Directed By: Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Virginia Davis, Joan Blondell, Anne Shirley
Line from the film: "I can tell you're a real woman, not one of those stuffed brassieres you see on Park Avenue"
Trivia: Director Mervyn LeRoy disliked the acting job Bette Davis did in this film. She, in turn, hated his directing and called him a "hack"
Among other things, 1932’s Three on a Match is a curiosity for movie fans, offering glimpses of Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart years before they became big stars. But that’s not what you’ll remember about this film. Tackling issues such as infidelity, kidnapping, and drug addiction, Three on a Match has lost none of its punch, and stands as a reminder of just how risqué Hollywood could be during the Pre-Code era.
The movie opens years in the past, following three young girls who were classmates in New York’s public school system: the prim and proper Vivian (Anne Shirley), the smart but kind Ruth (Bety Carse), and party girl Mary (Virginia Davis), who, by all appearances, was on a one-way path to self-destruction. A decade passes, and by chance, Vivian (now played by Ann Dvorak), Mary (Joan Blondell) and Ruth (Bette Davis) all meet up and set a date to have lunch together.
From the looks of it, their lives have turned out pretty much as expected: Ruth graduated from business school, and now works as a secretary, while Mary, after a brief stint in reform school, became a Broadway actress, and is waiting for her big break. As for Vivian, she married high-powered attorney Robert Kirkwood (Warren William) and has a son they lovingly nicknamed Junior (Buster Phelps). But Vivian has grown restless, and is tired of her life of privilege. So, to get away from it all for a short time, she and Junior board a cruise ship, and the first night there, Vivian attends a party, where she falls in love with gambler Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot).
Without sending word to her husband, Vivian and Junior leave the boat before it sails and go into hiding, living with Loftus in his apartment under assumed names. Anxious to get his son back, Kirkwood searches frantically for the two of them, and turns to both Mary and Ruth for help. Yet, try as they might, Vivian refuses to listen to reason, and seems ready to throw her entire life away.
Even by Pre-code standards, the second half of Three on a Match features some hard-hitting stuff. Having fallen deeply in love with Loftus, Vivian begins neglecting Junior, who has to beg for simple water and bread (it’s Loftus who finally intervenes, telling Vivian to feed the child). What’s more, Loftus owes money to Ace (Edward Arnold), a powerful crime lord, and if he doesn’t come up with the dough soon, he’s sure to meet up with Ace’s chief henchman, Harve (Bogart). As for Mary, she helps Kirkwood find Vivian, and both she and Ruth assist him with raising Junior in his mother’s absence. The day after his divorce from Vivian is final, Kirkwood and Mary get hitched, but their happiness will be short lived; Loftus has a bright idea of how he can blackmail Kirkwood for the money he needs, and kidnaps Junior, holding him for ransom! In addition to all the drama, there are hints that both Vivian and Loftus have become drug addicts (it’s never spoken out loud, but all the signs are there).
A few years later, when the code was finally re-established, the Pre-code films scheduled for re-release faced major cuts, designed to bring them in line with the new regulations (Cagney’s The Public Enemy lost as many as 12 minutes). That said, I don’t think any amount of editing could have helped Three on a Match qualify as a post-code motion picture. Though smartly paced and well-acted, the themes are far too powerful, and had its production been delayed by two years, the censors would have never allowed this movie to see the light of day.