After watching THREE ON A MATCH (1932) on Warner Archive Instant I had two reactions. First, how do they cram so much into just sixty-four minutes? Second, how is Ann Dvorak not a huge thing?
THREE ON A MATCH tells the story of Vivian (Ann Dvorak), Mary (Joan Blondell), and Ruth (Bette Davis). These three girls all attend Public School No. 62 as children, though each has a very different path to follow. Ruth is studious and practical, Mary is independent and headstrong, and Vivian is popular and privileged. Mary is always getting into trouble, sneaking off to smoke with boys, and showing off her bloomers, much to the disapproval of Vivian. At graduation Ruth is awarded Valedictorian and, as her family cannot afford to send her to high school, goes off to business college. Vivian is voted Most Popular and is sent off to an exclusive boarding school, while Mary barely manages to graduate at all. When Ruth wonders what will happen to Mary now that they have left school, Vivian sniffs that she will probably end up in reform school. Flash forward a few years and Ruth is working hard in business college, Vivian is reading saucy novels among breathless girls at boarding school, and Mary is indeed in reform school.
Several more years pass and Mary is now working as an actress when she happens to run into Ruth, who is now working as a secretary. As Mary recounts her chance meeting to a hairdresser that afternoon, the woman in the booth next door overhears and realizes that she also knows Mary. In fact the other woman is Vivian, who is now married to a successful lawyer named Robert Kirkwood (Warren William) with whom she has a 3 1/2 year old son. The three women agree to meet for lunch to catch up on old times. Over sandwiches and tea, the women share a match to light their cigarettes causing Mary to note, “Three on a match.” The “Three on a Match” superstition was created around WWI, at first believed to be from soldiers on the battlefield but later discovered to have been created by a large match manufacturer in an effort to decrease sharing and increase sales. The saying goes that three on a match, the last one on the match is soon to die because in the time it takes for the three to share the match a sniper has enough time and light to find his target.
Mary asks what the other two have been up to over the years, and each discusses their lives and their envy of the others. Surprisingly, even though Vivian has everything the other two could ask for she is the least satisfied with her life. She complains that she feels restless, that the things that give pleasure to others hold nothing for her, that they simply leave her cold. Ruth speculates that perhaps it is because things have always come easily for Vivian, which she does not disagree with.
Later that night, Vivian and Robert are returning from a party to find that their son is still awake. Vivian tucks him back in and goes back to her bedroom, while Robert spends some more time with his son. Once alone Vivian hurries to get ready for bed before Robert comes in. When Robert does finally appear, Vivian is already in bed and pretending to be asleep. Sensing something is wrong, Robert asks Vivian what he can do to make her happier. After some discussion, it is decided that Vivian will take a trip abroad with just herself and her son. Robert is sad to have his family leave but he truly wants to help Vivian find the happiness that is eluding her. When the day of departure comes Vivian is excited to have some time on her own, and is even looking forward to the prospect of caring for her son without the help of the nursemaid. Robert offers to spend some time with the two of them before the ship departs but he is interrupted by the arrival of a message from his office. Work calls him away and he leaves Vivian with a kiss, before hurrying out down the hall and past Mary who has just arrived. Mary and several friends are onboard to throw a farewell party for another friend who is sailing. She invites Vivian to join her and Vivian, who has noticed Mary’s handsome friend Mike (Lyle Talbot), happily agrees. By the end of the night Vivian and Mike are smitten with each other. Vivian is thrilled by Mike’s attention, and feels more alive and desired than she ever has before. Mike asks her to leave the ship with him and she agrees. Vivian returns to her state room to collect her son and her baggage before disappearing into the night.
Robert is going crazy looking for Vivian and his son, but no one can find her. But Mary knows where she is, and is concerned for the safety and health of the child. Vivian and Mike are wrapped up in each other, alcohol, parties, and drugs. Vivian’s son is often hungry and dirty as his mother no longer cares enough to get him food or bathe him. Mary has a plan to get Vivian’s son away from her and into the care of Ruth, and Ruth’s sister. Mary goes to see Robert and lets him know just where Vivian has been staying and what she has been up to. Leading the police to the apartment, Mary finds Vivian passed out in the room and her son playing in the bathroom. Father and son are happily reunited, and Vivian relinquishes control having no grounds to object to Robert taking the boy into his care.
