After being apart for years three women, friends at school, meet and bring each other up to date on their lives. Mary has been in reform school and is an entertainer. Vivian is married to an attorney and has a son she idolizes. Ruth works as a secretary. Vivian invites her friends on a cruise. Vivian runs off with Mary\'s gangster boyfriend; she is then divorced and her former husband marries Mary. The gangster hires three men to kidnap their son. Vivian must sacrifice her life to prevent this.
Virginia Davis ... Mary Keaton as a Child
Joan Blondell ... Mary Keaton, aka Mary Bernard
Anne Shirley ... Vivian Revere as a Child (as Dawn O\'Day)
Ann Dvorak ... Vivian Revere Kirkwood
Betty Carse ... Ruth Wescott as a child (misspelled Westcott in opening credits)
Bette Davis ... Ruth Wescott (misspelled Westcott in opening credits)
Warren William ... Robert Kirkwood
Lyle Talbot ... Michael Loftus
Humphrey Bogart ... Harve
Allen Jenkins ... Dick
Edward Arnold ... Ace
Warner Bros had a reputation for pumping them out in the early 30\'s like chocolate covered Goobers at a Saturday Matinee. The story was typical Warner Bros from that time period.
Anne Dvorak, married to a successful lawyer and mother of a cute little 6 year old boy, becomes restless and looking for excitement, takes the boy and runs off with a small time hood. She eventually turns into a drunk (and worse). Her best friends (played by Joan Blondell and Bette Davis) give up on her and turn the boy over to his father. She continues to sink deeper and deeper into the filth as her husband divorces her and marries her best friend Joan. Meanwhile, her boyfriend, in a desperate attempt to pay off a gambling debt, kidnaps and holds the boy for ransom. The end is melodramatic and no real surprise, but it is exciting.
This film is interesting for a couple of reasons. It represents the kind of film that Warners did best in those years. Action, pathos, and the underworld. It is also interesting because of the casting. Although Humphrey Bogart plays a thug, he wasn\'t Mr Big in this one. He was just a run of the mill thug. Ann Dvorak seems to have switched characters with Bette Davis or Joan Blondell. She becomes more and more corrupt as the picture wears on until you are convinced she is beyond redemption. Bette and Joan, on the other hand, become more and more saintly until they are practically beatified by pictures end. I should mention the stock support players as well. Add Lyle Talbot (as the dispicable boyfriend), Edward Arnold (as Mr Big), Jack La Rue and Allen Jenkins (as the reliable hoods), and you have a Warner Bros winner.
Finally, there is the pre-code shenanigans. For a change, Joan Blondell doesn\'t sit on the edge of the bed, in her slip, rolling on a pair of stockings. Bette Davis does. By the way, this is the only picture I have ever seen where Bette Davis shamelessly displays her legs. And a fine set of legs at that. Look for the scene I just described as well as a scene at the beach. In another scene that would never have made it past the Hayes Office, Ann Dvorak comes out of the bedroom rubbing her nose when she realizes her son was kidnapped. Humphrey Bogart glances knowingly at the boys, rubs his nose, and sarcastically winks. A DOPE FIEND! There is a scene where she is passed out on the double bed. There is booze, cigarettes and ashtray on the bed, and a couple of cigars on the nightstand. In another scene she is splayed out on the couch with a drink in her hand, booze bottles all over the apartment when her little boy walks into the room. His face and clothes are filthy and he says he is hungry. She glances over at him, points to a tray of half eaten o\'rdoevres, and says \"eat that\".
These little tidbits don\'t necessarily make it a great movie, but the cast and the story do.
THREE ON A MATCH (First National Pictures, 1932), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is a realistic account into the lives of three former classmates who meet again as adults, and how one of the three goes through her path of self destruction.
