The Stars at Night: Three on a Match


Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak in Three on a Match

Fearless editor Jette has indulged my love for classic film by allowing me to look into older movies which have Texas connections -- mostly through the people involved in making them. We'll call this new column The Stars at Night (thanks to my sister for the title idea). For my first selection, I chose a Joan Blondell film. Blondell's family lived in Texas during her teenage years -- she was even crowned Miss Dallas once upon a time.

The beautiful blonde with big eyes and a wry delivery tended to be placed in supporting roles during the half-century of her career. I hoped that with her top credit in 1932's Three on a Match, Blondell would have a larger role here... but no such luck. The melodrama includes such notables as Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, along with Blondell, in the cast. However, it is early enough in their careers that they are all stuck in side roles.

Blondell plays actress Mary, introduced as "not a bad girl ... just not serious enough." Davis is secretary Ruth, and Ann Dvorak overacts as wealthy wife Vivian. Three on a Match speedily runs us through their days together in primary school up through the current year. Montages of obscure news events and headlines are shown between segments to set the year. Giving the screenwriters some credit: Film was still in its early days in 1932, so it's not as if they knew a better way to show the passage of time. Or maybe they just loved the idea of montages. Director Mervyn LeRoy shot five other movies that year (including the much better-known I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang), so it's doubtful he had much extra attention to give Three on a Match.

A plot twist is actually spelled out for the viewer during one of these excessive montages. The title is taken from a WWI legend: When three people light cigarettes with one match, one will die soon. You're left to guess which two of these three women will survive to the end of the movie. Given the overabundunce of exposition, it's not that hard to figure out. The actresses are stuck in stereotypes -- Blondell the brash actress with a heart of gold, Davis the quiet, agreeable gal and Dvorak the fallen woman.

The pacing of Three on a Match is ridiculous, and the morals are questionable; the rich people come off looking like heroes. Because of its allusion to cocaine usage, the events leading to the downfall (um, literally) of one of the women, and possibly because of the word "buttinsky," this film is notably pre-Code. Is it a great feat in moviemaking? Not so much. Is it a chance to see Blondell as the gorgeous wise-ass she played so well? Certainly.

[Still via Bobbins and Bombshells]