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