Sunday, September 18, 2011

CMBA Gulity Pleasures Movie Blogathon: Three on a Match

Warner Brothers Depravity Disguised as Entertainment (and we love it!)

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Guilty Pleasures Movie Blogathon. For the complete line-up, click here. I can't wait to read about everyone's guilty pleasure!

Why do we love pre-Code films? Fast pace? Check. Great stories? Check. Great casts? Check again. Oh come on. Let's be honest. It's the sex, depravity and lingerie! 

consider all pre-Code films guilty pleasures. Each generation seems to think it is the first to discover sex. To be honest, the biggest kick I get out of pre-Code films is the fact that we are seeing depravity and sex before the big Hollywood clean up. It's kind of like watching a movie of your grandparents dirty dancing. Many of the pre-Codes are terrific and have marvelous stars, but I'm being honest when I say I'm in it for the sex, drugs,  depravity, slips and frilly undergarments. There.

That being said, "Three on a Match", directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is one of my favorite pre-Codes. It has all of the above-mentioned ingredients, plus kidnapping, child neglect and so much more. And - it's all done in 63  minutes. It comes from my favorite 1930s studio, Warner Brothers. Their early 1930s films have that make-it-quick "ripped from today's headlines" look, but are loaded with so much talent that these tawdry stories are elevated to an art form. In 1932, the year of "Three on a Match," the Warner's roster consisted of James Cagney, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson and our delicious cast of characters.
Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak:
Smoking is the least of their sins
The Story
Our little story stars 3 of my favorite Warner Brothers ladies: Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell and Bette Davis. The male cast is headed up by Mr. pre-Code himself, Warren William, and nasty support comes from Allen Jenkins, Lyle Talbot, Edward Arnold and that old pre-Code meanie, Humphrey Bogart.

The 3 ladies in question are childhood school acquaintances (PS 62). The opening sequences quickly establish their fate: little Mary is mischievous, likes the boys, smokes and has trouble with authority. Clearly, she is a candidate for the dreaded reform school. Ruth, the class valedictorian is a bookish goody-goody who will be the good-girl of the trio and Vivian is the beautiful and spoiled rich girl.
So they say...
Time marches on (shown through a neat montage of newspaper headlines and popular songs depicting the ensuing years from 1919-1930 when our story begins) and each girl has fulfilled her destiny. Mary (now Joan Blondell) is in that sinful trade, show business.  Ruth (now Bette Davis) is a stenographer (class valedictorian = secretary. Ah, those were the days, but I digress...). Vivian (now Ann Dvorak) is married to attorney Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), still rich, spoiled and now bored. They meet for lunch and, throwing caution to the wind, knowingly light their three cigarettes on one match. Legend has it that it is unlucky to light three smokes on one match, as the holder of the third one lit will die. Vivian envies the other women and confides that she is restless ("I want things passionately and, then when I get them, don't seem to want them anymore"). She is the third one on the match. Uh oh.
Looking for excitement
Viv has an annoyingly curly-headed little son who seems to think he is Shirley Temple, a handsome home and an attentive husband who senses her restlessness. Wanting to please her, he books an ocean cruise to Europe, but before the ship sails he gets called away on business, leaving Viv and Junior to take the trip by themselves.
This kid is so annoying that you
 almost, no , not going there!
Mary, still little the catalyst for mischief, meets Vivian on the ship before it sails. She and her chums are going to a bon voyage party, but are not taking the cruise. Viv is invited and before you know it, sparks are flying between her and no-good gambling man Mike Loftus (Lyle Talbot), who proves his admiration for the sophisticated Vivian by telling her "you're not like those other stuffed brassieres on Park Avenue." What girl could resist a line like that?
Lust at fist sight
Well, before you know it, Vivian gets off the ship and on the dope. She takes her boy and leaves her husband for a life of sex and drugs, liquor and lingerie.  Mary and Ruth are concerned and side with husband Kirkwood (who falls for Mary and marries her after divorcing Vivian, but likes to keep Ruth around as a governess. Hmmm....). Kirkwood even gets his boy back, but not for long.
Mary moves in on her friend's husband...

while Vivian enjoys her new lifestyle.

