Friday, January 15, 2010

Three on a Match (1932): Everything a Pre-Code Should Be

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.


  1. Ah, Rupert, you hit upon one of my all-time favorites and it's not even because it's a Warren William picture, because it isn't, he's just kind of there, a total afterthought...Ann Dvorak is incredible!

    This movie is so Warner Brothers, quick and dirty pre-code fun. I really can't think of another movie that delivers as much as Three on a Match does in a tick over an hour.

    Thanks for writing it up!

  2. I feel so bad about how many wonderful films I have not seen! I'm so glad to have met you so I know what to watch!
    Don't you find it ironic that Davis' character is named "Ruth" and that was her real name first name. Or was it her mother's name?

  3. Pre-code movies like this are proof that you don't have to have blood and guts and raw sex on the screen to titillate the moviegoer's senses. Dvorak and Williams were excellent. That last scene when she sacrificed herself for her son was heart wrenching.

    I would love to read your opinion of some of Barbara Stanwyk's pre-code movies. I am just now finding them and they were quite hot, from what I have read thus far. I need to get on TCM and get some of those films!

  4. Oh...and yes, Lesley Ann...Bette Davis's full name was Ruth Elizabeth Davis.

  5. Just saw this movie for the first time last year - they aired it on TCM. I had long heard of it, but had never had a chance to see it. Now I really wish I had recorded it, because I really enjoyed it.

    Is there anything as gratifying as a really good trashy story about dames, dollars and disillusionment?!

  6. I really like Ann Dvorak's performance in this - a great pre-Code melodrama, with the added bonus of both Bette Davis and Bogart. I enjoyed your review, makes me want to watch it again. Dvorak is also really good in Hawks' 'The Crowd Roars' with Cagney, made around the same time.

  7. Ah Rupert you have done it again. Beautiful review! I adore this movie. I own this movie and first saw this movie because as you know I am a big time Bette fan but Dvorak rules in this movie! she is wonderful. Thanks to Bette I saw it but Dvorak owns it and a lot of people will look for it because of your review now!

  8. Nice fill someone in on and this enter helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you for your information.

  9. Hi Rupert, I finally watched this movie last night and wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed it. Thanks so much for the recommendation. - Tom

  10. Hi
    Very nice and intrestingss story.

  11. Great movie, just one correction. She doesn't disembark with the guy at a European port, she disembarks with him before the boat leaves shore! Remember that he and Joan Blondell are only on the boat to go to a farewell party for some friends, but they have to go back ashore before the boat leaves the dock (I guess you could do that in those days!) Vivien has only known him a few hours when she runs off with him. That's why they keep showing the clock, and they show the chocolate stains, from the candy her son was eating earlier in the evening, are still on the pillow when she grabs the kid and gets off the boat. She never actually leaves New York.

  12. I loved the film, and it is truly Ann Dvorak's picture!



Related Posts with Thumbnails