Saturday, April 18, 2015

Stubs – Three on A Match

Three on a Match (1932) Starring: Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, Warren William, Lyle Talbot, Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins and Edward Arnold. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Screenplay by Lucien Hubbard. Based on a short story by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright. Produced by Samuel Bischoff, Raymond Griffith and Darryl F. Zanuck.  Run Time: 63 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Crime, Drama

There is the old superstition about lighting three cigarettes on the same match. It apparently goes back to at least The Boer Wars stating that the third soldier to light his cigarette will be killed or at least shot. The idea was also popularized by the Swedish match tycoon Ivar Kreuger, the subject of The Match King (1932) starring Warren William, in order to sell more matches.

This superstition is the basis for the film Three on a Match (1932). The three are childhood acquaintances reunited as young adults, Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell), Ruth Westcott (Bette Davis) and Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak). The film uses an interesting montage to show the passage of time from 1919 to 1932 as we watch the three girls develop. Their characteristics are pretty well set from the beginning. Mary (played as a child by Virginia Davis) is a tomboy, not afraid to show her bloomers or to smoke with the boys. Ruth (played as a child by Betty Carse) is the studious one. Vivian (played as a child by Dawn O'Day) is from a well-to-do family, pretty and popular.

In one foreshadowing sequence, we see Mary stealing away Vivian’s boyfriend Bobby (Frankie Darro) to meet in the “you know where” place. The two of them and another boy smoke cigarettes while everyone else is in class. (It should be noted that Jack Webb, famous for Dragnet, is supposedly somewhere in the sequence uncredited as “boy in the schoolyard”. He’s about 12 years old and this would be his first appearance on film; if you can find him.)

Three on a Match spends about a third of its run time setting up the characters of the girls. After they graduate primary school, in 1921, Vivian is off to a private boarding school, Ruth, whose family is less fortunate, is off to business school to learn stenography and Mary is doomed for reform school, having barely graduated in the first place.

Mrs. Keaton (Clara Blandick) has to convince the principal to let Mary (Virginia Davis) graduate.

When we next catch a glimpse of the girls in 1925 and they’re all grown up, at least now the adult actresses have assumed the roles: Mary is indeed in state reform school and not liking it. Vivian is at Miss Jason's School for Young Ladies and is as popular as ever. Meanwhile Ruth is at the Metropolitan Business College, sharpening up her typing skills.

Ruth (Bette Davis) attends business school after graduation,

Fast forward to 1930, at the beauty shop. Mary, who is now an entertainer, mentions to one of the beauticians that she’s run into old friend, Ruth Westcott, from P.S. No. 62. Vivian, who is in the other booth, overhears her and sends her attendant over to check. Mary remembers Vivian and the two agree to have lunch with Ruth.

It is at this lunch the three women light their cigarettes with the same match, Vivian being the last one. Of the three, Vivian seems to have the best life. Married to a successful lawyer, Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), she also has a three and a half year-old boy they call Junior (Dickie Moore) and lives, especially compared to the life of an actress and stenographer, in wealth with a chauffeur driven car outside waiting for her.

Things change after Ruth (Bette Davis), Mary (Joan Blondell) and Vivian
 (Ann Dvorak) share a match to light three cigarettes at lunch.

But Vivian isn’t satisfied and after coming home late from a fancy party, she tells Robert about her state. He suggests that they go away together, but she insists on going alone, but taking Junior with her. Robert is agreeable, hoping that being on her own in Europe for a few weeks will cure her of her blues.

Work gets in the way as Vivian's husband, Robert (Warren William), receives a telegram.

Robert is with her on board her ship, which is to depart at midnight, when one of the boys from the office brings him a telegram that requires his immediate attention. Soon after he leaves, Vivian runs into Mary, who is on board for a bon voyage party for some friends. In her party is Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot). Handsome and suave, he pays attention to Mary, who leaves her sleeping son in the care of one of the ship’s stewardesses, to attend. She gets there around 10:30 and before the ship leaves port has decided to run off with Michael.