The story begins in 1919 where the song, \"Smiles\" is on top of the charts. Jack Dempsey wins his championship title by knocking out Jess Willard, and the advent of the Prohibition era. Three girls, Mary (Virginia Davis), Vivian (Dawn O\'Day) and Ruth (Betty Carrs) are students at Public School 62. Mary is a wild girl who cuts class to smoke \"cigarettes\" in a secluded place with some other boys; Ruth is a studious girl with the highest grades in her class; and Vivian is a snob who is later voted the most popular girl in her class. Next segment opens with 1921. Warren G. Harding is elected as president of the United States with his campaign slogan, \"the era of good feeling.\" The girls graduate and go on their separate ways, with the troublesome Mary, who will face her future serving time in reform school. 1925 opens with the underscoring of \"The Prison Song,\" the debut of True Facts Magazine, and of how the youth of today have gone wild. The former classmates, now young adults, are focused as to what they are currently doing: Mary (Joan Blondell) is serving time for grand larceny in a reform school; Vivian (Ann Dvorak) is attending an exclusive school, and is seen reading bedtime stories to youngsters; and Ruth (Bette Davis) is in secretarial school. Then comes 1930, with \"Dancing With Tears in My Eyes\" heading the musical charts. Mary Keaton is now a struggling actress using the stage name of Mary Bernard. She is reunited with Vivian, now married to a successful attorney, Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), and mother to a little boy she calls Junior (Buster Phelps). Although Vivian has everything to live for, she is unhappy, in fact, just plain bored. As for Ruth, she is a secretary with some ambition. Upon their reunion in a restaurant, the girls talk about old times and light up their cigarettes from a single match and laugh off the superstition, \"Three on a Match,\" in which a third member to use the match will become the unlucky one. Later, at her request, Robert grants his depressed wife a vacation from marriage by letting her go on an ocean cruise with Junior and without him. Before the boat sails, she stumbles upon Mary and her party guests, who then introduces Vivian to Mike Loftus (Lyle Talbot). Vivian immediately becomes attracted to Loftus, and after running off with this loser, who is a compulsive gambler who never wins, and owing the underworld leader (Edward Arnold) some big time money, Vivian now finds her new existance and illicit affair exciting, until she realizes that too much partying, liquor and cigarettes is ruining her life as well as Junior\'s, who is at times being neglected, left with only dirty clothes to wear and candy bits to eat to satisfy his hunger. The story then goes into a brief segment of 1931, and concludes in the year of 1932, and showing what happens to the \"three on a match.\"
Whenever THREE ON A MATCH is shown on television (presently on Turner Classic Movies) it plays as a Bette Davis movie. In spite that she\'s in it, she\'s the one with limited footage, least dialogue and smoking scenes. However, fans of the future famed star can get a rare glimpse of Bette wearing a fashionable swim suit in a beach sequence. Joan Blondell, the leading member of the trio, is good in her role, but it is Ann Dvorak who walks off with the movie in a standout performance, and possibly her best known of her many screen roles. But of the three, it is Bette Davis who worked herself into becoming the \"Queen of Warner Brothers\" before the end of the decade, and years after her death, is labeled a screen legend from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Blondell is notable but Dvorak is sadly forgotten. However, when it comes to choice roles, it is quite possible that if Bette Davis has to choose any one of the screen characters in this production, she would have assumed the challenge in playing the doomed Vivian character over the colorless Ruth Westcott role. But thinking about that possibility, Davis would have been believable as the self-destructing Vivian, but in playing her character as a society girl living the life of
luxury in the earlier segments of the story, wearing fox furs, for example, would seem out of place. Warren William, then groomed to stardom, is also given little screen opportunity in this production, but was here for star value in the theatrical marquee. This was to be his first of five films opposite Joan Blondell, and their combination together works out well on screen. The movie is very nostalgic, especially with it\'s newsreel-type opening of events that occurred during any given specific era of time.
With limited actors being given screen credit, there are many familiar faces from the Warner Brothers stock company to go around: Glenda Farrell as a reform school inmate; Grant Mitchell as the school principal; Clara Blandick as Mary\'s mother; Frankie Darro as Bobby; Hardie Albright as Philip Randall, Kirkwood\'s lawyer assistant; Sidney Miller as Willie Goldberg; among others. Allen Jenkins, Humphrey Bogart (in his gangster debut) and Jack LaRue (unbilled) play the meanest looking thugs in screen history, with Edward Arnold as \"Ace,\" their leader, who is first seen late into the story looking into the mirror pulling hairs from his nose with the tweasers.
Like most Warner Brothers Depression-era dramas of the time, THREE ON A MATCH plays on the grim side. No nonsense, no glamour, heavy on melodrama and a touch of \"film noir.\" Even Blondell and Dvorak play their own down-on-their luck characters in separate scenes without the use of makeup. The movie, which was reportedly dismissed by critics upon its release, is so realistic, especially with a \"too-close-for- comfort\" scene involving child abduction, that this would play well even for today\'s younger viewers. All in all, as depressing as it is at times, it\'s quite watchable, particularly since it it a very short movie, 63 minutes, which plays like a novel with very short chapters.
