Mary Keaton, Vivian Revere and Ruth Wescott are schoolmates with completely different personalities. Mary (Virginia Davis) is the wild child, who everyone expects to amount to nothing. Vivian (Anne Shirley) is voted “Most Popular” at the girls’ 1921 graduation. Ruth (Betty Carse) is the valedictorian with big career goals.
Flash forward a few years and not much has changed. Mary (Joan Blondell) is a sassy showgirl who, as expected, spent time in reform school. Vivian (Ann Dvorak) plays wife to a rich lawyer husband named Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), and the two have an adorable son. Ruth (Bette Davis) is a secretary with dreams of climbing the career ladder.
Having not seen each other since school, the girls are reunited by chance. Vivian seems to be the most successful (…by 1930s standards, anyway. Modern audiences will applaud Ruth for following her career goals rather than jumping into marriage). Mary and Ruth are quite jealous of her, believing that she has achieved the perfect life.
Spending the afternoon together in a restaurant, the three women light their cigarettes from one match, ignoring the old superstition that the third person to use the match will die. And then things slowly take a turn for the worse as Vivian becomes less of an ideal wife and more of a downward-spiraling addict, leaving all of the women’s lives dramatically altered.
Mervyn LeRoy directs the appropriately titled 1932 drama Three on a Match. Appearing alongside the fantastic central characters portrayed by Blondell, Dvorak, Davis and William are Lyle Talbot, Humphrey Bogart and Allen Jenkins. The film was written for the screen by Lucien Hubbard, based on the story by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright.
Three on a Match is a pretty typical movie for Warner in the early ’30s. It sheds light on society’s underbelly, showcasing just how easy it can be for even the luckiest, most prosperous people to fall into the never-ending black hole of immoral behavior.
Though not unusual, the premise is very interesting to watch. Vivian’s nosedive into debauchery comes swiftly and dramatically. The film starts out almost calmly compared to the drama that soon follows. It tension grows in leaps and bounds over the course of the film, as Vivian sinks deeper into the terrible bed she’s made for herself.
Even more interesting is that Mary, the supposed “bad girl” in school, takes the moral high ground – even going so far as to save Vivian’s son and ensure that he’s well cared for.
Despite the wonderful cast and the interesting premise, not all is perfect here. The biggest issue is probably the dialogue, which is pretty stiff and choppy. It sometimes reads like an after-school anti-drug/alcohol special, with Vivian’s friends telling her, “You’re so… different” after she has fallen into less-than-respectable habits.
Still, the actors do the best that they can with the material, and most of them pull off solid, believable performances. Lyle Talbot provides stand-out support as Viv’s new, criminally oriented arm candy Michael Loftus. And, of course, Joan Blondell is magnetic.
Three on a Match reaches an extremely dramatic, nearly jaw-dropping climax before being wrapped up very happily (or as happily as it can be, given the events that play out). This resolution, which is pretty fast in paced, leaves the viewer a bit stunned and elevates the greatness of the film as a whole. The score: 3.5/5