Some years pass, and Robert has become more friendly with Ruth and Mary. Ruth is wonderful with his son, and Mary is just wonderful. Robert asks Ruth to stay on as governess to his son, and he asks Mary to stay on as his wife. Now divorced from Vivian, Robert marries Mary and settles into a happier life. But one day Vivian appears on the corner and asks Mary for help. It seems that Mike has left her, after spending all her money and now she has nothing. Mary, feeling sorry for Vivian, gives her what she can and tells Vivian to come again to talk with her. Walking around the corner Vivian meets with Mike, who has in fact not left, and presents him with the money. Mike has gambled away more money than he can pay, and now he owes $2,000 to a night club owner named Ace (Edward Arnold). Ace tells Mike that if he does not return the money life will become very painful, a threat which will be backed up by his main enforcer Harve (Humphrey Bogart) and his gang. Mike is desperate and decides to go to see Robert. In an attempt at blackmail, Mike threatens to tell the papers about Mary’s stay in the reform school unless Robert pays him $2,000. Robert refuses and sends Mike away, telling him that if the story about Mary makes its way into the news that Mike will be sued for libel. On his way out of the office Mike spies Robert’s son coming to see his father, and he suddenly has an idea. In the park Mike corners the little boy, and tells him that Vivian needs him and he must go to her at once. The child agrees and goes off with his “Uncle Mike”, little knowing the truth behind Mike’s actions. In the apartment Vivian is getting high and she is less than thrilled with Mike shows up. Things go from bad to worse when there is a knock at the door, and in walks Harve and the gang. Apparently, Ace has had an idea of a way to get even more money out of Mike.
This movie is an essential Pre-Code viewing. It has everything that the Hayes Code hated! There is sex, violence, drinking, drugs, and skin. There is also a nice bit of foreshadowing at the beginning, but I won’t spoil it for you. Joan Blondell is great as Mary, her quick patter delivery and snappy comebacks giving a bit of comic relief. Bette Davis is a really minor character here, but you can still tell that this is an actress to watch even if all she is doing is putting on her stockings. Warren William, the “King of Pre Code”, is sympathetic as Robert a man who really wanted only the best for his family. But let’s be honest here, this is really Ann Dvorak’s movie.
I will admit that I hadn’t really heard of Ann Dvorak until recently. I had heard some talk of her online, and seen her biography written by Christina Rice which I have since bought, but aside from that I didn’t know too much about this actress or her films. That changed during TCM’s month of pre-code films, starting with HEAT LIGHTNING. Here is the talented and gorgeous actress who is relatively unknown today, especially outside of classic film fan circles. How can that be? I won’t presume to offer any theories at this point, at least until I have read her biography. That might be a blog post for the future. But let’s talk about Ann Dvorak in this film. She is amazing. She starts out as a child (played by Anne Shirley by the way!) who has everything she wants and who looks down on those who are too different, wild, or free. She grows into a woman who craves those very things, but who has settled into a quiet and respectable life. When she is given a taste of what she desires it becomes too great of a temptation, and she is ultimately destroyed by those desires. Ann Dvorak gives such a complete performance, moving from put-together socialite, to unsatisfied wife and mother, to debauched mistress, to fallen woman, finally to strong and protective mother. She changes in degrees throughout the film, so each time you see her she is slightly different, moving further down the path towards ruin. I had heard that in this film Ann Dvorak is like “an exposed nerve”, and this is totally true. It isn’t just near the end, when she is so raw and wired that she seems ready to take flight and burst through the screen, but really throughout the whole film. There is never a moment where you don’t know exactly what Vivian is feeling. Good emotions or bad, Ann brings them out on her face and through her performance and through her we experience everything. I can’t wait to read the biography, to see more films (I have Scarface on my DVR!), and to learn more about this amazing actress who definitely deserves more recognition.