Mervyn LeRoy’s Three On A Match – featuring a young Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis as well as Hollywood Rebel Ann Dvorak – checks all of the Pre-Code Hollywood boxes – adultery, drug addiction, wanton sexuality, mobsters, child endangerment, all in a taut 63 minutes. Read the full Three On A Match review to find out how it holds up!
Mary, Vivian, and Ruth are long-lost childhood friends, reuniting over a luncheon and comparing their fortunes. Vivian (Ann Dvorak) seems like she has it all, being married to a rich lawyer with a young, adorable son at home. Mary’s (Joan Blondell) doing okay, but struggling as an up-and-coming actress. Ruth (Bette Davis) is quiet but content.
You realize there’s more going as the luncheon wears on, as Vivian begins to open up about her discontent, despite the fact that she’s supposed to have it all. This sets the stage for the rest of Three On A Match, which mostly revolves around Vivian’s fall from grace into a life of drug addiction and squalor.
Three On A Match: Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
Mervyn LeRoy’s racy Pre-Code melodrama opens with the three women as young girls. Mary’s a carefree tomboy who doesn’t care who sees her knickers and skips class to smoke cigarettes with boys. Vivian’s a goody-two-shoes who’s desperate to be the center of attention, at any cost. Despite her primness, Vivian has a magnetic, charismatic personality, resulting in her being voted “Most Popular Girl In Class.” Ruth is quiet and studious, receiving an award for “the highest grades the school had ever seen.”
Three On A Match races through the years to find the trio as adults, in 1932, with a clever use of montage and historical ephemera to suggest the passage of time. As a struggling actress, Mary’s getting her hair done in a beauty parlor, featuring a truly bizarre curler contraption that makes her “feel like an octopus”, only to discover that Vivian is in the next booth. They plan a rendezvous luncheon to catch up, as mentioned up top. Here’s where Three On A Match picks up, hurtling towards its truly startling conclusion.
Vivian’s unhappy in her marriage to Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), who seems like a good guy despite being perceived as “stiff” or “boring”. He suggests Vivian take a solo trip to Europe to brighten her spirits, taking their young, adorable son Robert Jr. along with her.
As the cruise ship prepares to depart, Vivian meets Mike Loftus (Lyle Talbot), a ne’er-do-well with a silver tongue, and immediately falls under his spell. Vivian and Junior never leave New York City, instead going into hiding. Mary, ever the loyal friend, finds Vivian and suggests finding a surrogate home for Junior while she’s working out the details.
Vivian and Robert are ultimately divorced, resulting in one of the film’s first surprising twists. Robert and Mary have grown close when she was helping him find Vivian and Junior. The moment Robert and Vivian’s divorce is finalized, he remarries Mary, who becomes the new Mrs. Kirkwood.
The film jumps forward another few years. We find Vivian in dire straits, having become addicted to cocaine in her new life with Mike. We find Vivian outside the beauty parlor where the film begins, waiting for Mary to ask her for a handout. She gives Vivian $80, to help out an old friend, which turns out to be not nearly enough.
Mike’s fallen afoul of some gangsters, including Harve (Humphrey Bogart), who works for Ace (Edward Arnold). Ace is none-too-happy with the down payment. Mike gets desperate and decides to kidnap Junior on a whim from a local park.
Here’s where Three On A Match reaches its final heartbreaking conclusion. Mike, Vivian, Junior and the gangsters hole up in a seedy apartment like caged rats. They try to ransom the child but the hand-off is heavily monitored by the cops. Harve realizes they’re not getting away unscathed, especially as the child’s seen all their faces and knows all their names. He knows the only way out is to kill the kid. Vivian overhears the plot, which pierces through her narcotic haze. She quickly scrawls a message in lipstick on her nightgown and throws herself to her death, to alert the authorities and save her son.
Turns out lighting three cigarettes off a match is bad luck after all. At least for Vivian.
