Three on a Match (1932)

Three on a Match (1932)

Three childhood friends face life’s ups and downs. The aloof Vivian (Ann Dvorak, Scarface) marries a wealthy lawyer (Warren William, The Wolfman), but she doesn’t like being a socialite. Party girl Mary (Joan Blondell, The Public Enemy) tries to stay out of trouble after spending time in jail. Ruth (Bette Davis) makes ends meet as a stenographer. Vivian’s sudden divorce changes the women’s destinies forever.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Three on a match means one will die soon”

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

Three on a Match is one of the most interesting B-movies made by Warners. It’s also influential. For example, there are a couple of shots that director Roman Polanski “borrowed” for his 1976 thriller The Tenant.

Interestingly, Three on a Match was forced upon director LeRoy, who was busy preparing his pet project, the classic prison drama 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 overly-busy storyline, courtesy of scriber Lucien Hubbard (Smart Money and The Star Witness), moves at a brisk pace. We go from vignette to vignette at an almost exhausting speed. And the movie’s amazingly frank treatment of drugs and underworld activities is still very interesting. The film’s biggest problem is that Bette 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. Joan Blondell is sassy as the ex-con with a heart-of-gold. Ann Dvorak is a revelation as the socialite-turned-dope-fiend — it’s an astonishingly raw performance! Edward Arnold (Come and Get it) and Humphrey Bogart (The African Queen) are very nasty gangsters. Warren Williams plays a respected attorney. They are all terrific.

As I suggested before, Davis is saddled with the most boring character in the movie — she’s given absolutely nothing interesting to do. It’s really disappointing that she is so crudely underused. After the success of The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), Davis felt that she deserved better and it is hard not to agree with her.

The cast also includes Glenda Farrell (Mystery of the Wax Museum and Lady for a Day) as Mrs. Black and Grant Mitchell (Juarez and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) as the school principal. Anne Shirley (Stella Dallas and Murder, My Sweet) plays the young Dvroak and child star Dickie Moore (Out of the Past) plays Dvroak’s son.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Although far from perfect, Three on a Match is a great example of Pre-Code Hollywood. It is a stylish movie with energy and attitude. The cast — actress Ann Dvorak is sensational! — alone makes it worthwhile. But the fact that Bette Davis has a thankless role will undoubtedly disappoint fans of the legendary actress. Watch out for Jack Webb (TV’s Dragnet) as a kid in the schoolyard. B&W, 63 minutes, Not Rated.

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