Three on a Match is a 1932 American pre-Code crime drama released by Warner Bros. The film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and stars Joan Blondell, Warren William, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis. The film also features Lyle Talbot, Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins and Edward Arnold.
Three women who went to the same elementary school, Mary (Joan Blondell), Ruth (Bette Davis), and Vivian (Ann Dvorak), meet again as young adults after some time apart. They each light a cigarette from the same match and discuss the superstition that such an act is unlucky and that Vivian, the last to light her cigarette, will be the first to die.
Mary is a show girl who has established stability in her life after spending some time in a reform school, while Ruth works as a stenographer. Vivian is the best off of the three, married to successful lawyer Robert Kirkwood (Warren William) and with a young son Robert Jr. (Buster Phelps), but she has grown dissatisfied with her life. Just before she is about to leave on an ocean cruiser with her son, Mary comes along with two men going to a party on the ship, before it leaves. Gambler Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot) one of the two men flirts around with Vivian and persuades her to run away with him.
Vivian and Michael Loftus run a very shabby life, so that Mary concerned about Vivian's neglect of her son, tells Robert (nearly mad about the disappearance of his son) where to find his boy. Mary and Ruth are very fond of Junior so that Robert proposes to Mary and hires Ruth to look after the child. Mary and Robert marry the same day his divorce from Vivian becomes final.
Meanwhile, Vivian's money runs out and Michael owes $2,000 to gangster Ace (Edward Arnold), who tells him to pay up or else. Desperate, Michael tries to blackmail Robert by threatening to inform the press about Mary's criminal background. When that does not work, he kidnaps Robert's boy. However, Vivian scrawls a message in lipstick on her nightgown and throws herself out the window of the fourth-floor apartment where she and her son are being held, leading to the child's rescue.
- Virginia Davis as Mary Keaton as a child
- Joan Blondell as Mary Keaton / Mary Bernard
- Anne Shirley as Vivian Revere as a child
- Ann Dvorak as Vivian Revere Kirkwood
- Betty Carse as Ruth Wescott as a child
- Bette Davis as Ruth Wescott
- Warren William as Robert Kirkwood
- Lyle Talbot as Michael Loftus
- Humphrey Bogart as Harve
- Allen Jenkins as Dick
- Edward Arnold as Ace
- Frankie Darro as Bobby
- Glenda Farrell as Mrs. Black
- Buster Phelps as Robert Jr.
- Grant Mitchell as School principal
- Sheila Terry as Naomi
- Clara Blandick as Mrs. Keaton
- John Marston as Bilkerson
- Patricia Ellis as Linda
- Hale Hamilton as Defense attorney
- Dick Brandon as Horace
- Junior Johnson as Max
- Sidney Miller as Willia Goldberg
- Blanche Frederici as Miss Blazer
- Hardie Albright as Phil
- Spencer Charters as Street cleaner
- Ann Brody as Mrs. Goldberg
- Jack La Rue as Henchman
- Stanley Price as Henchman
- Harry Seymour as Jerry Carter
Dvorak was the last of the four principal actors to be cast. This was Bogart's first appearance as a hoodlum type, although his work in Midnight (released 1934) preceded this role and led to his being cast by LeRoy.
Filming took place in June 1932.
When this film was released in October 1932, the Lindbergh kidnapping was very much in the news and the kidnappers had not yet been caught. The kidnapping of a child in the story raised concerns with censors, but Jason Joy of the Studio Relations Committee[a] successfully made a case for the film to the censors in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Joan Blondell posed for a 1932 promotional publicity photo for the film which was later banned under the Motion Picture Production Code.
Three on a Match received tepid to poor notices overall. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times called Three on a Match "tedious and distasteful" as well as "unintelligent". The Time reviewer felt the film did not carry much weight, unlike previous Glasmon–Bright productions,[b] and that the suicide at the end was more implausible than tragic. Kaspar Monahan of the Pittsburgh Press thought that it began with the hope of being "different" but ultimately devolved into a "gangster yarn" and summarized: "Direction good for the most part; acting as good as can be expected under the circumstances; story erratic."
The Spokane Spokesman-Review expressed admiration for the way the passage of time is shown through several montage sequences, calling it "a brand new approach and treatment ..." and commented that the film "rang true".
Trade paper reviews advised exhibitors to focus on the cast: "An attractive cast array is the attendance motive for this picture which is surprising in its meager demands upon its quartet of featured people" was the opening comment of Variety's Sid Silverman. The Film Daily review, too, said the "cast helps" with a plot that has "too many turns". The Motion Picture Herald also advised exhibitors to focus on the "strength of the cast names" and not to even use the word "kidnaping" or allude to it in promotions.
Decades after its release, the film found more favor with critics and film historians. In 1969, William K. Everson called it "unusually carefully-made" and wrote, "Splendidly cut and paced ... and climaxed by a real shocker, Three on a Match is still a vivid little picture". Wheeler Winston Dixon observed, "the film is astonishing for the amount of information that LeRoy manages to compress into this lightning fast tale". It has been pointed to as Dvorak's best performance for Warners.
In 1938 Warner Bros. released Broadway Musketeers, a remake of Three on a Match.