Three on a Match (1932): Mervyn LeRoy’s Pre-Code crime drama, starring Joan Blondell, Warren William, Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, and Bogart (before he became star)

Mervyn LeRoy directed Three on a Match, a fast-moving, potent Pre-Code crime drama, starring Joan Blondell, Warren William, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis.

The film also features Lyle Talbot, Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins and Edward Arnold.

Three women who graduate from the same New York elementary school, Mary, Ruth, and Vivian, meet again as young adults after some time apart.

Light a cigarette from the same match, they discuss the superstition that such an act is unlucky and that Vivian, the last to light her cigarette, will be the first to die.

Mary is a show girl with stability in her life after spending some time in a reform school, while Ruth is a stenographer. Vivian is the best off of the three, married to successful lawyer, Robert Kirkwood, with a young son, Robert Jr., but she is dissatisfied with life and decides to take trip to Europe with her boy.

Just before Vivian and Junior’s ship is about to set sail, Mary boards the ocean liner with two men to attend a bon voyage party for some friends. Gambler Michael Loftus, one of the two men, flirts with Vivian. She’s smitten with him and he persuades her to run away with him. Minutes before the ship leaves port, Vivian gathers up her son and the three disembark from the boat.

Vivian and Michael Loftus live a very shabby and rather dissolute life, so that Mary, concerned about Vivian’s neglect of her son, tells Robert (nearly mad about the disappearance of the boy) where to find him. Both Mary and Ruth are very fond of Junior and Robert has fallen in love with Mary. He proposes to her and hires Ruth to look after the child. Mary and Robert marry the same day his divorce from Vivian becomes final.

Meanwhile, Vivian has become a hopeless drug addict and has spent all of her money.  Michael owes $2,000 to gangster Ace, who tells him to pay up or else. Desperate, Michael tries to blackmail Robert by threatening to inform the press about Mary’s criminal background. Robert refuses to pay because he is already aware of Mary’s checkered past; so instead, Michael kidnaps Junior to demand a ransom to pay his debt. Ace’s thugs find the child with Michael and Vivian in their apartment where Junior joins his mother in her bedroom. The thugs are delighted and send a demand for a much larger ransom of $25,000.

One of the gangsters, while out trying to score fix for Vivian, sees policemen in the neighborhood searching for the kidnapped boy. The gangsters decide to kill the child before the police arrive, but Michael balks at the plan–he’s the one who’s been ordered to do the dirty deed. Enraged, the gangsters kill Michael.

Vivian, who has overheard plot to kill Junior, is determined to save her son’s life. She tells Junior to hide under the bed, then scrawls a message in lipstick on her nightgown that relays the boy’s whereabouts.

When the gangsters enter through her bedroom door, she jumps out of the fourth-floor window, killing herself but resulting in the boy’s rescue.

This was Bogart’s first appearance as a hoodlum type, though his work in Midnight (released 1934) preceded this role and led to his being cast by LeRoy.

When this film, which was shot in June, was released in October 1932, the Lindbergh kidnapping was in the news and the kidnappers had not yet been caught. The kidnapping of a child in the story raised concerns with censors, but Jason Joy of the Studio Relations Committee successfully made a case for the film to censors in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Joan Blondell posed for risqué 1932 promotional publicity photo for the film which was later banned under the Motion Picture Production Code.

Three on a Match received tepid to poor notices.  However, decades later, the film found favor with critics and historians. In 1969, William K. Everson called it “unusually carefully-made” and wrote, “Splendidly cut and paced … and climaxed by a real shocker, Three on a Match is still a vivid little picture.” Winston Dixon observed, “the film is astonishing for the amount of information LeRoy manages to compress into this fast tale.”

Seen from today’s perspective, the film contains Dvorak’s best work while at Warners.

In 1938 Warner released Broadway Musketeers, a remake of Three on a Match.

Cast
Virginia Davis as Mary Keaton as a child
Joan Blondell as Mary Keato/Mary Bernard
Anne Shirley (credited as Dawn O’Day), Vivian Revere as a child
Ann Dvorak as Vivian Revere Kirkwood
Betty Carse as Ruth Westcott as a child
Bette Davis as Ruth Westcott
Warren William as Robert Kirkwood
Lyle Talbot as Michael Loftus
Humphrey Bogart as Harve
Allen Jenkins as Dick
Edward Arnold as Ace
Frankie Darro as Bobby
Glenda Farrell as Mrs. Black
Buster Phelps as Robert Jr.
Grant Mitchell as Mr. Gilmore, school principal
Principal cast members, from the trailer