THREE ON A MATCH is also available on video cassette as part of the \"FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD\" series, hosted by respected film critic, Leonard Maltin. Over the years, THREE ON A MATCH has developed into a minor classic from the 1930s. It was remade by Warner Brothers in 1938 as BROADWAY MUSKETEERS with Ann Sheridan, Margaret Lindsay and Marie Wilson in the Blondell, Dvorak and Davis roles, with a little girl, Janet Chapman, filling in the role as the doomed girl\'s child. The original ranks the best and stronger of the two. They can both be seen and compared on Turner Classic Movies.
On a final note and a bit of trivia: Betty Carrs, the child actress who appears as Bette Davis\' Ruth in the early part of the story, has a striking resemblence to this future film star, giving the viewer some basic idea as to how Bette Davis herself looked like as a child; Dawn O\'Day, who appeared in numerous films thus far, would later to become known as Anne Shirley, the leading adolescent actress in numerous \"B\" films for RKO Radio in the 1930s and early 1940s. She is remembered for her performance as the teenaged daughter, Laurel, in STELLA DALLAS (Samuel Goldwyn, 1937) starring Barbara Stanwyck; and Virginia Davis, virtually forgotten today, was once noted as the little girl who appeared as the live action character of Alice in numerous cartoon shorts for Walt Disney in the 1920s.
Critic Leonard Maltin describes \"Three On A Match\" as a \"hard hitting example of forbidden Hollywood\". That it is, no happy endings here, as this depression era film follows the rise and fall of childhood friends who get caught up in the seamy underworld of booze, drugs and gambling, ultimately trading places along the way.
The three friends are Mary Keaton Bernard (Joan Blondell), Vivian Revere Kirkwood (Ann Dvorak) and Ruth Wescott (Bette Davis), shown growing up between 1919 and 1932 as a montage of newspaper headlines place the story in a historical context. Blondell\'s character is a reform school standout, whose life experience puts her in a position to counsel a depressed and \"fed up with everything\" Vivian. Viv takes up with small time hood Mike Loftus (Lyle Talbot) after disappearing with her young son from a cruise ship. Loftus ingratiates himself with mobster Harve (Humphrey Bogart in a minor role) and his boss Ace (Edward Arnold) by going into debt for two grand. The desperate creep attempts to blackmail the boy\'s father, wealthy lawyer Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), but that plan heads south as the cops quickly close in. Vivian\'s resolution is one of the more depressing finales to a tale that realistically depicts a pair of unfortunate souls whose lives spiral completely out of control.
The film does have it\'s share of light moments; one of the newspaper clippings describes the new fashion trend in beachwear, a \"brief\" sun suit, ably modeled by Bette Davis. In stark contrast, Mr. Kirkwood\'s attire of choice is a business suit and tie while sitting under a beach umbrella, hard to work up a good tan that way. Davis\' screen time is limited but effective, with a sit up and take notice scene where she\'s shown wearing just a slip early in the film, rather daring for the era and showing more skin than one might expect.
Warner Brothers/First National masterfully portrayed the down and out, seamy underside of life during the 1930\'s, \'40\'s and \'50\'s, tackling all manner of subjects in their movies. \"Three On A Match\" tells it\'s tale without a wasted moment, sometimes relying on scenes that only last a few seconds to move the story along. It\'s hard edged and no nonsense, all the more provocative for it\'s mature subject matter and realistic portrayals; highly recommended.
* Scenes of frenzy caused by the enactment of Prohibition were originally used in The Public Enemy (1931).
* Ship scene features same set used in \"Baby Face\" a year earlier.
* The title refers to the superstition that if three people light their cigarettes with the same match, the third person will soon die. While some attribute the superstition to World War I, where it was sometimes thought that lighting a match long enough to light three cigarettes would attract enemy gunfire, it is now known that a match company \"created\" the superstition to cut down on sharing of matches and thus increase sales.
* Director Mervyn LeRoy disliked the acting job Bette Davis did in this film. She, in turn, hated his directing and called him a \"hack,\" feeling that her talent was being wasted playing supporting roles. This rift came back to haunt LeRoy when Davis became a big star.