Three on a Match (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1932) might just be my favorite movie from what is possibly my favorite year in cinema, 1932. A Pre-Code masterpiece that stays with you long after the credits roll and I, for one, can never help but get a lump in my throat every time I watch it.
Three on a Match follows the lives of three women from their days as elementary school girls to adulthood, in the present day. As it turns out, Vivian (Ann Dvorak), Mary (Joan Blondell) and Ruth (Bette Davis) have led very different lives: Vivian was always the most popular girl in school and is now married with a child, living in a big, beautiful house; Mary went to reform school and now works as a showgirl under the name Mary Bernard; Ruth was always the smartest of the three and is now a stenographer. The three meet for lunch after not having seen each other for a number of years, and Vivian confides in them that, despite everything, she is not happy. Later on, she tells her husband, Robert (Warren William) that she needs to get away for a while. She decides to go on a cruise with the boy, Junior (Buster Phelps) and, while there, she meets Michael (Lyle Talbot), a smooth-talking gambler, who persuades her to go away with him. What follows are some of the most heart-pounding, gut-punching and downright brutal moments in all of Pre-Code as Vivian’s life takes a turn for the worse…
Three on a Match is the perfect example of why Pre-Code was so utterly fascinating. Clocking in at just 63 minutes, there is more than enough in it for a three hour picture. Everything from substance abuse, to depression, to extra-marital affairs, to kidnapping. And that’s before Humphrey Bogart even makes his entrance, as the two-bit hood hired to take care of things. Three on a Match makes the most of what it has to offer, and it is glorious. I suppose the most notable aspect of it is the message; whichever way you look at it, there’s something to take away from it. Vivian, seemingly the most successful and presumably happiest of the three, is utterly miserable for reasons that she herself doesn’t even know. She has everything she could ever have hoped for, and yet she’s unhappy. Maybe she never hoped for this. Maybe she never fought too hard for it either. Maybe that’s it. Things have always come easy for her, and now she doesn’t know who she is anymore. She probably never has. And now she’s craving something else. Anything else. Some excitement. Some fun. Somewhere away from her current life. This leads to her ultimate destruction and her punishment for it is one of the harshest lessons in a film. Her poor decisions led her to this point and there is no going back now. Her life spirals out of control in a matter of weeks and if she didn’t know who she was before this, she certainly won’t be able to find out now. In fact, when it gets to this point, she is a shadow of her former self, virtually unrecognizable in every way. And just when you think you’re ready to sympathize with her again, she lets us down. The main message is clear, but what if there is another message behind it? There is no doubt she was suffering from a severe depression, and sadly it went undiagnosed and untreated. It’s no secret that this kind of stuff wasn’t as talked about back then as it is today, but one can’t help but think that there might be something in it. Maybe Vivian needed help all along. Maybe it wasn’t her fault. Maybe we can sympathize with her again?
The recurring theme of Three on a Match is reflected in all of their lives, not just Vivian’s. Mary, for example, went to reform school right after elementary school, and is now working as a chorus girl in what we can assume is a relatively stable career. At the very least, she’s learned from her mistakes and she’s made a life for herself. Her time in reform school gave her the social tools she needed in order to survive in this world, and led the way for her to become an independent, intelligent and confident person. She goes from rags to riches, whereas Vivian goes from riches to rags. The way the lives of these two women mirror each other and switch places so drastically is poignant and it makes you think. Ruth, on the other hand, was the smartest girl in school and everybody knew it. She went to business school and started working as a stenographer, and her current life is seemingly uneventful, which also mirrors Vivian’s life in a way. Ruth is the least showy character of the three (something Bette Davis never had to worry about after this!), but her few moments onscreen tells us all we need to know about her: her life is rather boring and when she reunites with her former friends, their rekindled friendship and her subsequent attatchment to Vivian’s child seem to give her life some meaning. By the end of the picture, the lives of these three women have turned around completely and we’re left with all the ‘what ifs’ that come with it, but also a sense of closure.
Pre-Code is fearless and Three on a Match is a testament to it. An emotional roller-coaster, with a beautifully delivered message and a brutal, heart-breaking climax. Not to mention the tremendous performance by Ann Dvorak, who might just be the most underrated actress of her generation.