Wednesday July 15, 2020
Movie Review: Three on a Match (1932)
Blonell and Dvorak switch places. Bette Davis the blonde, boring one.
Our title three are Mary, Vivian and Ruth (Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis), who know each other in grade school and meet up again 10 years later. Of the three, Bette Davis is the boring one, believe it or not, the “…and Peggy” of the group. She’s got no bit. She’s the smart one who becomes a typist and then a nanny. I guess such were the options for smart girls in the 1920s and ’30s. Or for Warners bit players, which Davis was at the time.
The other two switch places. That’s the movie's real story.
Dempsey, Vallee, Lindsey
We first see them as kids at Public School No. 62, where Mary smokes with the boys (including Frankie Darro, uncredited) and doesn’t care about showing her bloomers on the monkey bars. Vivian is the popular one—although one wonders why since she seems kind of snooty. Either way, their futures appear pre-written. And indeed: Mary (now Blondell) winds up in reform school and becomes a show girl; Ruth (now Bette) winds up at business/typing school and becomes a secretary; and Vivian (Dvorak) goes to prep school—where she reads racy books to the other girls—then marries a rich, prominent lawyer, Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), and has an too-cutesy three-year old, Junior, played by Buster Phelps, who’s a bit like a boy version of Shirley Temple.
Anyway, they meet up again in 1930 and have lunch together. At one point, they light their cigarettes from the same match. “Three on a match,” one of them says.
Know the saying? I didn’t. Apparently if three smokers share the same match, one of them dies. That was the superstition. It may have started during wartime—Boer, WWI—since if the light from the match burned long enough it made the men a target. Another version has it that the slogan was popularized in the 1920s by Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish “match king”—yes, they had those back then—who wanted people to use more matches. War or greed: either could be correct.
Interestingly, Warren William’s next movie was “The Match King,” a fictionalized version of Kreuger—I guess matches were a bigger thing then—while both “three on a match” theories are mentioned here via newspaper headlines. Normally they‘re used to set the scene/era. So in 1919, along with “Public Enemy” footage of people hoarding booze, we get these headlines:
- DRY LAW IN EFFECT TOMORROW
- WOMAN SUFFRAGE PASSES CONGRESS!
- DEMPSEY KNOCKED OUT WILLARD
There’s also an article about fashion trends, and how the “proper dress length next fall will be six inches from the ground.” It was tongue-in-cheek scandalous. “Not since the days of the Bourbons,” etc. It was 1932 making fun of 1919.
As for 1921? Babe Ruth maybe? Douglas Fairbanks? Nope. Instead we get:
- The music sheet for Eddie Cantor’s “The Sheik of Araby” (which the Beatles did 40 years later)
- PRESIDENT HARDING LAUNCHES NEW “ERA OF GOOD FEELING” (sure)
- AMAZING FEAT OF NEW “WIRELESS TELEPHONE” (i.e., radio)
- The music sheet for “The Prisoner’s Song”
- SHENANDOAH WRECKED! MANY LIVES LOST
- “RED” GRANGE FOR CONGRESS
- YOUNGER GENERATION RUNS WILD, SAYS JUDGE BEN LINDSEY
I love the stuff that meant something then but less so now. I guess the U.S.S. Shenandoah dirigible crash was eventually usurped by the Hindenburg? Meanwhile, Ben Lindsey was indeed a judge—and a social reformer—but lost to us through the years.
Then we’re up to 1930—only two years removed from when the movie was made and released—so less aware of what might be historically significant. What do they give us?
- The music sheet for “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” by Rudy Vallee
- WALL STREET LEADERS SEE BUSINESS UPTURN: Stock Slump Only Temporary…
Never heard of the Vallee song. The other is 1932 thumbing its nose at 1930—or at least its pundits. We still haven’t learned that lesson.
Again, this is when our girls meet up. Both Mary and Peggy/Ruth are scraping to get by, Viv has it made but she’s not happy. She’s bored. With husband and maybe child? But the husband is understanding. He suggests a trip to Europe, which she thinks won’t work. Then he suggests a trip to Europe without him. She’s more interested in that. Yikes. She even takes along her annoying son. But she never gets out of port.
Before the ship sets sail, she meets a friend of Mary’s, Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot), and the two drink each other in; they can’t get enough of each other. And so she and son slip off and spend time with him in a high-priced hotel. She spends most of it drinking, but it soon becomes apparent she’s snorting cocaine, too. Yes, cocaine. Pre-code. By and by, she loses her son (Mary brings him back to the father), her husband divorces her (and quickly marries Mary), and she becomes destitute. Like that. She and Mary change places.
Wait, it gets worse.
Good-for-nothing Michael owes $2k to gangsters. The big man is Ace, played by Edward Arnold, whose henchmen include Allen Jenkins (forever a secondary gangster), an uncredited Jake La Rue (whose got a Bobby Cannavale thing about him), and, in his first gangster role, and only ninth feature, a young Humphrey Bogart. He’s one of the best things in the movie. There’s a stillness to him that feels threatening. There’s a leanness to him that’s like a razor blade.
Since Michael can’t pay them off, he decides to kidnap Junior for ransom. Then the mob wants in on the action: Not the $2k he’s demanding but $25k. Soon it becomes like a Lindbergh baby thing, with headlines around the country and everyone in the city after them and closing in. Things get so hot the others decide to just kill Junior and scram. Vivian overhears, hides her son, writes a message on her nightgown in lipstick, and when the bad guys enter the room she screams and jumps out the fourth-story window. It’s the great sacrifice after the great indulgence.
The boy survives, unlike Lindbergh’s baby, and everyone lives happily ever after except for Viv. She’s the third on the match. Let this be a lesson, moviegoers. Stay away from booze, coke and Lyle Talbot.
‘World War Foreseen’
Yeah, it’s not a great movie. The history of it is more interesting.
- As mentioned, it’s the first gangster role for Humphrey Bogart.
- Sidney Miller has a small role as the humorous Jewish kid at P.S. 62. He’s good. It’s basically the same role he played in “The Mayor of Hell” from ’33. I wrote more about him there.
- Talbot, who’s quite handsome here, became the first screen version of Lex Luthor in 1950s’s “Atom Man vs. Superman.” He’s one of those guys that never stopped working. According to IMDb, this is his 11th credit and he would wind up with 330 of them—the last being a bit part in the satiric, funny “Amazon Women on the Moon” in 1987. He died in 1996, age 94.
- Of the titular three, it’s the “…and Peggy” of the group, Bette Davis, who became the star. Maybe because she wanted it most? In her biography, Joan Blondell wonders aloud whether she should’ve fought for better roles like Bette did rather than acquiescing to the Warners; she decides it just wasn’t in her nature.
- The story came from John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, the guys behind “The Public Enemy,” and it shares a bit of a “Public Enemy” vibe: from seeing our leads as kids to giving us the year yardmarkers throughout. Unlike “PE,” though, the past is not prologue.
Then there’s all those historical and cultural indicators mentioned above. This is the last group we get—from 1931:
- Music sheet for Fanny Brice’s “I Found a Million Dollar Baby (In a Five-and-Ten-Cent Store)” (they loved their music sheets)
- WALL STREET LEADERS SEE BUSINESS UPTURN
- “SUN SUITS” RULES BEACHES (as juxtaposition with 1919 fashions)
But this is the headline that intrigued me:
“Row” is a bit undercutting it; but very, very prescient.