Lyle Talbot

Pre-Code Essentials: Three on a Match (1932)

Three on a match 1932

Plot

Even from a very young age, Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell), Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak), and Ruth Wescott (Bette Davis) were on completely different paths in life. They were classmates together as children; Mary the class bad girl, Vivian the popular one, and Ruth was one of the most studious.

Ten years after parting ways, they run into each other and meet for lunch. After a stint in reform school, Mary is now working as a showgirl. Ruth is a stenographer and Vivian married to powerful attorney Robert Kirkwood (Warren William). Although Vivian seems to have everything a person could ever want, she’s grown increasingly dissatisfied with her life. To shake up her life, Vivian takes her son on a trip, but on the ship, she gets mixed up with gambler Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot). Before long, she’s descended into a life of drugs and alcohol, making it impossible for her to take good care of her son.

Mary is aware of Vivian’s hard partying and goes to see Robert to come up with a plan to at least get the child away from her. Once her son is away from her, Vivian and Robert divorce and Vivian hits rock bottom. When Vivian and Michael are desperate for money, Michael kidnaps Vivian’s son and holds him hostage.


My Thoughts

When I first saw Three on a Match, I was mostly watching it for Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart since those are two of my favorite movie stars. I know I’m not the only one who was drawn to this movie because of those two, but while many people watch for Bogart and Davis, they stay for Ann Dvorak. Out of all the major stars, Ann Dvorak is now the least widely remembered of the bunch, but she completely steals the movie from every single one of her costars. Bogart and Davis, at the time, were up-and-coming stars and weren’t being used to their full potential yet. Warren William and Joan Blondell are both good, but are totally eclipsed by Ann Dvorak’s mesmerizing presence.

Three on a Match is also a master class in efficient storytelling. It fits more into 63 minutes than most movies do in two hours.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Herve (Humphrey Bogart) insinuating Vivian’s drug addiction.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

One last “fallen woman” tale for this series of essential pre-codes. In some ways, Vivian’s story reminds me of several other “fallen woman” movies I’ve highlighted this month, but her story ends up feeling really unique. Vivian reminds me a bit of Temple Drake from The Story of Temple Drake in the sense that they were both women with a pretty high standing in society and when they fall, they fall very hard. They both slip into these incredibly dirty worlds that are anything but fun. Three on a Match does nothing to glorify the lifestyle Vivian and Michael end up leading. But the fact that Vivian is a mother and her lifestyle directly endangers her child adds a more shocking element to her story. Helen Faraday from Blonde Venus is another fallen woman who is also a mother, but she was much more concerned about her child’s welfare; Vivian was too strung out to properly care for her son. However, she does redeem herself in the end by making the ultimate sacrifice for her child.

Havana Widows (1933)

Havana Widows After losing their jobs dancing in a chorus, Mae (Joan Blondell) and Sadie (Glenda Farrell) take some advice from one of their friends and head to Havana to meet rich men and snare them in breach of promise lawsuits.  But first they need money to get to Havana.  Mae decides to hit up Herman Brody (Allen Jenkins) for a loan, claiming she needs the money to go tend to her sick mother in Kansas.  He loans her the money, but since he doesn’t have the cash, he has to get a loan from his boss.  But before he can get the money to Mae and Sadie, Herman gambles the money away and gets involved in a convoluted scheme involving an insurance policy to cover the lost money.

Once Mae and Sadie make it to Havana, they pose as rich women and quickly meet Deacon Jones (Guy Kibbee).  Deacon Jones can’t hold his liquor and can’t afford to be involved in any scandals, so it seems like the perfect target!  Plus he has a son named Bob (Lyle Talbot), who catches Mae’s eye.  Unfortunately for Sadie and Mae, Bob doesn’t have any money of his own and they meet Deacon’s wife, so a breach of promise suit is out of the question.  But they can at least try to trap the Deacon in a scandalous situation and try to get money from him that way.

Meanwhile, Herman is getting into hot water over his insurance scheme and needs to find Mae and Sadie to get his money back.  When he finds out he’s been scammed, he hops on the next boat to Havana.  But when he arrives, he gets pulled into Sadie and Mae’s scheme to scandalize the Deacon so he can get his money back that way.  They cause a scandal all right, but it gets so out of hand that the Deacon can’t buy his way out of it.  In fact, the whole lot of them are court ordered to leave Cuba immediately.  But that’s okay, because everybody winds up happy in the end.

I can sum up Havana Widows in one word: convoluted.  But it’s convoluted in a way that only Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell could pull off.  Both Blondell and Farrell are so good at, well, being Blondell and Farrell, they can do just fine with such cockamamie material.  It’s nonsense, but it’s fun nonsense full of rapid-fire dialogue, wisecracks, and a good cast.

