Before Hollywood decided to censor itself in the mid 1930's with the Production code out of the Will Hayes office, vice ran rampant on the silver screen. Sex, violence, drugs, alcohol (even during Prohibition in the early 30's and before); all things tawdry and unseemly were displayed for the world to gawk at and enjoy with their popcorn. Of all studios, nobody showed the seedier side of pre-code films better than Warner Brothers. Paramount and MGM may have made sex and the post Jazz Age sparkle but Warners threw in grit and grime, and one of the best examples of their pre-code sizzle was Three on a Match (1932). The intriguing title is attributed to the notion during World War I that a single match lit long enough to light three soldiers' cigarettes could cause attack from enemy gunfire and the last to light up would be killed. However, it was later claimed that a match company started the superstition to increase its sales.
The three on a match are Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis, who play school girl acquaintances who meet up in adulthood having gone down very different paths. Mary (Blondell) was the girl who cut class to smoke with boys, went to reform school and is now a feisty showgirl (what else for the feisty Blondell). Vivien (Dvorak) was a stuck up priss who ended up in a swank boarding school and is now married to a wealthy attorney, Robert Kirkwood (Warren William). Lastly is Ruth (Davis), the studious one of the three who completes business college and is a career girl. There's alot of Valley of the Dolls in this story. The focus of the film remains on Vivien, a bored and spoiled wife of a rich man. When she rebuffs his amorous advances, he suggests she take a trip by herself (WHAT?). Instead she takes their young son Junior along and the two proceed on a European cruise. En route Vivien begins an affair with a slick and virile gambler, to whom she was introduced by school chum Mary. Viv leaves the ship with the thug, Junior in tow, at a European port. Frantic, Robert searches high and low for his family with no success until Mary gives him the information he needs to find them.
Third billed is 24 year-old Bette Davis, but don't be fooled, this is not a BD movie. Her diminutive role doesn't even rate the billing she receives. It's not her fault mind you, she does what she can with the weak material her character is given. Any accolades for acting must go to Ann Dvorak and Joan Blondell. Dvorak is rather lackluster in the first half of the film, as the spoiled, wandering wife of wealthy William, but as she descends into a pit of carnality and eventually drug addiction, she is splendid to watch. When she has hit rock bottom, with her illicit lothario, she is shown in the dingiest of flats, repeatedly wiping her cocaine addicted nose. Warren William plays the urbane, smooth character he did so well in films of the period. Forgotten by many today, both he and Dvorak offered interesting and dynamic characterizations in many pre and post code films.
In a small but forceful part is Humphrey Bogart. As one of the dozens of sinister hoodlums he portrayed before finally achieving stardom, Bogie doesn't disappoint. He leers and sneers and is just nasty through and through. Great stuff. Also in an early "heavy" role (pardon the pun) is the terrific Edward Arnold. Directed by the talented Mervyn LeRoy (I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, The Wizard of Oz), one of the films greatest assets is its quick pacing and compactness. With a total running time of only 63 minutes, its short even for a picture of its period. But so much is packed into the 63 minutes that there is not time for a dull moment. Like other dramas of the pre-code era, the message is short but sweet ~ at least figuratively. A story could be told by cutting to the chase. The film's climax is powerful and chilling, a tour de force by Dvorak. There is nothing watered down here. No, I'm not going to spoil it for you , its something you must see for yourself.