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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.
After viewing the video version of this movie again last night, I was surprised at how most of the movie stands up today. As with many "from the headlines" movies produced by Warner Brothers and First National in the early 1930s, the pace is rapid. I prefer the latter part of the movie to the earlier scenes, which provide a lengthy prologue to the main story. It is unfortunate that the lead actress, Ann Dvorak, is almost forgotten today, for she was a beautiful and talented actress, who more often than not was more capable than the material she was given. Hers is an unusual character, but an interesting and not too hysterical performance. It's also fun to watch future stars like Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart in supporting roles, as well as to savour supporting performances by Jack LaRue, Allen Jenkins and Lyle Talbot. The climax is quite remarkable, although the tacked on happy ending jars with the mood of the movie as a whole. Well worth watching on the late show, cable, or if you find a copy of the video.
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.
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"; Ruth is a studious girl with the highest grades in her class; and Vivian is a snob voted the most popular girl in her class. Next segment: 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 starts with the underscoring of "The Prison Song," the debut of True Facts Magazine, and of how the youth of today has gone wild. The former classmates, now adults, are focused to what they are currently doing: Mary (Joan Blondell), serving time for grand larceny in a reform school; Vivian (Ann Dvorak), attending an exclusive school, and reading bedtime stories to youngsters; and Ruth (Bette Davis), in secretarial school. Next segment, 1930, with "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes" heading the musical charts. Mary Keaton, a struggling actress using Mary Bernard as her stage name, is reunited with Vivian, now married to a successful attorney, Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), and mother to a little boy, Junior (Buster Phelps). Although Vivian has everything to live for, she's unhappy, in fact, just plain bored. As for Ruth, she's a secretary with ambition. Upon their reunion in a restaurant, they talk over old times, light up their cigarettes from a single match and laugh off the superstition, "Three on a Match," where the third member to use the match is to become the unlucky one. Later, while on an ocean cruise alone with Junior, Vivian meets Mike Loftus (Lyle Talbot), a compulsive gambler whom she's immediately attracted. After going with this loser, she finds her new existence and illicit affair exciting, until realizing that too much partying, liquor and cigarettes is ruining her life as well as Junior's. Following a brief segment of 1931, the chapter concludes in 1932, 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, even though she's the one with limited screen time, least dialog and smoking scenes. Joan Blondell, the leading member of the trio, is good in her role, but it's Ann Dvorak giving a standout performance, in what's considered by many to be her best screen role. Of the trio, it's Bette Davis who worked herself to becoming the "Queen of Warner Brothers" before the end of the decade. As for Blondell, she's as memorable as Dvorak is underrated. Warren William, then groomed to stardom, is also given little screen opportunity in this production. This was to be his first of five films opposite Joan Blondell, and their combination together works quite well on screen. Betty Carrs, the child actress appearing as Ruth in the early portion of the story, has a striking resemblance to Bette Davis, giving the basic idea as to how Bette Davis herself looked during her childhood years; Dawn O'Day would later become known as Anne Shirley, leading adolescent actress for RKO Radio in the 1930s and early 1940s.; and Virginia Davis, the least known of the three, once known as the the live action character of Alice in cartoon shorts for Walt Disney in the 1920s.
With limited actors listed in the opening credits, there are many familiar faces from the Warners stock company to go around: Glenda Farrell (The reform school inmate); Grant Mitchell (The school principal); Clara Blandick (Mary's mother); Frankie Darro (Bobby); Hardie Albright (Philip Randall, Kirkwood's lawyer assistant); and Sidney Miller (Willie Goldberg). Allen Jenkins, Humphrey Bogart (in gangster debut) and Jack LaRue play the meanest looking thugs in screen history, with Edward Arnold as "Ace," their leader, who's introduced late in the story in front of the mirror pulling hairs from his nose with the tweezers.
Like most Warner Brothers Depression-era dramas of the 1930s, THREE ON A MATCH plays on the grim side. No nonsense, no glamor, 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. It's quite grim, especially with a "too-close- for- comfort" scene involving child abduction. All in all, as depressing as it can be, it's quite watchable, particularly since it's a very short 63 minute production that plays like a novel with very short chapters. There's great moments of nostalgia, especially with it's newsreel-type opening of events that occurred during any given specific era of time giving this an added plus.
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. (*** matches)
THREE ON A MATCH turns out to be bad luck for a trio of
women meeting again years after their high school graduation.
This pre-Code Warner Bros. drama takes the old theme of a good girl gone bad, but deliberately shies away from platitudes or even any hope for redemption. The film's fallen woman lands in the gutter quite literally and the movie leaves her there, with the plot offering no loopholes for her possible regeneration.
Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak & Bette Davis portray the three friends whose lives take them down very different paths. Blondell, as the bad girl turned actress, steals the film with her blonde brashness and good humor. Dvorak, as the rich girl with the husband & child, is so relentlessly unsatisfied and morose that she becomes quite a burden for the viewer to bear. Demure Davis, as the poor secretary, is given very little to do and gets to exhibit none of the fire which would characterize her performances in years to come.
