Welcome to our 600th post, a new Film Friday, and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Joan Blondell (1906-1979), an iconic Warner dame known for her snappy speech and straight-shooting style. We’ve covered Illicit (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Night Nurse (1931), but haven’t even yet scratched the surface of her miraculous Pre-Code career. We’re making up for lost time, and so far we’ve featured Blonde Crazy (1931), Union Depot (1932), The Greeks Had A Word For Them [a.k.a. Three Broadway Girls] (1932), and Miss Pinkerton (1932). Today…
Three On A Match (1932)
A woman’s childhood friends try to rescue her from gangsters. Starring Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, Warren William, Lyle Talbot, Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins, and Edward Arnold. Screenplay by Lucien Hubbard. Story by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy.
“Mary, Vivian, and Ruth are schoolgirls together. Ten years later, they run into each other by accident and decide to meet for lunch. Mary has become an actress after a few years in reform school, while Ruth is a secretary and Vivian has married wealthy lawyer Robert Kirkwood and has a son Junior. Although her life seems to be the most successful of the three, Vivian is unhappy and decides to take an ocean voyage with her son, leaving Robert at home. Just before the ship sails, Mary, who is saying goodbye to a friend, introduces Vivian to playboy gambler Michael Loftus. Vivian leaves the ship with him and goes into hiding from her husband. Ruth and Mary are disturbed by Vivian’s lack of interest in her son, so Mary visits Robert to tell him where to find Junior.
“Robert becomes friendly with Mary and Ruth, who continue to visit Junior, and after his divorce is final, he and Mary are married. Meanwhile, Vivian has hit bottom. Michael has gambled away all their money, and when his check bounces, Ace, the owner of a club, demands cash. Michael tries to blackmail Robert for the money, but he throws Michael out. In desperation, Michael kidnaps Junior. While the police start a city-wide search, Vivian overhears plans to kill her child. She writes a note on her clothing with lipstick, revealing the location of the hideout, and then jumps to her death from the window.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
With a dazzling cast, a showman for a director, and a premise that opens up unlimited possibilities, Three On A Match, though flawed, is perhaps the best film we’ve covered so far in this Blondell series. More importantly, this is perhaps an ideal Pre-Code picture, for it is primarily concerned with examining the difference between good and bad. Our spotlighted leading lady, Blondell, is the bad girl who ends up making good — earning big bucks as a performer, marrying a rich husband, and caring for another man’s child, while Dvorak, a marvelous Pre-Code actress who’s making her That’s Entertainment! debut, is the good girl who goes bad — giving up a husband and kid for a drunken life with a gambling ne’er-do-well and his seedy criminal crowd.
Naturally, Dvorak, who like people of the depression era goes from riches to rags, gets the meatier part and carries the brunt of the entire story. As her descent into morally reproachable behavior is the film’s major arc, she also punctuates all the beats of the plot. Thus, her final act of self-sacrifice, and the preceding scene, is not only a moment of remarkable storytelling, but a tour de force for the actress. Meanwhile, Blondell, always sassy (but this time a little peppier than usual) treks the opposite course, caring for the wicked lady’s little boy and even taking the man that Dvorak threw aside. Her role grows more and more disappointing as the film progresses, because we are waiting for more resolution regarding her relationship with Dvorak’s character — something more befitting the friendship the film had established.
And then there’s Bette Davis, the hard working girl who’s only there to allow the film to employ the “three on a match” metaphor that pops in and out of the film and informs its title. Although we are cursed with hindsight, she already seems like a presence worth much more than the treatment she gets here. The film’s major fault is that the focus on the different paths traveled by the three women shifts into the circumstances surrounding the consequences of Dvorak’s actions. And that is all well and good for her character, but the other two are unfortunately pushed aside, and it’s to the story’s detriment.
But the pros outweigh the cons, for in addition to the three women, we have a talented cast of men, which include Warren William, in a rare sympathetic role as the husband that both Dvorak and Blondell share, Lyle Talbot, playing the villain who kidnaps Dvorak’s kid and leads her into ruin, and Humphrey Bogart, the unscrupulous gangster who puts Talbot’s character’s evil into context. (Edward Arnold is one of his cohorts.) This exploration of the different shadings of “bad” is most fascinating and his undiluted performance will be a real treat to his fans. But it’s great to see all these actors together. And if you’ve never seen a Dvorak film before, this is a great place to start. Recommended viewing for all Pre-Code fans.
Come back next Friday for another Blondell Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical comedy!