Pre-Code Crazy: Three on a Match (1932)

My Pre-Code Crazy selection for October, Three on a Match (1932), holds a special place in my heart.

It’s one of the first pre-Codes I ever saw. Its cast offers an embarrassment of riches:  Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, Warren William, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Dvorak, Lyle Talbot, Allen Jenkins, Edward Arnold, Clara Blandish, Grant Mitchell, Jack LaRue! And its economical running time of just 63 minutes is full to bursting with pre-Code yumminess – everything from extramarital relationships and divorce to kidnapping and drug use.

It’s a must-see, for sure.

Here are the top 10 reasons why Three on A Match is my hands-down Pre-Code Crazy pick of the month!

  1. The film’s title refers to the belief that it’s bad luck to light three cigarettes using one match – and that it’s especially hazardous to the person whose cigarette is lit last. It’s typically thought to stem from a wartime superstition, when soldiers often used one match to light the cigarettes of several smokers. It was said that when the match was struck, an enemy sniper would train his sights and fire by the time the third man was having his cigarette lit. It turns out, thought, that the saying actually originated with a man named Ivan Kreuger, known as The Swedish Match King, who thought up the whole idea as a way to sell more matches. It worked, too – use of the saying reportedly brought Kreuger’s company $5 million more in revenue each year.

    Anne Shirley (billed as Dawn O'Day) played the young Vivian.

    Anne Shirley (billed as Dawn O’Day) played the young Vivian.

  2. The film’s feature characters are Vivian Kirkwood (Ann Dvorak), Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell), and Ruth Wescott (Bette Davis). When the film opens, we see the three as schoolchildren – they all graduated together from New York’s P.S. 62 (which, incidentally, is the Chester Park School located in Queens, NY). The opening scenes deftly establish the characters of the girls – Mary is a rebellious tomboy who ditches class to smoke pilfered cigarettes with the boys, and doesn’t care if her black bloomers are seen when she swings upside down on the playground equipment. Vivian, voted the most popular girls in her class, is also the snootiest and prissiest. And Ruth is sweet, kind and smart – at the school’s commencement exercises, the principal announces that she earned “the highest marks ever attained by anyone in this school.” (Trivia tidbit – the Vivian-as-a-student character is played by a young, brunette Anne Shirley, billed as her original stage name, Dawn O’Day.) Incidentally, the girls continue along the paths established during their school years – Ruth goes to business college and Vivian enrolls in an exclusive boarding school. And Mary? She winds up in a reformatory for committing grand larceny.
  3. The film uses newspaper headlines to indicate the passage of time. It’s a unique device, and also provides an interesting history capsule from 1919 to 1931, informing us of the onset of Prohibition and women’s suffrage, the successful bouts of iconic boxer Jack Dempsey, the introduction of President Warren Harding’s “Era of Good Feeling,” the crash of the USS Shenandoah naval airship, and popular songs of the day like “The Sheik of Araby,” “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes,” and “I Found a Million Dollar Baby.”
  4. After graduation, Vivian, Mary and Ruth lose touch with each other, but a happenstance meeting at a beauty salon brings them together again years later, and they catch up during lunch, when the women all light cigarettes from the same match. In a subtle bit of foreshadowing (or maybe it’s not so subtle, huh?), Vivian’s cigarette is the last lit. And when Mary remarks on the “three on a match” superstition, Vivian offhandedly rejoins, “What’s the difference?” (Cue ominous music.)
  5. One of my favorite pre-Code baddies, Lyle Talbot, has a featured role in the film. (Not that Talbot always plays bad boys, mind you – but when he does – oh, boy!) From the moment you see him, you know he’s no good. But you have no idea just how “no good” he really is. At first, he seems to be a fun-loving, carefree, live-for-the-moment, kind of guy. We soon learn, however, that there’s a thin line between care-free and care-less. If you know what I mean.

    That's Vivian on the bed, with Mary looking on in pity. What a difference a couple of years makes, huh?

    That’s Vivian on the bed, with Mary looking on in pity. What a difference a couple of years makes, huh?

  6. Vivian’s character is, to me, one of cinema’s most interesting and unusual. She seems to have it all, but she’s miserable, for reasons that even she doesn’t understand. As she tells her old chums over their meal: “I suppose I should be the happiest woman in the world. Beautiful home, successful husband and a nice youngster, but . . . somehow, the things that make other people happy leave me cold. I guess something must have been left out of my makeup.” Her inability to find joy in her good fortune eventually leads to her complete destruction.
  7. Vivian’s son, Junior, is (allegedly) played by Dickie Moore, who passed in September 2015 at the age of 89. He’s about six years old here, but he was playing a three-year-old. And for what it’s worth, I know that Dickie Moore is credited with this role, and there seems to be absolutely no doubt in the cinematic world that it’s actually him, but the little boy in the film just does not look like Dickie Moore to me! Seriously – look at pictures of Moore as a child and then look at little Junior. (See below, y’all.) This is not the same kid!!! But I digress. Anyway, whoever this child actor is, he’s a thoroughly adorable, natural little performer, and just as cute as he can be. You just want to pinch his cheeks, ruffle his curly locks, and give him a big ol’ bear hug. (I’ve noticed from other reviews that some people find him annoying, which I can actually understand quite well, but I like him. Whoever he is.)

