in the gutter quite literally and the movie leaves her there, with the plot offering no loopholes for her possible regeneration.
Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak & Bette Davis portray the three friends whose lives take them down very different paths. Blondell, as the bad girl turned actress, steals the film with her blonde brashness and good humor. Dvorak, as the rich girl with the husband & child, is so relentlessly unsatisfied and morose that she becomes quite a burden for the viewer to bear. Demure Davis, as the poor secretary, is given very little to do and gets to exhibit none of the fire which would characterize her performances in years to come.
The male members of the cast give good support to the ladies. Warren William, who so often played the villain, here is given the sympathetic role of Dvorak’s harried husband; he gives his usual sophisticated performance. Lyle Talbot plays a society cad & coward, destroyed by gambling & booze. Although he has but one scene, Edward Arnold is most effective as a menacing crime boss – we first come upon him while he is calmly plucking hairs out of his nose! Humphrey Bogart & Allen Jenkins play his dangerous enforcers.
Movie mavens will spot in uncredited roles Grant Mitchell as the girls’ high school principal, Clara Blandick as Blondell’s distraught mother, Herman Bing as an exuberant school band leader and the glorious Glenda Farrell, not quite yet a star, as a reformatory inmate.
An amusing aspect of the film is how it shows the passage of time by incorporating popular tunes of the era, including “Smiles,” “The Sheik of Araby,” “The Prisoner’s Song,” “Charleston,” “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” “I Found A Million Dollar Baby” & “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
Notice the reference to Ivar Kreuger, the real-life industrialist who attempted to monopolize the match market. Crimes and scandal dogged his organization and he died a suicide in Paris in March of 1932, seven months before the premiere of THREE ON A MATCH. On New Year’s Eve, 1932, Warner Bros. would release THE MATCH KING, starring Warren William and loosely based on Kreuger’s nefarious life.