The male members of the cast give good support to the ladies. Warren William, who so often played the villain, here is given the sympathetic role of Dvorak's harried husband; he gives his usual sophisticated performance. Lyle Talbot plays a society cad & coward, destroyed by gambling & booze. Although he has but one scene, Edward Arnold is most effective as a menacing crime boss - we first come upon him while he is calmly plucking hairs out of his nose! Humphrey Bogart & Allen Jenkins play his dangerous enforcers.
Movie mavens will spot in uncredited roles Grant Mitchell as the girls' high school principal, Clara Blandick as Blondell's distraught mother, Herman Bing as an exuberant school band leader and the glorious Glenda Farrell, not quite yet a star, as a reformatory inmate.
An amusing aspect of the film is how it shows the passage of time by incorporating popular tunes of the era, including "Smiles," "The Sheik of Araby," "The Prisoner's Song," "Charleston," "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes," "I Found A Million Dollar Baby" & "Happy Days Are Here Again."
Notice the reference to Ivar Kreuger, the real-life industrialist who attempted to monopolize the match market. Crimes and scandal dogged his organization and he died a suicide in Paris in March of 1932, seven months before the premiere of THREE ON A MATCH. On New Year's Eve, 1932, Warner Bros. would release THE MATCH KING, starring Warren William and loosely based on Kreuger's nefarious life.
This was a fast-paced 63-minute story that was a combination women's
film and film noir. With a cast that included Joan Blondell, Warren
William, Ann Dvorak, Lyle Talbot, Bette Davis, Edward Arnold and Anne
Shirley, you know it isn't going to be boring.
Dvorak has the principal role, playing a "dame" who is bored with her husband and her life and flies the coop. She winds up with a petty crook who needs money to pay off off his evil crime boss. The couple winds up in a kidnapping scheme which goes bad in a scene that is quite shocking.
The lingo of the day is interesting to hear as is Davis' youthful face. Arnold also looks really young, far more than I remember seeing him in other movies. Speaking of young, did I mention Humphrey Bogart and Glenda Farrell were also in this? Yes, it's full of surprises for classic film buffs. In another note: Shirley is billed under the name "Dawn O'Day."
I am glad this is now available on DVD. It looks great!
The title is based on a saying that if three people share a match
Story of three woman--Mary (Joan Blondell), Vivian (Ann Dvorak) and Ruth (Bette Davis). They are friends in grade school but go their own separate ways--Mary ends up in jail, Vivian marries a wealthy husband and Ruth becomes a stenographer. Ten years after school they meet and share a match--and tragedy follows. There's a LOT more to this but I won't spoil it by giving it away.
This moves VERY quickly--so fast that you don't have time to question some of the more silly aspects of the story. It's also pretty potent (this was made pre-Code) with some fairly graphic scenes toward the end. The acting is basically pretty good except for Davis. She's pretty terrible--but this was one of her first films. Even she dismissed this in later years. Blondell however is great and Dvorak is just perfect. She has some difficult scenes to play and pulls them off. Lyle Talbot is also very good (and very handsome) as Michael. There's also a pre-stardom Humphrey Bogart (looking surprisingly young) playing a vicious hood.
Fast, racy and loads of fun. Just don't think about it too much afterwards. I give it an 8.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The title and premise of THREE ON A MATCH (former schoolmates meet up
again as adults) suggest an ensemble film, but don't be fooled. This is
Ann Dvorak's movie, even though she shares the screen with two better
known actresses. Joan Blondell and Bette Davis both had charisma to
burn, but here they're trapped in bland good-girl roles; Blondell is
reliable as ever in a sketchily written part, while Davis goes through
her thankless role looking glum, not to say grumpy, though she does
supply the obligatory pre-Code lingerie shot. Ann Dvorak gets the
glamorous role of a reckless hedonist, and she is dazzling. Slender and
elegant, with a refined beauty, she also has big, feverishly bright
eyes and an air of electric, restless energy. Dvorak is unforgettable
as Tony Camonte's insatiable sister in SCARFACE, but she gives a more
mature and controlled performance here as a woman who has it all and
throws it away out of hunger for excitement.
THREE ON A MATCH exemplifies the Warner Brothers style: fast, cheap, and packing a punch. It opens with a whirlwind chronology of the girls' youth, using headlines, stock footage and popular song. A few schoolyard scenes introduce the three characters: spoiled rich girl, joyless grind, and good-hearted tramp. At first it looks like Mary (Blondell, the good-hearted tramp, of course) will be the heroine: she's the one who smokes cigarettes with the boys and gets sent to a reformatory. But after her release, she meets Vivian (Dvorak) in a beauty parlor and learns that she's married to a wealthy lawyer (Warren William, also uncharacteristically bland and virtuous) and has a young son, but is suffering from gnawing dissatisfaction. It's Mary who introduces Vivian to her wild friends on an ocean liner that's supposed to be taking Vivian and her son to Europe for a change of scene. Vivian is easily seduced by sleazy Mike Loftus (Lyle Talbot), and it's all downhill from there. She shacks up with her lover in a hotel suite, drinking champagne in sexy evening gowns while her little boy goes hungry and unwashed. Her husband divorces her, takes the boy, and swiftly marries Mary; when they next meet, Mary has the furs and the chauffeured limousine while Vivian is reduced to poverty and drug addiction.
