Three on a Match (1932) Directed by Mervyn Le Roy. Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, Bette Davis, Warren William, Humphrey Bogart (63 min).

Three old pals meet after ten years, and defy superstition to light three cigarettes with a single match: one life careens out of control. A hard boiled collision of women’s picture and gangster film, it’s drenched in Great Depression Pre-Code cynicism.

When I was a teenager in Cleveland Ohio, a local tv station played the entire Warner Brothers library over and over. There was a local movie host, a dumbbell, who used to say I don’t know what before the commercial breaks. I wrote irate letters to Channel 43, and before I knew it, I was writing the intros for Bob somebody or other’s movie show, for $5 a week. Bogart and Cagney and Bette Davis. At the time, the movies now referred to as Pre-Code (before the Motion Picture Production Code was strictly enforced, starting mid-1934) were still mostly absent from television. The Code was still partly in force, although movies like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde were hastening its demise. I don’t know how Three on a Match slipped through the radar, maybe because Davis and Bogart were in it. But this film I had never heard of seared itself into my memory. Although it starred favorites Davis and Joan Blondell, it was Ann Dvorak I never forgot.

Three on a Match is great, in part, because of a great director, Mervyn Le Roy. In the early 30s he directed Little Caesar, Five Star Final, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and the Gold Diggers of 1933, films surely on anyone’s Best List of the decade. Anyone working for Warner Brothers had plenty of chances for greatness—in 1932 they made 50 films, quick and dirty. No paying for swank literary properties, scripts “must have the punch and smash that would entitle it to be a headline on the front page of any successful metropolitan daily” said studio head Darryl Zanuck. This was particularly true for this film; the notorious Lindbergh kidnapping was in March, 1932, three months before this film went into production. Producer Robert Lord said there was only one rule: “Don’t bore the audience: anything goes as long as it’s entertaining and interesting.” Rumor had it one frame was cut off the edge of every scene to make them snap. Mark Viera continues in his marvelous Sin in Soft Focus, “Three on a Match was the quintessential Warner Bros film of 1932, cramming headlines, history, sociology, sex, alcohol, drugs, adultery, kidnapping, blackmail and suicide into 63 busy minutes.” He should have added child abuse to the lengthy list. How did it get past the weak censorship of the day? By insisting that the kidnapping scenes had a moral purpose (a topical one) showing that “kidnapping is a very unhealthy occupation from which nothing comes but misery, grief and no reward whatsoever.” The film shot in June, 1932 cost $163,383 (Meyers).

Warren William lights two, not three cigarettes in this production still.

Ann Dvorak was born Annabelle McKim in New York City. Her father was a silent film director and Biograph Studio manager, when D.W. Griffith was making movies on 14th Street. Her mother acted in silent films. She left school at 15 to become a chorus girl at the Pom Pom Club in LA, and then was a chorine in 20 films in 1929-31. Her first important role was in Howard Hawks’ Scarface. She was smoldering and sexy as the kid sister for whom Paul Muni had a more than brotherly concern. She was under personal contract to Howard Hughes at the time, and she had a brief affair with him. Warner Brothers bought out her contract and gave her all the studio’s best roles, opposite James Cagney in the auto racing drama The Crowd Roars, an unwed mother in the Strange Love of Molly Louvain and in the superb Broadway mystery Love is a Racket opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

She was just 20 years old when she starred in what Bette Davis called “a dull B picture”—as well she might, because Dvorak, the studio’s most valuable young actress, had the best role. Shortly afterwards, she bolted for Europe with her new husband, Leslie Fenton, before she really had a strong position at the studio, and basically screwed up her career. When she returned, Warners put her on the back burner for her rebelliousness. She never regained her status, ceding it to Bette Davis, who waited until she was in a much stronger position to win her eventual showdown with the studio. It might take a lifetime for an actress to get as many great parts as Dvorak had in 1932, alone. James Wolcott in his April 2001 Vanity Fair piece about Pre-Code movies celebrates Dvorak, calling her “sensational…vibrating like a struck tuning fork as the high strung thrill seeker in Three on a Match….Nobody embodies the raw appetite and the exposed wiring of women who’ve gone without and now can’t get enough better than Dvorak.”

