Three on a Match (1932)

Three on a Match (1932)

“It must be a grand feeling to get everything you want.”

When three schoolmates — spoiled Vivian (Ann Dvorak), hardworking Ruth (Bette Davis), and fun-loving Mary (Joan Blondell) — meet ten years after graduating, they light three cigarettes on one match, and their lives are changed forever.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ann Dvorak Films
  • Bette Davis Films
  • Character Arc
  • Class Relations
  • Downward Spiral
  • Edward Arnold Films
  • Humphrey Bogart Films
  • Joan Blondell Films
  • Kidnapping
  • Mervyn LeRoy Films
  • Warren William Films

Panned as “tedious and distasteful” by the New York Times upon its release, this taut Warner Brothers melodrama has gained more respect in recent years, lauded by critics for its “uncompromising script” and “raw direction”, and cited as “one of the best” of Warner’s “factory assembly line films [from] the early thirties”. The truth lies somewhere in between both extremes. While Three on a Match is certainly neither “tedious” nor “distasteful”, it’s also not particularly compelling. The first half hour (which, given its mere hour+ length, is half the movie itself) is rather inconsequential, with too much time spent establishing the stereotypical characters and their backgrounds; fortunately, things heat up once Dvorak’s character “goes bad”, and the narrative takes some unexpected twists and turns.

Three on a Match is most notable these days for clearly showing Dvorak as an unrepentant cocaine addict; she gives up her marriage and young child without compunction, swiping greedily at her nose like it itches — this is classic Pre-Code daring. More impressive than Dvorak, however, is Joan Blondell — it’s easy to see why she was touted (over mellow Davis, whose role is minor at best) as a rising star. Also of interest is charismatic Humphrey Bogart in a tiny yet unforgettable role as a kidnapping gangster; see below for his classic response to Dvorak’s young son.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Blondell as Mary
  • Humphrey Bogart in a small role as an utterly ruthless gangster:
  • Junior: Please don’t hurt my mommy!
    Bogart (with a sneer): I’ll bear that in mind.

  • Adorable Buster Phelps as curly-headed Junior (despite his substantial role in the film, he’s uncredited)
  • The shocking finale

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for its daring Pre-Code content.


One thought on “Three on a Match (1932)

  1. Not a must – for a number of reasons given in the assessment. It passes ultimately as potboiler entertainment – perhaps that was the intent; something to go compulsively with popcorn – but it’s only moderately compelling, and that’s near the end. (The actual death scene, tho, is OTT and a bit laughable.)

    The first half IS inconsequential – and, since that’s half the movie, we’re already dangerously far from a ‘must-see’.

    Dvorak delivers lines well without indicating much range; Blondell has a standard ‘best friend’ role, albeit with a little color; Davis is wasted in a nothing part (and when Davis does nothing with a nothing part, she’s clearly bored).

    At the risk of seeming a child-hater, I don’t find Phelps adorable. More to the point, I don’t find the amount he’s called on to do all that natural.

    There’s something slapdash here: the three women come back into each other’s lives after ten years but their inter-action from that point is minimal; focus then goes to Dvorak who actually leaves the country for a time; then suddenly the film seems to be about her boyfriend!

    The film passes quickly enough. But the most compelling thing I find about it is the device used throughout of newspaper headlines/articles showing current events and passing trends. We’re reminded of what’s so true: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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