Kirkwood and Mary rescue Junior while Vivian "rests"
Vivian and Loftus eventually run out of money and Loftus gets in deep with some bad gangster-types. Owing a lot of money he can't repay, he agrees to kidnap Vivian's boy in order to extort money from Kirkwood. Well, things go bad and, in a tense finale (where Bogey figures it's best to kill the little boy), the police close in on the kidnappers and the boy. Vivian, suffering from withdrawal, finally finds some sense of self-sacrifice and mother-love (to a child that has been horribly neglected). Feverishly, she scrawls the location of her son on her nightgown in lipstick to alert the police and jumps out of a four-story window to her death.
Vivian's hide-out  flat: Shabby Chic?
Vivian's grand finale
The final scenes reunite Junior and Kirkwood and we see Mary and Ruth share a match to light a cigarette (only 2 on a match now, so all's well that ends well).
Now that the first wife is out of the way, Mary
has Viv's husband, house and child;
Ruth no longer has to type.
Why I love this film

Ann Dvorak
Ann Dvorak: beautiful & chic & an emotional timebomb
In case you didn't already know, I worship Ann Dvorak, so this film is a home run for me. The fact that Ann got the showiest role is a testament to how much Warners thought of her star power. And, being the chic, elegant, edgy and ultra-femme actress that she was, she did not disappoint (especially in those pathetic, drug-deprived scenes with her kid). And, I have to side with Vivan here, a bit. Aside from the child abuse and drug addiction, who can blame her for wanting someone more exciting than stuffy old Kirkwood? And, isn't it "convenient" that Mary just happend to be there for Kirkwood? Just sayin'.
Shut up? Don't tell me to shut up!
She gives Jeanne Eagles a run for her money in the jumpy, I-need-a-fix category, and the fix she needs comes not only from a bottle or a needle, but apparently from what Lyle Talbot was giving her in the bedroom (and Warren William was not). 

Bette Davis in a slip
Yes, I'm the class valedictorian. That means I grow up to take dictation.

I swear, they've got to stop giving me these kind of parts!
Platinum Blonde Bette doesn't do much in this film and has the least interesting role. But, she gets to look sexy in a slip and in a bathing suit. When assessing the talents of the fabulous Miss Davis, we tend to overlook the fact that she was awfully cute and had a kick-ass body. That needs to be said. Bette didn't care much for this film and her part was bland, but she should have been proud of how swell she looked.
Joan 's was usually the bod on display, but here it's Bette's
Joan Blondell
Getting a beauty treatment
Joan Blondell fit Warner Brothers pre-Codes like a glove. Although there was something invariably nice and comfy and decent about her, it's easy to imagine her as the reform school dropout. She's the sassy, big hearted gal who just can't say "no" to anything that just might be fun. And depravity is fun, isn't it?
2 girls looking ready for the beach
Warren William

A Warners pre-Code regular, no one plays a stuffed shirt better that Warren William. And I just can't help thinking that a guy who takes Joan and Bette into his house and enjoys watching them frolic on the beach is not all that pure. Maybe Kirkwood and Vivian had more in comon than they thought. Depravity comes in all disguises.

Humphrey Bogart
Not nice
Oh, is he a meanie in this and he does it so well! No heroic noir-guy here, just a nasty baby-killing thug that he plays to the hilt. Favorite moment: his smarmy smirk and "uh oh" when Vivian repeatedly wipes her nose (obviously because she is on the snow).
Coke, not Pepsi
Allen Jenkins

The great Warner Brothers stalwart is mean through and through in this one. Really. No redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Lyle Talbot
Before signing on with the infamous Ed Wood, Jr., Talbot had a respectable Hollywood career. He really breaks out into good sweats in this.

Edward Arnold
A small role as crime boss Ace, but it's fun to watch him pluck his nose hairs as Loftus tells him he can't pay his debt.