Joan Blondell is another of the Three on a Match girls, describing her own bright and flirty persona, “I was the fizz on the soda” (Hagen & Wagner). Joan Rosebud Blondell was born in a New York City hotel room, while her father played a vaudeville matinee. Her cradle was a trunk, her nursery a dressing room, and her baby sitters fellow performers. Her father had a successful comedy act he played all over the world, co-starring his family, including Baby Rosebud who debuted as a toddler. The family fortunes declined with vaudeville, and there were some desperate times. Joan went to school a week here and there during the tours, when the truant officers insisted. After the family spent the $2000 she won as Miss Dallas on a stop-over, they were destitute. She left the family act for a small part in a Broadway play, Maggie the Magnificent, where she co-starred with another brash newcomer, James Cagney. It only lasted 32 performances, but director William Keighley asked for them both in his new play, Penny Arcade. This play’s run was even shorter, only 24 shows, but Al Jolson saw the play, bought the rights for Hollywood and insisted the two actors were part of the deal.

“ I’ll never forger that day. Cagney and I had done our scenes the day before, and we were there to do a little more. All the bosses came down. Warner, Zanuck and all of them, with a contract, a long term, 5-year contract and they signed us in that back lot in broad daylight. So, that’s how it started, and from then on it was one picture after another” (Hagen & Wagner). She made $200/week and Cagney $400/week. Her regular salary allowed her family, scattered from lack of work, to be reunited. By 1931, she was making Cagney’s $400/week, thanks to small parts in the smash hit Public Enemy, and a crowd pleasing turn in her scanties with Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse. Audiences loved her down to earth, average dame appeal. “I would get endless fan mail for girls saying, ‘That is exactly what I would have done, if I’d been in your shoes. You did exactly the right thing” (Hagen & Wagner).

Warner Brothers expected their contract players to work, some would say, slave. It was a place of “hard, hard work and gruesome hours. The studio did protect you because you were a moneymaker—but it was backbreaking and it was a good thing you were young or you couldn’t have stood it. The biggest treat was when you got time off to go to the bathroom.” She woke up at 4:00 am and drove her cranky Model T to the studio to be in make-up by 5:00, and on the set with lines ready by 8:00 am, six days—and nights—a week. “They’d bring in sandwiches like straw for the horses and we’d finally make it to bed on Sunday morning as the sun hit the pillows.” (Kennedy). Menstrual cycles were charted and actresses were allowed two days off a month for cramps. It’s not surprising that when movie actors began to unionize,Warner Brothers contract players took important roles in the formation of the Screen Actor’s Guild. Between 1931-1933 she made 27 movies, as many as Garbo did in her entire career. Blondell played showgirls and secretaries, waitresses and golddiggers, and the heroine’s best pal. In Gold Diggers of 1933 she talk-sang her way through the showstopping “Remember My Forgotten Man.” As Mick LaSalle says, “There is no such thing as a movie so good that it could not be made a little better by Joan Blondell.” She had a successful career as a character actress, (she was in Grease with John Travolta) making her last film in 1980.

A little sojourn on the shore reveals Davis in a swimsuit, and Blondell in beach pyjamas, William is just off camera in coat and tie. The fab costumes are by WB genius Orry-Kelly.

Bette Davis was born into a blueblood family in the mill town of Lowell, Mass. Her parents had a loveless marriage and a scandalous divorce. With her mother and sister, Davis moved over 75 times while her mother searched for employment. She acted in school plays and decided she wanted to be an actress. After high school, she went to acting school in NYC, where she was taught by George Arliss and Martha Graham. Roles in stock led to success on the NY stage, and a reluctant invitation to Hollywood, based, not on her looks, but her “intensity.” The Universal flunky assigned to meet her train returned to the studio without her, since he said nobody got off the train who looked like an actress. Universal was flummoxed by her, didn’t photograph or dress her well, and after a series of drab roles let her go. She was packing her bags when her old teacher George Arliss cast her in The Man Who Played God at Warner Brothers. She was signed to a five year contract, her hair was lightened, make-up and wardrobe departments pampered her, and she started getting better roles. She slaved at WB with everybody else in the early 30s, and particularly hated this script, which had nothing for her to sink her teeth into. Director LeRoy let her know, “that he believed Joan Blondell was going to become ‘a great star’ and Ann Dvorak’s future was ‘unlimited.’ Great for them—but what about me? It wasn’t that I didn’t wish the other girls well, but I didn’t get a crumb out of that script” (Sikov). She didn’t want to be just another starlet, but was unpopular at the studio, Puritanical, not one of the gang and hanging stubbornly onto her virginity until marriage (Sikov) she was an outsider and frequently out of her acting depth. In Three on a Match, even the curly headed moppet gets more screen time than she does.