    Bette in a slip. Stardom is just around the corner.

    Bette in a slip. Stardom is just around the corner.

  8. Not-yet-a-star Bette Davis has the least interesting role of the three principals, but she at least gets to have the film’s gratuitous lingerie shot. The entire time while she’s having a rather somber chat with Joan Blondell, we’re treated to the sight of Davis, clad in a slip, donning her stockings and adjusting her garters.
  9. Ann Dvorak is a standout in the film – her Vivian is my favorite Dvorak performance. And what a role! Talk about riches to rags: she starts out filthy rich, living in a mansion, swaddled in furs, riding about in a chauffeur-drive town car, and ends up . . . well, let’s just say she trades in her minks for something a bit less furry. It’s a pretty drastic transformation and Dvorak carries it off brilliantly. You’ll be mesmerized.
  10. The film doesn’t pull any punches. The last eight minutes, in particular, are among the most harrowing I’ve seen in any movie from this era – and they’re a perfect representation of why I love pre-Code so much. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just say this: you ain’t never seen Allen Jenkins like this!

Three on a Match airs on TCM on October 15th – grab yourself a glass of something and make a date with this first-rate pre-Coder. You. Will. Not. Be. Sorry.

I promise.


When you’re finished over here, be sure to pop over to Speakeasy to find out what Kristina has selected for her Pre-Code Crazy pick of the month!


And one last thing:

Check it out:


This is Dickie Moore.

This is Dickie Moore with Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus, released in November 1932.








AND . . .

This is the kid from Three on a Match, released in September 1932. What is his name? I. DON’T. KNOW.

~ by shadowsandsatin on October 7, 2015.

17 Responses to “Pre-Code Crazy: Three on a Match (1932)”

  1. I love this one too, it’s a movie you can show a modern viewer and I’m pretty sure they’d be wowed. Ann Dvorak is just dynamite. I remember being SO insanely excited when I bought the vhs of this, the Leonard Maltin Forbidden Hollywood one, and watched for the first time after only reading about it.

    loved the details and background, and Buster Phelps is Junior 🙂

  2. According to the cast list for “Three on a Match,” Buster Phelps played “Junior” aka “Robert Kirkwood, Jr.” Phelps was born in November 1926, so he was 5 years old when “Three on a Match” was being filmed.

    Anyway, I find his performance so nails-on-the-blackboard excruciating that when I have covered Pre-Code Hollywood in the Film History class I teach, I have passed over showing this definitive Pre-Code film in favor of two films that are equally definitive: “Baby Face” and “Safe in Hell.” (I scheduled the latter this past spring but was unable to screen it because a snowstorm shut down class that day.) When I next teach Film History, however, I plan to show “Three on a Match”—after all, why deprive my students of this gem because of my biases?

  3. Grr – after all the rave reviews I’ve read of this film, I can’t believe I STILL HAVEN’T SEEN IT. Sheesh! But your review is the one that’s finally prompting me to watch it. I shall report back.

  4. WOW! I have to watch this! I can’t find it anywhere, been looking for ages! Sounds amazing!

  5. I saw your article about “Three On A Match” and was drawn to it like a moth to flame. I LOVE that movie — it has everything, absolutely everything that makes it maybe the best pre-code movie. Ann Dvorak was a marvel, Joan Blondell as well, and it was fun to see the great Bette Davis in a passive role as a caretaker type. Your reasons for liking this movie were right on. My favorite was that it used newspaper headlines to show time going by. One of my favorite gangster films, The Roaring Twenties with Cagney, does the same thing. It is like a documentary movied, fascinating because of the history that technique spotlighted. Wonderful article!

  6. “Three On A Match” is dynamite. Hmmm…would this be considered a “woman’s picture”? I love being dvorak’d by Ann Dvorak. She was fearless in this role. When she really gets entangled with the boys, I can’t say I’ve EVER seen anything like it in pre-code ( Yeah and that includes “Temple Drake” ). She’s in with the likes of Bogie, Edward Arnold, Allen Jenkins, Lyle Talbot and the worse of the worst…Jack LaRue. That shot of him as the camera pans over to him sprawled out in a chair, disheveled, his chest slowly heaving gives me nightmares. ( Uhhh…translation: yummy dreams ). Loved your ten reasons for loving this movie. This needs to be screened at the TCM Film Festival. Glad the child star name has been cleared up. Now, tell me…what is Rosebud??

  7. I am an Ann Dvorak nut, so naturally I love this film to pieces. I love that Lyle Talbot tells her she’s not one of those stuffed brassieres.

  8. Hi I know you didn’t end up participating in my previous blogathons, but I’m hosting another one in late January and would love to invite you to participate this time around . The link is below with more details

  9. WRT:

    3. The Shenandoah headline was informative but what got me was the 1931 headline predicting a world war coming because of China & Japan. Entirely accurate.

    7. Were there two of them?

    8. Yes!

    10. You’re not kidding. When has he ever been such a straight thug like a LaRue?

    • Thanks so much for your comments, Jim — so interesting about the 1931 world war prediction!! As for the kid who played Junior, I found out his name from several commenters — and it definitely was NOT Dickie Moore! 🙂

  10. I have seen the boy’s name listed as Buster Phelps elsewhere.

  11. […] Three on a Match (1932) […]

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