I admit it - I'm guilty
I could be high-handed and say I love the pre-Codes because they are the voice of freedom before the iron fist of censorship silenced great art, but, just between us, I'll come clean. It's the sex, the drugs, the depravity and the swell lingerie that reels me in every time. 


Dawn said...

Loved your review.. I also love the film, THREE ON A MATCH and I always try to watch it, whenever it is shown on TCM. I only wish that Bette Davis, had more screen time. This year.. I'm on a huge Joan Blondell kick, I thought she was fab. in her role. Ann Dvorak, also gave a standout performance and maybe my favorite screen role of hers.

Java Bean Rush said...

All that happens in just over an hour? It sounds like a year's worth of The Young and the Restless!

But seriously, though, loved your review.

And I'm glad you're honest about why you like pre-code films. When most people claim they just love the unfettered artistry of the pre-codes I cry "bull." They just want to see naked ladies and drug abuse and call it "art."

Rick29 said...

I haven't seen THREE ON A MATCH in many years, so this was a very entertaining review. Even if the focus wasn't on her, I always think of this as a Bette Davis vehicle. She seems have a much stronger personality than Ann Dvorak and the equal of Joan Blondell. Overall, it's a stronger film than its remake BROADWAY MUSKETEERS with Ann Sheridan.

Gilby37 said...

So glad some else likes this film. It is a prime example of the quick paced, good story telling that Warner Brothers was famous for!

Page said...

WHOA! This film had everything. Bogart looked pretty smoken hot, then there's getting to see Davis in a bathing suit (rare and worth the price of admission), girls upping the bad by smoking and running about in slips.

FlickChick, you're spot on in stating Pre-Code films are fun because of the sex, booze, everything taboo that was stripped and hidden from us. Shame on Hollywood and Will Hayes!

I remembered your love of Dvorack after my Scarface lovefest. It's true that she always looked on the verge of a nervous breakdown, attributing it to her needing something substantial in her diet.

This cast kicking about is the perfect choice for the Blogathon and you would be hard pressed to find actors today who could pull off this much entertainment.
I'm still laughing at the little boy having the nerve to think he's Shirley Temple.

A stellar review of a fantastic little film. (I'll be thinking of it the next time I run around in my slip in front of an open window)

Laura said...

Jeez, has there ever been a more pre-code line than ""you're not like those other stuffed brassieres on Park Avenue"? You've got me intrigued, now I have to go look this one up.

Yeah, Ann Dvorak's pretty great. She reminds me of Loretta Young, if Loretta Young had let loose and played things nasty.

Diane said...

Great review Flick Chick. I have not seen this film in many years and now I too will be looking for it next time it plays.

Brandie said...

I share your unadulterated love of this movie. Believe me, you're not the only one who loves the pre-Codes almost entirely for the depravity. :) There's something so enticing about those movies, and I think you've really captured that in this review.

whistlingypsy said...

I discovered this little gem during the days of VHS tapes, long before “pre-code” became the catch phrase for early thirties sensibilities. I had seen The Public Enemy by that time, but Three on a Match amazed me with scenes and subjects I (ignorantly) imagined hadn’t made it into films this early. I watched The Story Of Temple Drake when it aired on TCM this past week, despite the alcohol, the clear reference the title character was a tease and lingerie; the film didn’t live up to the reputation. I agree the films’ appeal is anything but “arty or intellectual”, but I must say Ann Dvorak’s bad girl is so much more intriguing than Mariam Hopkins’s naughty debutante.

FlickChick said...

Thank you Dawn. Actually, it's fun for me to see Bette take a back seat to another actress. That hardly ever happens!

Thanks, Java, for being with me on the pre-Code worship. If they would have rock and roll back then, they would have added that, too!

FlickChick said...

Hi Rick - Oh, I so agree that this is much stronger than the remake, though that one does star my other favorite Warner Brothers Ann: Sheridan, that is!

Thank you, Gilby - Warner Brothers 30s films were just the most entertaining. They moved so fast, you have to watch them several times to get all of the wisecracks and witty and naughty dialogue.

FlickChick said...