Michael (Lyle Talbot) sweeps Vivian off her feet when they meet at her bon voyage party.

It is only after the ship lands that Vivian is reported missing. Robert knows that she’s done this deliberately and hires detectives to find her. Vivian quickly loses all interest in anything but drinking and Michael. Junior is left to fend for himself most of the time.

Once off the ship, Junior (Dickie Moore) is left to fend for himself while Mom drinks.

Mary tells Ruth that she’s concerned about Junior and tries to convince Vivian to let Ruth’s sister and husband take care of him while Vivian sorts things out. Failing that, she goes to Robert and tells him where he can find Vivian and the boy.

Mary tries to convince Vivian to let her take Junior away from her.

Robert takes the boy away and Vivian doesn’t try to fight it. Robert and Junior summer with Mary and Ruth and on the day Robert’s divorce is final, he marries Mary and hires Ruth to be Junior’s new nanny.

Ruth and Mary playing with Junior at the beach.

We then see two municipal workers sharing lunch, with one of them telling the other the story of how Mary and Vivian have traded places in the limo and points out that the first Mrs. Kirkwood is waiting for the new one. Vivian tells Mary that she’s down on her luck. Michael never had any money and Vivian has already sold all of her jewelry. Mary gives Vivian $80, which Vivian then hands over to Michael.

The street cleaner (Spencer Charter) tells another municipal
worker how Mary and Vivian have traded lots in life.

Michael, we learn, has a gambling debt he owes to Ace (Edward Arnold) of $2000. Harve (Humphrey Bogart) informs Michael that his check bounced and takes him to see Ace. The $80 Michael has is not near enough and Ace tells Michael to get the rest of the money.

Michael tries to blackmail Robert about Mary’s criminal past, but Robert give him a little lesson in the law and tells him no newspaper would buy the story and kicks him out of his office.

Seeing no way out, Michael, who knows Junior, finds him in the park. He convinces him that his mother is crying for him and takes him back to her. He demands a $2000 ransom for the boy. But Ace hears about the kidnapping on the police radio and decides they can do better. He sends Harve and Dick (Allen Jenkins) and another henchman (Jack La Rue) to takeover and the ransom is upped to $25,000.

Michael's not happy about it, but Ace sends his henchmen, including Harve
 (Humphrey Bogart), over to handle the ransom negotiatoins for Junior.

Vivian, who by now is addicted to snorting heroin (signaled by Harve brushing his hand under his nose miming the dissolute mother), is held hostage too and not allowed to leave the apartment. Having withdrawals, we hear her cries, which the henchmen treat with violence.

Harve indicating Vivian is addicted to snorting heroin.

After ten days and a failed drop, and with the police closing in, Ace decides it’s time to kill the boy and retreat. Michael is given the task, but when he wimps out he’s knocked unconscious. Vivian, hearing what’s going on, has Junior hide, but thinking it’s a game, Junior attracts the attention of the henchmen in the other room. When they investigate, it looks like Vivian is trying to put on makeup but is so out of it, she’s getting most of it on her dressing gown.

With the police nearby and before the henchmen can kill Junior, Vivian leaps through a nailed shut window and falls to her death. The police find the message that the Kirkwood boy is on the fourth floor and run off to save him. The film ends with Junior and father reunited, praying for mommy’s soul.

Three on a Match came out on October 29, 1932. Earlier that year, Charles Lindbergh’s son, Charles Lindbergh Jr., was kidnapped on March 1st and his dead body was found May 12th. When the film came out five months later many censor boards were reluctant to pass a film that contained a child kidnapping, since they felt the public would resent the film.

Later, East coast censor boards agreed to pass this picture because the kidnappers in it are captured, but they subsequently entered into a "gentlemen's agreement" that the industry would not, for a time, make any more pictures with kidnapping themes. The film was remade, aren’t they all, by Warner Bros. in 1938 as Broadway Musketeers and would also feature a kidnapping, but time had passed since the Lindbergh kidnapping so it was not as controversial.