3 On A Match: Final Thoughts and Historical Significance
3 On A Match is considered one of the penultimate Pre-Code Hollywood films. It features nearly all of the themes which define the era – lascivious sexuality and its seamy repercussions, drug abuse, addiction, and the criminal underworld. It seems to use morality as an excuse to tell a sordid tale, as there doesn’t seem to be a clear moralistic worldview when it’s all said and done.
Three On A Match is noteworthy as a number of these themes would be impossible to show on-screen a short 2 two years later. Sexuality of any kind would be forbidden, as would child abuse or neglect, drug use and addiction.
The film also offers some insights into the world and psychology during The Great Depression, which had been raging for four years by 1932. There’s tragic scenes in a girl’s reform school, where one of the inhabitants remarks “but at least we’re not waiting in line for a bowl of soup.” There also seems to be a mistrust and dislike of the rich elite, but not entirely, as Robert Kirkwood is shown to be a decent man, a good father, an attentive business man, and an understanding lover.
3 On A Match is usually referenced as being vehicles for several huge stars, early in their career. While it’s a delight to see a young Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, that’s not the only reason to love this Pre-Code Hollywood melodrama. Actually, it’s one of the last reasons to check this one out, as Bette Davis is barely there (which she resented terribly, adding to the tension between Davis and Warner Brothers that would erupt in a few years.) Bogart is magnificently chilling as Harve, in an early gangster role, but he doesn’t even show up until 40 minutes in, in a 63 minute film.
How Does Three On A Match Hold Up?
Interestingly, despite their age, Pre-Code Hollywood movies are actually some of the best older films for modern audiences. First and most importantly, they waste no time, getting in and out like a stiletto wound, while dishing as much nastiness as possible in just a little over an hour.
Secondly, their sordid subject matter is more in-line with today’s viewing, delving into the dark side of human life, psychology, and desire. It’s even more striking to watch Pre-Code Hollywood movies today and realize that the industry would be all Shirley Temple movies and saccharine musicals in just a few years, when the Hays Code would be enforced in earnest.
Ann Dvorak is certainly one of the draws for Three On A Match. Producers had noticed her ethereal, waifish quality in Scarface, which also came out in 1932. She’s just as much of a spitfire in Three On A Match, which is reflective of her personality in real life. This hot-headedness would end up having major repercussions on Dvorak’s career, as she was deemed as difficult to work with. Some of these early Pre-Code films are your only chance to really see Dvorak at the peak of her powers.
Every performance is wonderful in Three On A Match, despite the fact that several of the stars aren’t used to the full extent of their abilities. Bette Davis is criminally side-lined in her role as Ruth, a sweet-but-quiet-and-serious court stenographer. Davis had been trying for years to ditch the “good girl next door/sister” stereotype which had plagued her career up to this point.
When Three On A Match was coming out, the Star machine had pegged Joan Blondell as the most likely to succeed. Mervyn LeRoy disregarded the rest of the cast, putting the full weight of the promotion machine behind Blondell. Davis never forgot the slight, which LeRoy mentions in his biography Mervyn LeRoy: Take One.
“There was Three on a Match. They gave me three unknown girls in that one – Joan Blondell, Bette Davis and Ann Dvorak. I made a mistake when the picture was finished. I told an interviewer that Joan Blondell was going to be a big star, that Ann Dvorak had definite possibilities, but that I didn’t think Bette Davis would make it. She’s been cool to me ever since.”
To learn even more about Three On A Match, read this wonderful in-depth review/synopsis from TCM.
I’m enjoying this deep-dive into the world of Pre-Code/30s Cinema so much! Learning a ton and gaining a deeper appreciation for the world of the 1930s. If you’re looking for period-specific trappings and trimmings, to see how people lived, loved, moved, walked, talked, laughed, sang, and screwed, you need to get into these cinematic treasures.
Next week, we’ll be taking a look at 1933’s Babyface, so check back in next Tuesday for that. Watched 1932’s Call Her Savage, featuring Clara Bow in one of her few talking roles, which I’m going to try and review, as well, in the interim. So lots of classic movie action in these parts!
Is there an old or classic film you’d like to see mentioned here at Mastering Modernity? Let us know in the comments and we’ll try and get around to it! Will watch any and everything, at the very least!
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