I came uponThree on a Match as I am trying to get through as many Bette Davis movies as I can find. Unfortunately, it was only one year since Davis’s screen debut, and she has the smallest role of the three women of the title. She was mainly just asked just to look sincere and pretty, and supply some cheesecake by wearing a skimpy (for the time) bathing suit in a beach scene and changing her stockings in another. Reportedly director Mervyn LeRoy didn’t care much for Davis’ acting. The feeling was mutual, with the actress calling LeRoy a “hack.” Davis had the last laugh, though, as she would quickly become one of the in-demand actresses in Hollywood over the next few years. Aside from Davis’ talents being underused, this is a noteworthy, at times startling film that was only possible in the brief period between the Hays Production Code being adopted in 1930 and it actually being enforced in 1934.
The title comes from the superstition, popular in the ’20s and 30s, that if three people light cigarettes off the same match, the third person will die soon. It was thought that the belief started in World War I, when keeping a match alight long enough to light three cigarettes would attract enemy fire. But as one of the many newspaper clippings shown in the film explains, the rumor was actually started by a match manufacturer to boost sales. The film opens in 1919, with Prohibition set to start. A montage of newspaper and magazine clippings and newsreels sets up the period before the film focuses in on a middle school on the first day of class. One girl is the bad girl of the school, letting her bloomers show when she swings on the playground swing and sneaking cigarettes with boys, another is a goody-two-shoes and teacher’s pet (Anne Shirley, who would go on to adult roles in noirs like Murder My Sweet), and a third is shy and earnest. Every few minutes, the film skips ahead a few years, with a montage combining a popular song of the age, magazine articles, and news items such as the Hindenburg disaster. While these interludes are fun to watch, they are not entirely necessary to the plot.
When we get 1925, the bad girl Mary (now being played by Joan Blondell) is trapped in a reform school why the good girl Vivian (Ann Dvorak) is dreaming of romance in an exclusive boarding school and the shy one (Bette Davis) is training hard to become a secretary. Skip again to 1930, and the three bump into each other in a beauty salon. They are invited to lunch on Vivian, who has married a rich lawyer. It is here that they light the fateful match, with Vivian being the third to use it. She is rich and successful, but bored with her life.
At this point, Ann Dvorak seems to be the weak link in the film, as some of her line reads are rather stiff. But things are about to change for her character. Big time. There is a very clever shot of her coming home with her husband and pretending to imediately fall asleep on the bed, only for him to catch her open her eyes in a mirror. They argue, and they agree he will not join her for their planned cruise. When she meets a handsome, passionate young man on board, she see an opportunity to escape her own life. She kidnaps her own child and runs off on a champagne and drug fueled bender with her good-for-nothing lover. Concerned about the young boy, Mary rescues him and sends him back home. This is where the film really starts to get good. A speakeasy operating gangster (Edward Arnold, who usually plays jovial types) puts pressure on the boyfriend to cough up his gambling debts, backed up by by his sadistic henchman Harve (Humphrey Bogart). This leads to a very cringe-inducing kidnap scene in a park. This was Bogart’s first gangster role and he is quite frightening. When Junior (prolific child actor Dickie Moore) pleads “you mustn’t hurt my momma!”, Bogart deadpans “OK, I’ll bear that in mind” with a chuckle.
The gangsters hole up in a little apartment, keeping the boy and his mother hostage while plotting how to collect the ransom. No secret is made of fact that she is suffering from drug withdraw, and there is great scene when Bogart sees her paranoid state and brushes the underside of his nose with his finger. In the most effective closeup I have ever seen in a ’30s film, another member of the gang (Allen Jenkins) slide open the bathroom door to leer at her histrionics as she struggles to find a way to save her son. The situation spirals out of control to a truly shocking ending.