Hi Page - uh oh - keep your eye out for those who will be watching for you in that slip - they will say it's for art, but now you know the real reason!

Hey, Laura - if you get a chance to see this, let me know what you think! And as for Loretta Young, she was pretty hot stuff before she got "pure." Check her out in "Midnight Mary" - quite a performance!

FlickChick said...

Diane: Thanks for the kind words (you know how I feel about Ann).

Brandie: lol - now we share a guilty secret about guilty pleasures!

FlickChick said...

Whistling Gypsy: I thin Ann just nails it here. She is complicated to the hilt and makes the story more than just a sensational little movie. For once, Bette got out-acted (but Ann did have the stronger role).

ClassicBecky said...

I really love this movie, FlickChick, and it is everything you describe, in such a wonderfully humorous way. The picture are fabulous, especially the one with Ann enjoying her new lifestyle...that made me laugh. Pre-codes are so much fun, and they really ARE like watching grandparents dirty dancing. When I was a kid watching old movies, it never occurred to me that people in those days did drugs or showed their legs much or even kissed with their mouths open! Great post.

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Priceless: "Well, before you know it, Vivian gets off the ship and on the dope." I laughed so hard when I read this. I have seen this extremely tarnished "gem" and I agree it lacks class. I was so disappointed with Bette Davis' role--this is what she did in the early part of her career? Great choice!

Caftan Woman said...

I first saw "Three on a Match" when I was 11 years old. Wow! Is that what life is like for grown-ups? It's a dandy!

The Lady Eve said...

As usual, my dear FlickChick, your post is as entertaining as the movie you choose to spotlight. I watched "Three on a Match" for the first time not long ago (on a mission to see every film BD ever made) and I can see why you chose it. Dvorak's permanent decision to walk on the wild side was (call me depraved) delicious! By the way, I caught "Our Very Own" (1950) on TCM last night and could not believe it when I learned that it was Ann Dvorak who played aging floozie, Gert Lynch (the woman who gave Ann Blyth away at birth). She was great in a small part - but I didn't recognize her at all.

Completely enjoyed your take on "Three on a Match."

FlickChick said...

Becky: Thank you! Yes, those pre-Codes are something (and not always great art!).

Kim: I love Bette Davis, but it's kind of nice to see her as a "cupcake" = what range! :)

FlickChick said...

Caftan Woman! Yes! That's what grown ups do! Go no cruises, have lunch, wear furs and - oh yeah - get involved with gangsters. can't wait to grow up!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Lady Eve. Ann basically screwed up her career shortly after this and it never regained its momentum. She is wonderful in small roles (also "A Life of Her Own" where she also takes a swan dive out a window). Here moment was brief, but she was potent!

ClassicBecky said...

FlickChick, you said something that made me wonder - you said Ann Dvorak screwed up her career and it never recovered. I always loved her, and wondered why she just sort of fizzled out after the early 30's. Do you know what the reason was for her? I've never read a bio and actually have never heard anyone talk in depth about her. Anyway, was it bad career choices or did she make somebody mad -- any idea what it was?

FlickChick said...

Hi Becky: She married actor Leslie Fenton and decided she liked love more than work for a while. She was also the very first (before Davis and De Havilland) to tangle with Warners over her contract (boy - that was either a brutal place to work or Jack Warner liked to hire rebles). Speaking of rebels, check out this website aoubt Ann called "Ann Dvorak: HOllywood's Forgotten Rebel":

ClassicBecky said...

Thanks for the info, and the link!I'll check that out! Ah love -- Katharine Hepburn probably had the right idea - she always said you could not mix a career like acting with marriage. It doesn't seem to have worked for anybody. And yes, Warner's was not the place to be a rebel! Poor Ann-- that's too bad.

Kevin Deany said...

"Each generation seems to think it is the first to discover sex." Ain't that the truth!

Ann Dvorak is amazing in this and I think she is one of the great actresses of the 1930s. "Three on a Match" is a great intro to pre-code cinema. There's probably not a wasted scene in the whole movie.