This is when the movie really starts to get good. Loftus owes money to a ruthless gangster named Ace: Edward Arnold's first appearance, tweezing his nose hairs, rivals the grotesque establishing shot of Edward G. Robinson's Johnny Rocco smoking a cigar in the bath. Loftus's solution is to kidnap Vivian's long-suffering son, who is brought to their shabby flat where his mother wails in cocaine withdrawal and Arnold's three goons hold them all hostage while they wait for the ransom money to come through. The head goon is a very young Humphrey Bogart; he's sleek and vicious here, nastily mocking Vivian's addiction (seeing her twitchily rub her nose, he knowingly rubs his own.) Jack La Rue is memorably scary as another of the thugs. Born Gaspere Biondolillo in New York City, La Rue was the eternal henchman and denizen of low-grade crime flicks who had his shining hour as the impassive, trigger-happy rapist in THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE. Tall and dark, he exudes oily menace from every pore. He gets few lines but doesn't need them; all he has to do is lounge with a stub of a cigar jammed in his mouth and a sleepy, insolent stare or grin in wolfish delight after blackjacking an uncooperative victim to embody the essence of the hoodlum.
This noirish interlude is the highlight of an uneven, at times sentimental melodrama that gives way too much screen time to cutesy moppet Buster Phelps. Ann Dvorak is riveting in her wasted beauty as she lies in a squalid room, summoning her strength to make the ultimate motherly sacrifice. You'd never guess from this film that Bette Davis would wind up the best remembered of the three actresses, or that Bogart would become a beloved icon. Sadly, Dvorak's career never recovered after she feuded with Warner Brothers, reputedly upset when she learned that her salary for THREE ON A MATCH was the same as Buster Phelps's. She shot through 1933 like a comet, then virtually disappeared.
And in case you wonder how to pronounce her name, she had this to say: "My name is properly pronounced "vor'shack." The D remains silent. I have had quite a time with the name, having been called practically everything from Balzac to Bickelsrock."
Another neglected eye-opener from the pre-Code era. No doubt, this
cynical essay on wanton motherhood helped bring down the wrath of the
censors two years hence. Ann Dvorak is a bored upper-class matron who
flees to Europe with toddler son in tow, seeking excitement and a
sexual adventure she can't admit to herself. She finds them in the
person of shady character Lyle Talbott, with whom she shacks-up
neglecting her boy in the process. Dvorak shines in those scenes that
graphically chart her growing degradation, which I take from her
appearance to include heavy drug use. The ending is frankly pretty
predictable, Code or no Code.
The movie is no unmixed triumph. The Blondell--William relationship seems highly improbable, while Bette Davis's contrived role as the third girl on the match remains largely a waste. In fact, the movie's second half comes nowhere near the vitality or subtlety of the first half-- note the nuances of that early bedroom scene where we become privy to Dvorak's failing marriage. It's a little gem. The second half, on the other hand, is not helped by the caricatured gangsters, especially in their final scene which unlike the rest of the movie is also poorly directed. Nonetheless, the 60 minutes comes as a revelation to those of us accustomed to the conventions of a 30-year Code period.
Thanks be to TCM for rescuing these sleepers. I doubt they were shown anytime during the censorship era, and by the time they could be shown, they were too dated and obscure. But now film buffs have a chance to discover a Hollywood era most of us didn't know existed. Three on a Match may not be the most compelling product of that time, but it does prove one thing-- despite the opinion of some, sex was not an invention of the 1960's.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I remember seeing part of this movie as a kid and even back then I
sensed that somehow it was different from most of the other old black
and white films usually seen on TV. The ending was so harsh (as far as
Ann Dvorak's character anyway) that it just hit you like icy water, as
a woman gives up her life, which she has ruined anyway, to save her
son, yet she is apparently unremembered and unmourned.
I was blissfully ignorant back then of the Hollywood Production Code and how it destroyed most of a generation of movies that could have been so much better. I only knew that the film had a wild energy, and the performance by Ann Dvorak knocked me out. Bette Davis bad-mouthed the film but that is only because she was completely overshadowed by Dvorak, by Warren Williams in one of his very infrequent sympathetic parts, by Lyle Talbot as a sexy lothario, by an early Humphrey Bogart as a sadistic hood, and by brassy Joan Blondell, as a reformed bad girl.
In some ways it is depressing to see the films made before the 1934 Code, because they are a reminder of how great, timely and topical those movies were (and still are in some ways) and how horrendously unrealistic, propagandistic and cant-ridden their successors were.
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