Mervyn LeRoy’s 1932 Three on a Match is a pre-Code delight, reveling in the sordid reputation of its recent past while channeling an American spirit perfect for the Depression-era, with its tales of reinvention, redemption, and altered fortunes.
The film follows a trio of women--popular stars Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis--who meet at elementary school in 1919 and whose lives become intertwined from that day on. Blondell plays Mary, the juvenile delinquent turned stage star, while Dvorak is Vivian, the popular girl who marries rich. In the middle is Ruth--Davis, sadly playing a nothing role--a workingwoman who sticks around for balance. Vivian grows bored of her life, while Mary envies the stability. Ultimately, the two swap as the former bad girl learns to make good and the once-promising lass sinks into alcohol and drugs. And Ruth? She becomes their nanny.
Three on a Match is both marvelously salacious and strangely conservative. One can’t help seeing the manhunt for Vivian’s kidnapped child and consider modern implications: he’s a rich kid, and thus worth finding. Though LeRoy builds much of the story on the reality of his times, he had a bit of unfortunate luck when the Lindberg kidnapping made Three on a Match seem far too current. The close proximity of the crime means there is no direct reference made, as otherwise we track the women through the years via newspapers and popular song, the montages catching us up on trends and even the criticism thereof. Three on a Match envelopes both Prohibition and the Great Depression.
Blondell and Dvorak get to have the most fun here, following opposite character arcs, and playing both good and bad. While young Mary is brassy and cool, the party girl that Vivian becomes is the absolute opposite. Dvorak plays her bored and wan, convincingly portraying the decay of an addict. It’s fun seeing a young Humphrey Bogart, playing a slick gangster, ridicule her and mimic her dope fiend twitch, saying everything that could be said without saying anything. On the opposite end, Mary drops all cynicism for good graces and positivity, but Blondell makes it work by keeping the character grounded. Mary never forgets where she came from.
The title Three on a Match comes from a superstitious saying, popularized in WWI, that if you keep a match lit long enough to light three cigarettes, the third person will die. This makes sense for etiquette in foxhole, but amusingly, the concept had already been exposed as matchmaker propaganda by the time of the film. No joke! A Swiss company was worried about losing money if smokers shared matches. LeRoy even references it in one of the history lessons. Yet, Three on a Match plays out the urban legend all the same. No spoiler as to who takes the final cigarette, but expect the unexpected...and the gruesome. So gruesome, it sort of outweighs the “happily ever after” sequence that closes out the film, but so we can expect from such tales. The lows always swing much wider than the highs, and the moral lessons never can quite shake the glitz of the bad deeds they decry.