director Mervyn LeRoy
Three on a Match packs a lot of story into its brisk 63 minutes. It spans over a decade in the lives of three young women from schoolgirl shenanigans down three separate paths their lives take til they meet again. From Prohibition, women’s suffrage, shortened skirts, montages capture aspects of popular culture from the 1920’s into the Great Depression and the early 1930’s. And that’s virtually all in the first 5 minutes.
The film stars Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and Bette Davis, the “three on a match” and features Virginia Davis, Warren William, Lyle Talbot, and about the youngest-looking Humphrey Bogart you are apt to see. Spoiler alert, Blondell, the one who ended up in “reform school” turns out to be the one with the heart of gold and the sensible head, and Dvorak, the one who went to a posh boarding school and married a rich lawyer is the one brought down by drugs and drink. Davis gets the least action, having gone to business school and gotten a job and not one of the more juicier roles in the picture.
You could unpack this dense little movie a good deal, I imagine. In one of the film’s earliest points of interest, a sign points out that the “bad luck” of lighting “three on a match” didn’t come from combat drawing fire but from an American match manufacturer who wanted to sell more matches. While it’s not the most lurid of pre-code movies, it has its moments, particularly perhaps in its somewhat nonjudgmental tone toward the morally and socially “fallen.”
Mervyn LeRoy made a number of great pre-code Hollywood films like Little Caesar (1931), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), to name a few. And Three on a Match is an apt addition to that list, if perhaps not quite so much a stand-out.