This week it’s 1 all about 3 – Three on a Match, that is– wherein I recommend with great gushing and enthusiasm, one of my favorite movies to Landmark readers. In Three you get young Bette, Humphrey and Joan Blondell, plus Warren William, Lyle Talbot and the greatness that is Ann Dvorak.
“Three on a match means one will die soon”
This is just the kind of movie you show to people who think “old” movies are dull, outdated, creaky, overacted relics hopelessly detached from our modern problems and issues. Three has a great cast, all doing outstanding work, and some fresh new faces which would soon become superstars— Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Joan Blondell. Best of all, but sadly, probably least known to the average movie fan today, is Ann Dvorak, whose special “day” it is on TCM when this movie is shown, and whose centenary is being recognized this month. Not only is the subject matter of this film surprising, it’s amazing how much characterization, plot and theme is packed into little more than an hour. Three women who knew each other as girls take diverging paths: the bad girl goes through reform school into show biz and becomes a chorus girl (Blondell), the serious hard worker becomes a secretary (Davis), and the spoiled brat only grows into a well off snob who wants things passionately then tires of having them (Dvorak). The three chance to meet a decade later, sit down to catch up on the news of the past few years, and their lives change over a seemingly insignificant gesture, as they defy superstition about a curse befalling the third person to light their cigarette from the same match. Soon thereafter, Dvorak leaves her cushy life and a good hardworking lawyer husband (Warren William) for a gorgeous and (temporarily) more exciting playboy/gangster (Lyle Talbot) who ushers her into a world of alcoholism and cocaine addiction, spends all her money and then kidnaps her child for the ransom to pay off his gambling debt. Dvorak’s final decision in the story is a harrowing and shocking moment that must have shaken the audiences of that time, and has just as much power today. The movie could have been a giant piece of stinky cheese if not for the stellar performance of Dvorak, a beautiful actress who scorched her way through some of the best movies of the era–Scarface, “G” Men, Heat Lightning—diamond hard, intense, slinky and exotic. AfterThree, her future seemed solid and stardom assured, but then she rebelled, expressed how fed up she was with the phoniness of Hollywood, broke the rules of her studio contract to take off on a honeymoon cruise with her new husband, and irreparably derailed her career.
Bette Davis, one of the actresses who was to fill the void and become the resident drama queen at Warner’s, called the picture “dull” because she thought her role small and unflashy, and was further sent into a snit by director Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang) who neglected to predict big things for her future as he did for the other two leading ladies. Davis, along with Blondell and much later Bogart went on to big things, which I hardly need to get into here, if you know anything at all about classic movies. Wikipedia tells you Lyle Talbot was the first to play both Commissioner Gordon and Lex Luthor on screen, which is a nice piece of career trivia, and suggests just how versatile this handsome actor could be. Warren William in Three is actually not even playing the type he was best at, the magnificent scoundrel (which just happens to be the name of a 2010 biography on the actor); his films are totally addictive because he was fantastic as a smooth but slimy ambitious climber, charming and dangerous playboy, or ruthless but admirably determined businessman (if Dvorak married his character from one of his other movies she wouldn’t have found him so dull). While in film he was almost always larger than life, in real life was more down to earth but no less interesting, inventing a lawn and leaf vacuum, a predecessor of the RV, plus various other convenience gadgetry, and also did research into uses of sawdust, before dying in his 50s of multiple myeloma.
This was still the pre-code era where almost anything went, and women were more often than not portrayed as experimenting with their newfound freedom and even promiscuity, not to mention scantily clad, which I’m not above mentioning, if it gets you to watch an “old” movie. But even without the outside pressure that was to come within a couple years, the urge to censor and impose “morals” on every script, Three glorifies the goal and the safety of domestic life for women, and is brutally honest about the seediness and immorality of gangsters and assorted lowlifes. Having achieved things most other women strive for, Dvorak still finds her life is sheer pointless boredom, saying “somehow the things that make other people happy leave me cold.” Blondell, formerly a hopeless bad girl, grows into responsibility and steps into the wife and (step)mother role abdicated by Dvorak in favor of thrills and excitement, and Davis too makes good by working and starting a business that supports the family. Three also creates one of the era’s more realistic representations and strongest condemnations of drug use, which is of course thanks to Dvorak’s acting but also the script which dictates that she can only be redeemed by her mother’s instinct, and has to pay a high cost to set right the waste and nearly catastrophic mess created by her choices to stray from traditional roles, the duties of motherhood and marriage vows. Racy, shocking, real, modern,Three on a Match is a must-must-see classic that packs equal punch whether you’re a newbie or a buff. Read more at TCM about the movie, about Ann Dvorak, at TCM’s morlock blog, and check out all the links that lead to Dvorak movies streaming, on DVDs and other dedicated sites.
(aug 9) many thanks to Ann Dvorak expert extraordinaire and biographer Christina Rice for mentioning and linking to this article in this post . please visit her site
this article originally appeared as KD’s Classic “Matchstick Women” at Landmark