The Bette Davis Project: Three on a Match (1932)

Three on a Match (1932)


The film revolves around the ups & downs of three very different childhood friends. The aloof Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak, G Men) marries a wealthy lawyer (Warren William, The Wolfman), but she doesn’t like being a socialite. Partygirl Mary (Joan Blondell, The Public Enemy) tries to stay out of trouble after spending time in jail. Ruth Wescott (Bette Davis) makes ends meet as a stenographer. Vivian’s sudden divorce changes the women’s destinies forever.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Three on a Match, written by Lucien Hubbard, directed by Mervyn LeRoy (Mister Roberts and The Bad Seed), is a typical Pre-Code Hollywood melodrama, the kind of thing Warner Bros. excelled at in the early 1930s. The Hays Office put a stop to the studio’s assembly line of cheap and risqué potboilers, but before that, Warners kept them going on at a frantic pace.

These films vary in quality, but because of its cast and sordid situations, Three on a Match is one of the most interesting B-movies made by the studio. It’s also influential. There are a couple of shots that director Roman Polanski “borrowed” for his 1970s thriller The Tenant (if you’ve seen both films you’ll know what I’m talking about).

Interestingly, Three on a Match was forced upon director LeRoy, who was busy preparing his pet project I am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang. LeRoy never had anything good to say about the movie. Considering the director’s lack of enthusiasm, it’s amazing that the film turned out to be as good as it is.

The busy storyline moves at a brisk pace. We go from vignette to vignette at an almost exhausting speed. Also, the frank treatment of drugs and underworld activities is still interesting. The film’s biggest problem is that Davis’s segments are dull  — they don’t add anything to the whole.

The cast is a combination of established actors and people on the verge of stardom.  Blondell is sassy as the ex-con with a heart-of-gold. Dvroak is a revelation as the socialite-turned-dope-fiend. Edward Arnold (Come and Get it) and Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca) are very nasty gangsters. In a rare sensitive role, Williams is casted as a respected attorney. They are all terrific.

Interestingly, Davis is saddled with the most boring character. She’s giving nothing to do. To make matters worse, she is forced to appear in a gratuitous scene where she is only wearing her underwear. Later, in an equally inconsequential sequence, she appears in a skimpy (for 1930s) bathing suit. After her success in The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), Davis felt that she deserved better. It’s hard not to agree with her. The cast also includes Anne Shirley (Stella Dallas) as the young Dvroak, and Dickie Moore as Dvroak’s son.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Although far from perfect, Three on a Match is a great example of Pre-Code Hollywood. The cast alone makes it worthwhile. Watch out for Jack Webb (TV’s Dragnet) as a kid in the schoolyard. B&W, 63 minutes, Not Rated.


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