Summer Under the Stars: Three on a Match (1932)
**My final contribution to the Summer Under the Stars blogathon. Head over to ScribeHard on Film or Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence to read all past contributions.
I’m reviewing all five films (and one documentary) in the Forbidden Hollywood volume two box set, below are my previous reviews:
Review of Night Nurse
Review of Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin, and Censorship in pre-Code Hollywood
Review of The Divorcee
Review of A Free Soul
Review of Female
My final review in the Forbidden Hollywood volume 2 box set. Three on a Match is the best known of the series as it stars a young Bette Davis and definitely runs through the gamut of pre-Code no-nos. You want drug addiction, it’s here. Kidnapping? Got it! Mobsters, murder, suicide! All here! Three on a Match is the quintessential pre-Code film that’s a little too much gimmick and not enough story. The story is good, elevated by the three female leads, but it’s apparent that the movie is just rushing forward towards the next taboo. It’s certainly one of the better entries in the series and a must for those trying to become pre-Code experts.
Three school-girl friends reunite after several years. Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell) was a trouble-maker who spent time in a reformatory before leading a life on the stage. Ruth Westcott (Bette Davis) is a lowly secretary. The only one to secure a life of leisure is Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) who married a wealthy man and is living comfortably with her son. When Vivian grows bored with married life it’s up to her two friends to help.
Three on a Match almost starts as a comedy with the introductions of the ladies as schoolgirls. It’s obvious which actress is which as young girls, their personalities are displayed prominently and all the child actors are remarkably strong with great comedic timing. They even get in on the racy dialogue with a young Mary Keaton (Virginia Davis) mentioning her black bloomers and going to smoke with the boys! Each young actor or actress has a dynamic personality that is written well allowing them to truly inhabit their roles. When it nears graduation time it’s interesting to see the views of higher education in 1932. The three girls talk about high school as if its optional with Mary and Ruth saying they won’t be going. Ruth proudly states she’s going to business college. She’s 13! I don’t know much about the educational system of 1932 but a 13-year-old going to a trade school?
From there the movie hits the main narrative with the women grown up into Blondell, Davis, and Dvorak. If you’ve read Monday’s Old Hollywood Book Review you’ll notice I’m on a Joan Blondell kick. She’s rapidly running up to my Hall of Fame and I continue to be delighted by her performances. Here she’s a mixture of loving warmth and sassy back-talk. When she’s in the reformatory Mary is able to make the best out of a bad situation! As the film progresses Mary’s story is akin to Cinderella as she becomes the wealthy matriarch at Vivian’s expense. You want Mary to succeed and do well as she’s not bad, she just doesn’t care, but then you don’t want to see the dark spiral Vivian has gone down (although based on how selfishly Vivian is written I didn’t feel too bad for her). Despite the third act revolving heavily around Dvorak, and many pre-Code specials singling out her performance, I loved Blondell’s rags to riches story.
I’m going to get Davis’ role out-of-the-way as sadly she’s pretty insignificant to the plot. She shows up for a few scenes, becomes the governess to Vivian’s sun and that’s it. She doesn’t end up with the guy like Mary nor given a compelling plot turn like Vivian. She just sits in the corner, makes dour faces and is supposedly meant to be the neutral one, the voice of reason of the group. I know this was an early role for her but I would say it’s a pretty minor footnote to her body of work.
Moving on to the predominant storyline in the group, that of Vivian. You don’t really feel for Vivian because she’s the earliest incarnation of one suffering from “first world” problems. See, her problem is once she gets what she wants she becomes tired of it. That’s actually a line in the film, “I think I want things passionately, and when I get them, I lose all interest.” Once Vivian meets a man named Michael (Lyle Talbot), Vivian goes through some brand of “I want something” psychosis. That’s really the only way you can describe Vivian kidnapping her child, abandoning her husband and running off with a guy she’s known for two seconds. Once her and Michael are set up she immediately starts ignoring her child. He’s left to eat candy while she lies around on a sofa. No matter how bad Mary’s character is meant to be with her black bloomers she’s human and has a heart which is why she calls out Vivian for being a total idiot. From there Vivian devolves into a world of drug addiction (controlled by a kick-ass Humphrey Bogart in a small role as a drug dealer) before ultimately “sacrificing” herself via suicide to save her son. I’m not quite sure the point of this storyline other than suck it up as a wife. I mean Vivian’s seen as a selfish person from the get-go, the only reason I can understand her falling from grace so completely is to redeem Mary who ends up developing a relationship with Vivian’s husband Robert (Warren William). The relationship between Mary and Robert moves too quickly to be developed well though.
Whilst the film has all this tawdriness going on there are still brief moments of humor. The opening scenes set up a world in the grip of Prohibition to the tune of “How Dry I Am.” Similarly, Mary tries to convince Vivian to drink something. Vivian refuses causing Mary to say “A drink has worked wonders on you before,” a nod to Vivian having a drink with Michael before running off with him. Three on a Match isn’t a complex story and its tawdry qualities really ramp up by the end leaving a nice little story of three girls growing up and finding their identities. I found Blondell to be the most compelling but it’s easy to see why Dvorak is remembered the most. It’s a short film and a must-see for those studying pre-Code as it’s the go-to film.
If I had to rate the films out of the Forbidden Hollywood Volume 2 box set from best to worst it’d be as follows: Night Nurse (although Blondell’s role is minor compared to here), Three on a Match, The Divorcee, Female, A Free Soul. Overall two good movies, one eh film, and two that are boring. I won’t say whether it’s a must-buy or not because views on the individual films will be mixed. Regardless this set provides a great selection of pre-Codes with an awesome documentary as a supplement.
Forbidden Hollywood box set grade: C
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
I really like this film – amazing performance by Dvorak in particular, even though Davis and Bogart both get so little screen time. It’s a film I keep meaning to write up myself… maybe I will get to it some time, good excuse to watch it again. Sounds as if I like this box set a lot more than you do, but I agree that this one and Wellman’s ‘Night Nurse’ are the best of the bunch. though I do like them all. Enjoyed your review, and I agree with you that this is a film full of pre-code content!
I would still buy it for Night Nurse and Three on a Match but the latter three just don’t have the charm or rewatch factor as the above two. Now if only there was a pre-Code film starring Bogart and pre-Code Clark Gable, I think the world would explode. Thanks for reading!