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Among the many low-budget programmers Warner Bros. churned out in their factory assembly line in the early thirties, Three on a Match (1932) is one of the best; a tough, fast-paced melodrama with a Pre-Code raciness that features a talented cast of relative newcomers, many of whom would become major stars in the following years such as Joan Blondell, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. At the time, however, none of the cast or crew attributed much importance to it and most of the reviewers at the time dismissed it as unexceptional fare; The New York Times called it "tedious and distasteful." But what's not to like?
Juggling multiple subplots within a sixty-four minute running time, Three on a Match follows the fates of three childhood friends, opening with a prologue set in 1919 and then reuniting the trio in 1931 where they have a reunion at a restaurant and vow to stay in touch. At this meeting, Mary (Joan Blondell), Ruth (Bette) and Vivian (Ann Dvorak) all share a match for cigarettes, laughing at the famous superstition that predicts a dire fate for the third one to share the match. In Vivian's case, however, it proves to be true. A bored society wife, Vivian abandons her lawyer husband Henry (Warren William), takes their son and runs off with Mike Loftus (Lyle Talbot), a notorious underworld figure. Eventually Henry divorces Vivian and wins custody of his son and, in an ironic turn of events, ends up marrying Mary and hiring Ruth as his son's nanny. Meanwhile, Vivian sinks deeper and deeper into poverty and despair until a final desperate act provides a grim but necessary resolution to the story.
In the screen foreword to Three on a Match, it is noted that the popular superstition "did not originate during World War I, where it was said that to hold a match burning long enough for three lights would attract enemy gun fire. It did originate with Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish match king, who wanted the world to use more matches. It is reported that the saying brings his companies $5,000,000 annually." By a coincidence, Warner Bros. would also release a film biography of Ivar Kreuger the same year as Three on a Match, also starring Warren William (in the title role).
Among the three leading actresses in Three on a Match, Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner favored Ann Dvorak stating in his autobiography, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood, "I had seen her in Scarface , and she had a dainty, unworldly quality that was rare in the actresses around Hollywood at the time. I brought her to Warner Brothers and in a five-year period she made nineteen pictures, including G-Men , Three on a Match, Midnight Alibi , and The Crowd Roars . Almost inevitably, she came down with the temperament disease, and when agents Myron Selznick and Charlie Feldman began double-crossing each other in a fight to get her, Ann ran away and took a slow boat to New York through the Panama Canal. I put her under suspension, and she never came back to the Burbank lot, which was too bad because she had a dazzling future until her quarreling agents snuffed it out." Dvorak could indeed have been a major star if she hadn't been plagued by bad luck and she's undeniably riveting as the doomed Vivian in Three on a Match, bringing a sense of genuine tragedy to the highly stylized soap opera proceedings.
In comparison, Joan Blondell and Bette Davis are merely supporting characters but both make the most of their limited on-screen opportunities. In her autobiography, The Lonely Life, Bette Davis wrote unfavorably of the experience, saying the studio "put me in a dull "B" picture called Three on a Match. My school friend Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak and I were the unlucky trio, and Mervyn LeRoy was my next unsympathetic director. He kept talking of what a great dramatic star Joan was to become and I was glad for her; but his pointed references and indifference to me hardly encouraged me in my daily work. It seems that something in me created resistance in these men. There isn't the slightest doubt in my mind that they resented my background and my assurance. They were used to passive slates that they could scribble on...Madge in The Cabin in the Cotton  was my first downright, forthright bitch and one would have thought that the role would have erased permanently the sweet, drab sister type that had plagued me since my arrival. And here I was, a stenographer. In an effort to humanize her, I would come up against the powers." Adding to Davis's frustration with her part were the unwanted advances of leading man Warren William who had pestered the actress on previous features. At least Mervyn LeRoy acknowledged some regret over his treatment of Davis in his autobiography, Mervyn LeRoy: Take One: "There was Three on a Match. They gave me three unknown girls in that one - Joan Blondell, Bette Davis and Ann Dvorak. I made a mistake when the picture was finished. I told an interviewer that Joan Blondell was going to be a big star, that Ann Dvorak had definite possibilities, but that I didn't think Bette Davis would make it. She's been cool to me ever since."
It would take another three years for Davis to prove the naysayers wrong but in 1934 she gave a breakout performance in Of Human Bondage and in 1935 won her first Best Actress Oscar® for Dangerous. On the other hand, Joan Blondell would win more prominent roles almost immediately following Three on a Match, scoring hits with major roles in Gold Diggers of 1933 and Dames (1934). It would take much longer for Humphrey Bogart, cast here as Mike's henchman "Harve the Mug" (one of his first gangster parts), to achieve leading man status at Warner Bros. His performance as the escaped convict Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936) brought him critical acclaim but he would have to wait until 1941 - when he appeared in both High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon - that the Bogie mystique would click with audiences.
Producer: Samuel Bischoff, Raymond Griffith, Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Lucien Hubbard, John Bright, Kubec Glasmon
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Film Editing: Ray Curtis
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Cast: Ann Dvorak (Vivian Revere Kirkwood), Betty Davis (Ruth Wescott), Joan Blondell (Mary Keaton), Warren William (Robert Kirkwood), Lyle Talbot (Michael Loftus), Humphrey Bogart (Harve), Allen Jenkins (Dick), Edward Arnold (Ace), Anne Shirley (Vivian as a child), Virginia Davis (Mary as a child).
BW-64m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford