"Three on a Match"

64 hurtling minutes, packed with pre-Code incident

REVIEW This 1932 pre-Code gem is a fine example of the era's snappy Warner Bros. style and economical storytelling. Three women are reunited by chance years after being Manhattan grade-school classmates: goodhearted "bad girl" Mary (Joan Blondell) became a Broadway baby via reform school. Smart but poor valedictorian Ruth (Bette Davis, whose screen prospects were considered pretty wan at this point) became a humble stenographer. Product of privilege Vivian (Ann Dvorak) married childhood sweetheart Robert (Warren William) and is now the consummate socialite wife and mother. But she is bored, dissatisfied, and frigid, manifesting behavior we might now read as clinical depression. Despite "having everything," her nasty downward spiral becomes the film's melodramatic engine.

Unexpectedly sparking with a genial rake, Vivian impulsively drops out of sight, slumming with her new amour (Lyle Talbot, future contributor to 1959's Plan 9 from Outer Space) and his increasingly disreputable friends. (They include a very young, kinda cute Humphrey Bogart as a tuxedoed thug who snarls lines like "The heat's on enough to curl yer shoe leather.") She tows along a young son whose best interests are not served by separation from daddy, mom's blackmailing/kidnapping new gangster pals, and rampant cocaine abuse. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy (a rather neglected figure nonetheless key to a remarkable number of Hollywood classics, from 1931's Little Caesar and 1932's I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang to 1956's The Bad Seed and 1962's Gypsy), Three on a Match is utterly packed with incident at 64 hurtling minutes. Yet it's so astutely handled one never feels nuance is given the bum's rush. Blondell is delightfully hard-boiled, while Davis seems tentative (no doubt waiting for bigger and better things) in a wallflower role. But it's Dvorak who dominates in a "fallen woman" histrionic workout. Trivia note: she attempted to have her WB contract nullified after learning the five-year-old (Frankie Darrow) playing her son was paid equally.

THREE ON A MATCH plays Fri/23 at the Mechanics' Institute. See Rep Clock.

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