Tuesday 18 August 2020

Streaming - John Baxter examines "a tranquil tale of middle-class life" THREE ON A MATCH (Mervyn LeRoy, USA, 1932)

Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak light up.


       If Prohibition, PBS’s 2011 series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, seemed sluggish, I blamed Burns’s stately account of the American Civil WarAfter living through the slaughter of Gettysburg as evoked in Shelby Foote’s measured Mississippi growl, it was hard to get serious about bath-tub gin. However, it showed up better in a recent re-viewing, notably in its assertion that the Volstead Act vitally nourished popular culture, in particular jazz and the cinema. 

Mervyn LeRoy’s 1932 Three on a Match is a product of Darryl Zanuck’s tenure at Warner Brothers before left to form Twentieth Century pictures which later merged with William Fox’s moribund empire to create Twentieth Century-Fox.By the time of Zanuck’s frustrated departure, the USA had become `a nation of “scofflaws” - a term coined to describe someone indifferent to authority. 

Many movie stories came from such magazines as Collier’s, Red Book, Cosmopolitan, Scribner’s and the Saturday Evening Post. Reasoning that drinkers of illegal alcohol would no longer turn up their noses at thieves or adulterers, Zanuck injected into these tranquil tales of middle-class life the elements and characters of crime. Gangsters were suddenly articulate, even glamorous. The “forgotten men” on the breadlines became human, as did the show-business people who sang about them.

The working title of William Wellman’s landmark The Public Enemy, made during Zanuck’s time at Warnerswas Beer and Blood – fluids about which co-writer Kubec Glasmon, formerly a Chicago pharmacist, knew a great deal. Glasmon and partner John Bright also provided the story for Three on a Match, but co-writer Lucien Hubbard added an element of social history.

Lyle Talbot, Humphrey Bogart and Ann Dvorak

There is a kidnap plot, and Humphrey Bogart (in what is said to be his first screen appearance as a gangster) sports his snap-brim Fedora and trade-mark snarl as an aide to Edward Arnold’s somewhat perfunctory Mr. Big.  However an elaborate montage occupies the first third of the film. In a manner reminiscent of such popular social histories of the time as Only Yesterday and Our Times, it races through a potted account of the previous few decades: prohibition and repeal, the stock market crash, the rise of radio and a national press; free education and its effects on racial distinctions, the influence on female independence of women’s suffrage, movies and the beauty business, all illustrated, significantly, by headlines and clippings from newspapers.  

It’s a good fifteen minutes before we meet Vivian, Mary and Ruth,  three women who graduate from high school together, but whose lives diverge as social and financial forces separate them. When the three share a reunion lunch, they light cigarettes from the same match, evoking the superstition that one will die. Even then, the film is eager to inform, explaining that match manufacturers invented this notion, hoping smokers would light up twice.  

The educational history of the three girls after graduation tells us all we need to know about them.  Conscientious Ruth (Bette Davis) goes to business school, wealthy Vivian (Ann Dvorak) to finishing school, and archetypal bad girl Mary (Joan Blondell) to reform school. Since the plot dictates that one should die, the self-indulgent Vivian duly exits through a fourth-floor hotel window, leaving Ruth and Mary to pick up the pieces of her life, notably her impossibly virtuous husband (Warren William) and their tiresome moppet (Buster Phelps), who muddles through Vivian’s decline on a diet of cocktail snacks.

"impossibly virtuous husband (Warren William) and their tiresome moppet (Buster Phelps)"

With alcohol out of fashion, Dvorak is shown succumbing to cocaine. It isn’t referred to by name, but Bogart’s sneer and a gesture towards his nose are obvious enough. Assigning to Vivian a drug associated with the sophisticated and creative elite supports the nature vs. nurture argument of the opening montage. Biology, not bad luck, controls these women’s lives. Vivian can no more escape addiction than school-fellow Willie Goldberg (Sidney Miller) can help being a parody Jew, making appreciative remarks about the tailoring of other boy’s suits, or Virginia Davis as the young Mary, ducking class to share a cigarette with the bad boys, can avoid growing up with round heels but a heart of gold. It’s a belief that would receive short shrift from the Production Code.

Editor's Note: A good copy of this film can be found if you click here

Virginia Davis shares a smoke with bad boys Frankie Darro and Junior Johnson

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