Humphrey Bogart was a decendant of New York’s original Dutch settlers, his blood even bluer than Bette Davis.’ His father was a surgeon, his mother a successful commercial artist, who used her beautiful baby boy as a model. As an infant, Bogart’s face advertised a baby food to America’s mothers, but he was raised by the servants. Rebelling against his parents values, he flunked out of private high school and joined the Navy in 1918. After the war, he decided to be an actor, “I was born to be indolent, and this was the softest of rackets” (Meyers). He broke into show business as the office boy for a producer who was a family friend, and he worked jobs both back stage and on stage. He never took acting lessons, he auditioned and he worked, often playing rich boy characters kind of like himself. He had no ambition to be a star.

He came to Hollywood for the first time in 1930, in a wave of many other stage actors arriving for the talkies. In Bad Sister, a film that is one of his and Bette Davis’ worst, they were both told by a producer they had nothing to offer the movies and that they should return to New York, which Bogart did. He was getting better as an actor, and was in more successful plays, and in his second trip to Hollywood in 1932, he arrived with a $750/week salary. Three on a Match was his first gangster role, and he was described as “seductive and terrifying.” After his six month contract was up, he returned again to the New York theater. He’d return to Hollywood permanently, after playing another gangster, Duke Mantee, in Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest.

Lyle Talbot (playing Dvorak’s smarmy boyfriend) was picked as a “Star of Tomorrow” in 1932. On the same page…Katharine Hepburn.

Margaret Talbot, Lyle Talbot’s daughter, has written an engaging biography of her father, The Entertainer. The mix of family memoir and show business timeline works extraordinarily well, covering his long career stretching across the 20th century, from tent show to Hollywood, (with a special nod to fan clubs) to the cheapie films of Ed Wood to his tv career as a neighbor of Ozzie and Harriet.  There’s such a great mix of research (with little repetition of material available elsewhere) and insider information, and the book is never mean spirited.  Ms. Talbot gossips engagingly and gives a frank appraisal of her father’s hard working talent, that he was simply missing that intangible something that makes a person a movie star, as opposed to a movie actor.

There are many show biz bios in which I skim the last 100 pages.  They often chart a depressing decline of a person whose most embarrassing old age weaknesses you don’t want to know.  But, in a totally refreshing reversal, the end of the book is the most heartwarming part.  Ms. Talbot has no axe to grind, and describes her close knit family in an endearing way, ending with her elderly father at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco acknowledging applause for his role in Three on a Match.  Dysfunction sells, doesn’t it?  But, I love that Ms. Talbot’s tribute to her father is tender, tart and true. Here is a link to an excerpt about Talbot in 1930s Hollywood from The New Yorker, where Ms. Talbot is a staff writer .

The superstition about not lighting three cigarettes with the same match was not devised by a manufacturer of matches–as suggested in a 1933 Warner Brothers film, The Match King. Instead, it originated during World War I, when it was believed that the time it took for three soldiers to light their smokes from one match would allow an enemy sniper to take aim and fire. Three on a Match has a bullet’s trajectory. And, it is unwittingly prophetic: golden girl Ann Dvorak ended up destroying her career, while Bette Davis (celebrating her 100 year birthday this week) would go on to become one of the great icons of cinema. Davis, understandably, thought Three on a Match was dull. But not for the audience. “How dull can it be to watch Ann Dvorak turn from a Park Avenue matron into a derelict hophead in a little under an hour?” (Sikov).

Three on a Match arrived in a spotless archival print from the Library of Congress. I requested two shorts I had never seen. Abe Lyman and his Orchestra is a stagebound Vitaphone short where the outfit plays three numbers, a rather sedate fox trot, a ballad sung by a tenor, and finishes up with a lively version of “Varsity Drag.” Lyman, at the drums, twirls his drumsticks and stiffly introduces the numbers. Voice of Hollywood # 11 with Marjorie White, showcases the perky comedienne as she takes a trip in a zeppelin over Hollywood, pointing out various sights (no traffic!) and movie stars, some at a party at Marion Davies beach house.


(Photos from Moviediva’s movie star scrapbook collection. Sources include: Sin in Soft Focus by Mark Viera, Complicated Women by Mick La Salle, Wampus Baby Stars by Roy Liebman, Killer Tomatoes by Ray Hagen and Laura Wagner, Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy, Fasten Your Seatbelts by Lawrence J. Quirk, Humphrey Bogart: A Life in Hollywood by Jeffrey Meyers, Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis by Ed Sikov).

c.MoviedivaApril2008Revised October2012