The Pre-Code era of Hollywood is a legitimate marvel because in a span of only a few solitary years was a period of filmmaking bursting at the seams with vice, corruption, and licentiousness that we would never see again until the late 1960s.
One could say that each of these elements was merely an exploitive measure to get folks in the sits. No question about it. However, that’s not to say the era is devoid of meaning nor is Three on a Match any less evocative. In retrospect, we look at something like this and it’s not simply a cultural artifact for us to engage with, one could assert just as vehemently that it was more indicative of the human condition than many later films coming out of the Hollywood mills. Scan the contemporary news columns and you might have to agree. In fact, that’s much of what director Mervyn LeRoy does.
He rapidly spans time with a proliferation of news clippings. They are not simply a montage effect but a continual storytelling device that are almost sinews to this story which must function with hyperawareness of its timescale. Ricocheting with time jumps that you almost get used to by the end and each one is out of pure necessity. Remember with 63 minutes you have to scrimp with every minute. From a historical perspective alone, it’s an absolute goldmine with cinematic images to fit right alongside the current events.
The title Three on a Match seems a foreign concept now but it comes from the old wive’s tale that if three people light a cigarette from the same match the odds are one of them will die. It is often incorrectly cited as originating in the trenches during WWI. Instead, it was the advertising gimmick of a Swedish matchbox salesman to drum up more business.
The story itself ambitiously begins in adolescence with three girls. Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell) is the wayward one who looks to be headed toward a reformatory and sure enough, she grows up and winds up in such a life. Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) is the purported “good girl” who ends up with a fine education and marrying a wealthy lawyer (Warren Williams) but she finds her life and her marriage dull and unfulfilling. Meanwhile, little Ruth Westcott (Bette Davis) has grown up into a pretty stenographer who nevertheless is relegated to playing the third fiddle. No matter, Davis would get her revenge in an illustrious career to come.
The root of the drama crops up from Vivian’s dissatisfaction with life because being the understanding husband that he is, Mr. Kirkwood proposes she take a trip away with their little son so she can clear her mind and come back refreshed. She jumps at the opportunity.
Adultery is such an insidious thing since you never consciously think you are going to be unfaithful; I imagine it just ambushes you as it does for Vivian. She meets a man (Lyle Talbot) who is charming and the bubbly is flowing. She has few cares in the world and conveniently has neglected her son. Whom does she have to thank for this good time? Why, it’s Mary. Except Mary has changed; she’s a different person, chiding her old classmate to think before she throws her life away. The tides have changed with the reprobate teaching the classy one something about life.
To divulge any more would ruin the surprise but there’s little doubt, it’s sordid stuff with some mild sense of morality. We have drugs, adultery, scandal, and suicide all rolled up into one tightly woven package. Dvorak is devastating in her self-destructive spiral as Blondell commands the film’s stalwart center.
The most unexpected star is little Junior who is a precocious performer, lovable in every scene he shares with his bevy of costars but also a striking reminder of how innocent children are. To neglect them is to disregard the imperative of parenthood to provide for your progeny with an unselfish, unswerving, sacrificial love.
The rest of the gang are all assigned their assorted parts that became their mainstays. Humphrey Bogart becomes the quintessential heavy in a matter of moments. Ed Arnold is the exacting kingpin overseeing everything. Allen Jenkins is another tough customer with little heart or soul.
It might do well as a companion piece to Night Nurse, which also involves little children being exploited. Joan Blondell gives a spunky turn in both even as the plots verge on the utterly ludicrous and are remembered now as much for their louche content than the actual details of their plots. Part of that has to do with how unusual it seems, especially with the laissez-faire attitude of the production codes at the time.
But also in this specific case, the Lindberg kidnapping indubitably was still fresh in the minds of the viewing public, lending some credence to the believability of such a tale. That’s the key. However absurdly a plotline might slingshot this way or that, as long as something grounds it, even momentarily, in reality, it can captivate us. Three on a Match is not a phenomenal film outright but within its means, it manages to be economically diverting.