It’s still my favorite moment in Three on a Match: Vivian (Ann Dvorak) is outraged when Harve (Humphrey Bogart) and his boys barge into her apartment with hopes of upping the ransom on her five-year-old son. Dvorak rubs under her nose a couple of times between Vivian’s livid lines, and Bogie responds with a wry little smile and a simple, “Uh oh,” while taking a little swipe at his own nose, an acknowledgment of Vivian’s unspoken cocaine addiction.
Harve tosses Vivian into the bedroom and out of view, and then is confronted by her boy, played by little Buster Phelps.
“Please don’t hurt my mommy,” Junior begs.
Bogart is made to look huge as he stares down at the boy and makes his heartless reply: “I’ll bear that in mind.”
Nobody went to see Three on a Match because of Humphrey Bogart in 1932. “Harve” was a small tenth-billed role in a movie where Bogart doesn’t even appear until the final few scenes. It was enough to make the future Hollywood icon toss up his hands and return to New York, where he passed the time and made the occasional buck—or less—wagering on his chess game after theatrical parts proved slim (Sperber and Lax, 44). Bogart had a few Broadway roles in the few years after Three on a Match—plus another unrewarding movie role in Midnight (1934), which was filmed in New York—but his career looked as though it had reached a dead end. Then he was cast as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest on Broadway, a role that carried him back to Hollywood thanks to co-star Leslie Howard’s loyalty.
By 1936, when Warner Bros. produced The Petrified Forest for the screen, leading lady Bette Davis—a Three on a Match alumnus—had had her own breakthrough and was about to collect her first Academy Award. It would take Bogart five more years of toil to reach stardom; five years playing plenty of “Harve”-type roles, plus an occasional indignity such as The Return of Dr. X (1939). But the parts—and the movies—finally got better: They Drive By Night (1940) saw Bogie as a solid everyman in support of George Raft; High Sierra (1941) marked his breakout in a role Raft turned down; The Maltese Falcon (1941) would have kept Bogart famous had he never appeared in another film; Casablanca (1942) brought him his first Oscar nomination and secured a Hollywood legacy that would only grow—Bogart finally won his Academy Award in 1952 for his performance The African Queen (1951).
This was no overnight success. Several moments could have marked Bogart’s end and left him as a footnote. Or, if you’ve seen his earliest batch of movies, less than a footnote. He’s second fiddle to Spencer Tracy in the painful John Ford prison picture Up the River (1930). Actually, Bogart is third fiddle behind Tracy co-star Warren Hymer, who seemed to be a little bit of a big deal in his early talkies. Bogie is a bit smiley in this one with an early Gary Cooper aw shucks quality about him that doesn’t even seem quite right in a few of Cooper’s own early talkies. Bogart is a little better in The Bad Sister (1931), fourth-billed behind Bette Davis (in her movie debut), where he plays a sort of slick smooth-cheeked con artist who eventually disappears from the movie. He’s more effective in Love Affair (1932) opposite Dorothy Mackaill, but honestly the movie is better than Bogie is. His character is too insecure, and while he’s handed a few dramatic moments, Bogart doesn’t really know how to brood yet. Ironically, Bogart’s best that I’ve seen from his first Hollywood run are his two briefest roles—here, as Harve, in Three on a Match, working for director Mervyn Leroy after just having appeared in Leroy’s similarly paced Big City Blues (1932).
The unbilled Bogart of Big City Blues offers a glimpse into the future by showcasing Bogie’s no-nonsense sardonic nature. He’s just a random party guest in that one, though he manages to get Three on a Match co-star Lyle Talbot lathered up, and tosses off a few good lines in Eric Linden’s direction. If Big City Blues provided a small showcase for Bogie the wiseacre, Three on a Match foreshadows the start of his mid- to late-thirties run as a Hollywood tough guy and gangster. He ranks over fellow thugs played by Allen Jenkins and Jack La Rue, and has more to do than his boss, a menacing Edward Arnold, who manages to captivate us just by plucking at his nose hairs (Arnold doesn’t even mention Three on a Match in his 1940 autobiography Lorenzo Goes to Hollywood—in fact, he doesn’t even list it among his film credits appearing at the beginning of his book). Bogart is the top villain in the last quarter of the film, so bad that he even makes you realize that as disgusting as Lyle Talbot’s character is, Harve is just that much worse.
There’s much more to Three on a Match than Humphrey Bogart, though the presence of he and Bette Davis in the film have surely played a major part in providing the opportunity for the second set of legs it’s running on today. I wrote a little about the movie back in 2009, but even at a scant sixty-three minutes Three on a Match begs for more from any number of additional perspectives today.
I tend to neglect my old favorites after I write about them. Three on a Match is a movie I’m sure I’ve watched over two dozen times, yet probably only once or twice since I wrote that earlier piece eight years ago. You see, the blog post is often the icing on the cake: I see a movie, I like a movie, I obsess over it, I love a movie, I hit the books, I watch the movie a few more times for notes and screen captures, I write about the movie, and—usually—it’s out of my system. Three on a Match is an old friend I’d kept in a corner far too long. I watched it this past Monday night and it was fresher than I’d expected. I revisited my old post and wasn’t satisfied. I watched it on Tuesday night and took notes. I watched it on Wednesday night and grabbed screen captures. I watched it on Thursday night from the couch, no more notes, no pauses in the action.
Running a blistering sixty-three minutes filled by adultery, addiction, violence, and abuse, Three on a Match must have just been too much for 1932 to handle.