One of the interesting things about the movie is that so many of the actors involved were so near the beginnings of their careers. Blondell, who had only been making movies since 1930, was already appearing in her 20th feature. Previous films included Sinners’ Holiday (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), Night Nurse (1931) and The Crowd Roars (1932). When Mary becomes an adult, she’s a performer in Broadway shows, which seemed to foreshadow Blondell's role as Carol King in Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933).

Dvorak, who had appeared in silent films as a child actress, had been taking adult roles in talkies since 1929. 1932 would be a watershed year for her as she would appear in Scarface, The Crowd Roars and Three on a Match.

Ruth Elizabeth Davis, or Bette Davis as we know her, had only been in Hollywood since December 1930, invited to Hollywood by a Universal talent scout after her Broadway debut in Broken Dishes (1929). After failing a couple of screen tests, Universal considered terminating her contract, but cinematographer/director Karl Freund, interceded. He thought she had “lovely eyes” and she was cast in The Bad Sister (1931). She would appear in six films before Universal cancelled her contract.

Davis was preparing to move back to New York, when she was cast by George Arliss in The Man Who Played God (1932). Warner Bros. signed her to a five year contract and she remained at the studio for the next eighteen.

Warren William had spent most of the 1920’s on Broadway acting in such plays as The Town That Forgot God. The movie adaptation would mark his film debut. However, he wouldn’t come to Hollywood again until 1931 and his role as Robert Kirkwood would only be his 9th film after that. His next film, The Match King (1932), is foreshadowed in the movie as well.

Three on a Match would be one of Lyle Talbot’s best known films. He would have a career that spanned nearly 56 years, from 1931 to 1987, and he would appear in about 150 movies and dozens of television shows during that time. In addition, he would also appear on stage during the 40’s, 60’s and 70’s. Of interest to films based on comic books, Talbot would be the first live action actor to play two prominent DC Comics characters on-screen: Commissioner Gordon in the Batman and Robin serial (1949) and Lex Luthor in the Atom Man vs. Superman serial (1950).

Humphrey Bogart had been in and out of films since The Dancing Town (1928), a two reeler starring Helen Hayes. Three on a Match marks his first gangster role, the type of part he would be famous for playing throughout the 1930’s in such films as The Petrified Forest (1936), Dead End (1937), The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939). As the years would go on, Bogart would get better with these kinds of roles, but you do see the beginnings of what will become one of his most iconic types of roles.

In what was quite the supporting cast, we also have Allen Jenkins, Edward Arnold and Jack La Rue. While Jenkins would make a career playing comedic henchmen, in Three on a Match, only his sixth film, he plays it mean. 

Ace's henchmen included Humphrey Bogart (Harve), Allen Jenkins (Dick),
Stanley Price and Jack La Rue (both uncreduted).

Edward Arnold, who had been acting in films since The Misleading Lady (1916), had gone back to the stage. He had made his talkie debut only early in the year in Okay America! For Jack La Rue, Three on a Match would be another nameless uncredited role. He was supposedly sometimes confused for Humphrey Bogart, so it’s interesting to see them in a film together.

The film is well made for what was probably intended as just another programmer. I especially liked the parade of time montage that uses news headlines, popular song sheets, and excerpts from the news weeklies to show what was going on in the world starting with 1919 and every time the film skips forward. While I have to imagine some of this was old news at the time to the audience, most having lived through the time period, it does serve modern audiences as a history lesson about what was happening elsewhere at key moments in the film.

Not well received when first released, Three on a Match isn’t really a bad movie. With a running time of a little over an hour, there isn’t much to like or dislike for that matter. I do feel the film spends an inordinate amount of time setting up the characters, as we go back to grade school with them. While I appreciate the effort to develop the characters, there seems to be little reason to develop Ruth’s. She is really the third wheel in this film and Davis is really not much of a factor. After Junior is kidnapped, I don’t think she appears again, except for a quick shot of Kirkwood telling the police they have to find his son. Her role is small and insignificant.

Other than that, the movie tells a fairly complicated story in a pretty straight forward way. And for all the controversy about it, the film does have a happy ending. What more could you ask Hollywood for than that?

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