The screen grab of Edward Arnold trimming his nose hairs just ruined my upcoming lunch.

FlickChick said...

Oh, Kevin - so sorry about the lunch, but I just couldn't resist it!

Katie said...

Best Review of the year right here! Who doesn't love this film for the aforementioned points?

DorianTB said...

FlickChick, THREE ON A MATCH is one of those movies I've heard of but never had the opportunity to watch, but your entertaining blog post made me feel like I was there, right down to Edward Arnold's tweezers (Talk about OWIES! :-))! Loved your quips, like: "Well, before you know it, Vivian gets off the ship and on the dope." Bad behavior in the movies was a lot more fun Pre-Code! Great post!

FlickChick said...

Hi Dorian - yes, these folks are behaving badly! But - that's what makes it so fun. And it moves so fast there is not a moment to stop and think "how could this happen?"

Classicfilmboy said...

Awesome review. Can't wait to see it, and what a terrific cast. For an hour it sounds jam-packed!

FlickChick said...

Classicfilmboy - that's what so great about it - jam-packed with depravity!

Grand Old Movies said...

Great post! You really nailed the attraction of pre-Code films: sex, drugs, and lingerie. Ann Dvorak is terrific in this film; it's a shame her career went nowhere after the production code crackdown. She shows an extraordinary emotional range and intensity here. I love Warren William in anything, but it might have been interesting to cast him in the Talbot role and watch him take on the job of corrupting Ann - no doubt, he would have enjoyed it!

FlickChick said...

Grand Old Movies - I agree about Warren William. He was so good at playing the nasty man, it was a little surprising to see him as the stuffed shirt here (though he did that well, too). Maybe they sohuld have played twin brothers!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

and the fix she needs comes not only from a bottle or a needle, but apparently from what Lyle Talbot was giving her in the bedroom (and Warren William was not)

Yowsah! Check, please...

This was one swell review, your FlickChickness--Three on a Match is definitely in my top 10 of favorite pre-Codes. But I can't call it a guilty pleasure only because, like yourself, I worship the ground Ann Dvorak glides it would be grammatically incorrect to label any film she's in as such.

And Bogart in this film? Sheer delight. He made some crappy films at WB before becoming a big star but this one is not one of them.

Aubyn said...

I've been itching to see this pre-Code classic for awhile. This was an excellent review and I'm glad you went through the cast list for us.

Is it just me or did they deliberately pick the three biggest-eyed actresses in Hollywood at the time. Dvorak, Davis, and Blondell? It can't be coincidence.

"It has all of the above-mentioned ingredients, plus kidnapping, child neglect and so much more. And - it's all done in 63 minutes."

You know, whenever I'm sitting through an overly long action flick in the movie theater (for example, pick any Pirates of the Caribbean Movie), I find myself wanting to shake today's screenwriters and tell them to try doing it in 60 minutes. They might learn something about compact, focused storytelling. But I digress.

Anyway, I think you did the film full justice and I can't wait to see this one.

FlickChick said...

Ivan - I admit that I have no guilt about Ann (just the drugs & lingerie)!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Rachel, and I agree that they just can't seem to make a compact movie anymore!

Dave the Movie Guy said...

Awesome post - Warner Bros. sure did pack a lot of naughtiness into an hour didn't they?? ... Nice job

FlickChick said...

Those Warner Brothers sure knew how to get to the point - and sin was obviously the point!

Jessica P. said...

I looooved this post. I laughed so many times and it was one of those "Oh I want to share this with someone" And then I realized my friends I was talking with wouldn't understand the humor haha.

I love this movie. I admit, I love pre-code for all the same reasons as you do. I'm not sure what I would do if I were Ann. I would go for either Lyle Talbot or Warren William if they asked me.

On a side note, how many movies did Ann Dvorak jump out of a window? I feel like there are several lol

FlickChick said...

So glad you liked it, Jessica! It is a fun-filled hour of all things wrong 9but so right!). Ann also jumped out a window in "A Life of Her Own" and took a bullet in a phone booth in G-Men. Movies were sure tough on her!