Most critics found it distasteful for capitalizing on the tragic Lindbergh baby kidnapping that occurred earlier that year, a view that certainly trickled down to movie audiences as well. An “unintelligent effusion,” said Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times about a film he found “tedious and distasteful.” Distasteful is in the eye of the beholder and, yes, Three on a Match pushes the limits on that count, but unintelligent? Nah. Tedious? That’s far enough off-base to cost him his credibility, and make me wonder what he was watching. Film Daily was a bit more on target with their report of an “entertaining and suspenseful drama slightly marred by too many turns of plot.” That’s a reasonable critique. Variety was among a few sources who thought “the story disintegrates in the stretch … because it evolves into the familiar melodramatic pattern of the gangster.” Well, yes, but with rather shocking results, even after you’ve seen the thing as many times as I have!
The story is simple: A restless young wife and mother strays from her wealthy respectable husband in favor of a man offering more excitement. She descends into alcoholism and drug addiction, while her new paramour accrues mounting gambling debts. The biggest trouble is that she takes her three-year-old son along for the ride, neglecting him in favor of fun and fixes. The husband recovers his son, but the new lover’s hefty gambling debts lead to the boy’s kidnapping a couple of years later. Simple, though not unintelligent. I’d let him get away with unintelligible, as the break-neck pace may have caught a viewer off-guard in 1932 (though that pacing is my favorite feature in movies of that time).
Besides that incredible pacing, Three on a Match features a jaw-dropping slew of stars and familiar faces. No, our Humphrey Bogart wasn’t their Humphrey Bogart, and neither yet had our Bette Davis given much reason for notice. In 1932, it’s the names at the top that have to draw: Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and Warren William, no slouches themselves. A big part of the fun in watching Three on a Match today isn’t so much in Davis and Bogart showing up—it’s all of the more forgotten names but very familiar faces: Frankie Darro, Anne Shirley (then Dawn O’Day), and—woo, there’s Edward Arnold, for his memorable minute or so—Allen Jenkins—and Jack La Rue! Hey, Grant Mitchell, Auntie Em (Clara Blandick), and Herman Bing in a flash! That’s all they’re going to have Glenda Farrell do? Wish Sheila Terry was busier too. Nice touch having Hardie Albright at Warren William’s side, as they’ll be similarly paired up in their next film, appropriately enough, The Match King (1932)—when Albright first shows up to deliver a telegram in this one, I half expected William to reply with his oft-used line from the later film: “Never worry about anything until it happens. And I’ll take care of it then.”
Three on a Match isn’t one of Warren William’s great pre-Code roles. There is no air of the scoundrel about his Bob Kirkwood. This is instead one of William’s sturdier leading men, the sort of upright citizen he more often played after the beginning of Production Code enforcement in mid-1934 (think Imitation of Life  or, closest to this mark, Madame X ). William had already had his own movie breakthrough in The Mouthpiece in early 1932, and Three on a Match winds up sandwiched between two of those great cad roles that were his specialty, Skyscraper Souls (on loan to MGM) and The Match King. The only inkling of the Warren William from those films, and I’m speaking more to his no-nonsense demeanor than anything else when making the comparison, is the scene he shares with Lyle Talbot when Talbot’s Loftus attempts to blackmail him over second-wife Mary’s (Joan Blondell) past. After a glorious bit of legal double-speak from William’s Kirkwood, Loftus tells him that he’s calling his bluff. Kirkwood responds by threatening to break every bone in his body and throw him in jail. He orders Loftus out of his office and tosses him towards the door.
“You’re not through with this,” Loftus says.
“Bunk,” says Kirkwood. “Now get out.”
William employs the same tone used when firing underlings in Employees’ Entrance (1933).
Discounting this stand-off with Talbot, William’s best scene comes opposite Ann Dvorak, early in the movie while they’re still husband and wife. The couple return home and William delays going to bed to spend a few moments with his son. Dvorak’s Vivian, already restless in her marriage, takes the opportunity to dash into bed and pretend she’s asleep. Husband Bob appears disappointed, but just before he walks away to undress he happens to look into a mirror and sees his wife peeking at his progress. He calls her out on this, and the two have a heart-to-heart about their marriage that leads to them deciding Vivian should get away for a while. That vacation ends before the ship sails after Vivian meets Loftus.
I don’t think First National or Warner Bros., the screenwriters, or even director Le Roy knew exactly what Three on a Match should be. Was it a story following the intertwined fates of three women sealed by a shared match? If so, not a lot of effort was made in Ruth’s direction. The Bette Davis character, valedictorian of her class, ascends to role of nanny after graduating Manhattan Business College to become a stenographer. Was it a love triangle featuring the characters played by Dvorak, William, and Blondell? You can’t have a triangle when only one side provides any interest. I can understand some of the difficulties critics had with Three on a Match in its original run, because both of these scenarios are nullified when the focus drifts to one character. But that one character, Vivian Revere, happens to be played by a talented actress, who takes on the part body and soul. Would Three on a Match have wound up just a hot mess if not for Ann Dvorak? I don’t know, but it’s Dvorak’s performance that carries the movie and lifts it from an obscure place where only dedicated film buffs would have ever found it, to an elevated plateau reserved for higher pedigreed pre-Code era classics.
- "Film Reviews: 3 On a Match." Variety, November 1, 1932, 12.
- Hall, Mordaunt. “Blackmail and Kidnapping.” New York Times, October 29, 1932, http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9D01E6D61131E333A2575AC2A9669D946394D6CF.
- Review of Three On a Match. Film Daily, October 29, 1932, 6.
- Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax. Bogart. New York: It Books, 2011. First published 1997 by William Morrow.