Mandalay (1934)

Mandalay 1934 PosterWhen gunrunner Tony Evans (Ricardo Corez) leaves his girlfriend Tanya (Kay Francis) behind for a job, he leaves her in the care of his boss Nick (Warner Oland).  Nick wants her to work at his nightclub and, feeling betrayed, Tanya initially refuses to do have anything to do with Nick and his club.  But then she realizes that using her looks and working at the club might actually help her get out of there.  While working at the club, she becomes known as Spot White, notorious woman of affairs.  In fact, she’s so notorious that the police commissioner wants her to leave the country.  And she does, but not without blackmailing him for some money first.

Tanya gets on a boat headed for Mandalay and changes her name to Marjorie Lang.  Not long after getting on board, she cuts herself, which leads her to meet Dr. Gregory Burton (Lyle Talbot).  Like Marjorie, Gregory is looking to start a new life.  Gregory once killed a patient when he performed surgery while drunk, so now he wants to go to an area facing a deadly fever outbreak to make amends.  Marjorie and Gregory fall in love during the voyage, but Marjorie’s happiness is interrupted when she finds out Tony is also on board.

Tony wants to get back together with Marjorie, but she wants nothing to do with him.  But when Tony gets word that the police are after him, he fakes his own death and Marjorie is blamed for it.  But after her name is cleared, she discovers Tony is still alive and this time, she really does kill him.

Mandalay may not be anything substantial, but it is a very entertaining way to spend a little over an hour.  It’s over the top and trashy, but in the most wonderful way.  If you like Kay Francis, you’re going to love her in Mandalay.  She’s really at her pre-code best here.  And if you’re a fan of pre-codes in general, Mandalay is a must-see.  It’s got just about everything — prostitution, alcoholism, murder

She Had to Say Yes (1933)

In the midst of the Great Depression, companies are doing whatever they have to to keep any business they can get and things are no different for Sol Glass’ (Ferdinand Gottschalk) clothing company.  When buyers come in from out of town, he had been arranging for call girls to take them out on dates, but the buyers were getting tired of being set up with gold diggers, so he decides to start setting the buyers up with the company’s stenographers instead.

Florence Denny (Loretta Young) is one of Sol’s stenographers, but she’s engaged to salesman Tommy Nelson (Regis Toomey) and Tommy doesn’t want her going out on dates. Florence agrees to stay out of it, but when fellow stenographer Birdie (Suzanne Kilborn) gets sick before she’s supposed to go out with Danny Drew (Lyle Talbot), Tommy agrees to let Florence fill in. Florence and Danny get along very well, but when Danny has too much to drink and gets a little too forward with her, she leaves, not wanting to be unfaithful to Tommy.

However, Tommy isn’t as faithful to Florence as she is to him.  He’s been seeing Bridie on the side, but after she finds out about it, Danny comes by to apologize for his behavior and takes her out on a real date. They continue to see each other and while they’re having dinner one night, she steps in to help Danny seal a major business deal with Luther Haines (Hugh Herbert).  But when Luther complains about Florence’s high pressure tactics, he makes Danny think that Florence has been living in sin with Tommy.

Danny is disappointed to think that Florence isn’t as virtuous as he thought she was. He brings her out to his friend’s empty house out in the country and tries to rape her, but doesn’t have it in him to actually go through with it. Unbeknownst to them, Tommy had followed them out and when Florence runs to him, Danny overhears Tommy accuse her of prostituting herself. Danny realizes that Florence was telling the truth after all and reams Tommy out for accusing her of such things.

On the whole, She Had to Say Yes is only a so-so movie.  The story has issues (who says stenographers can’t be gold diggers?) and despite the fact that Busby Berkeley was a co-director (his directorial debut, actually), it is surprisingly devoid of visual style. But if you like pre-codes, this is easily one of the wildest ones you’re apt to find.  It ranks up there with Baby Face, Red Headed Woman, The Story of Temple Drake, and Three on a Match.  Loretta Young is pretty good in it, but its pre-code appeal is definitely the movie’s strongest selling point. Even if you’re familiar with pre-codes, She Had to Say Yes still manages to be pretty shocking.

Love is a Racket (1932)

It’s never a good idea to give too much of yourself in a relationship, and that’s a lesson newspaper columnist Jimmy Russell (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is about to find out the hard way.  He’s in love with aspiring actress Mary Wodehouse (Frances Dee), and since he writes the Broadway gossip column, he uses that to help influence her career.  His friend Sally (Ann Dvorak) has been in love with him, but he’s too blind to see that Mary will take him for everything she can get.  Even though Mary has also been seeing a Broadway producer, when Mary writes a bunch of bad checks, of course Jimmy wants to jump in and pay them off for her.  But it turns out someone has beaten him to the punch.  Gangster Eddie Shaw (Lyle Talbot) isn’t too happy with Jimmy or his newspaper since he found out they were planning to break a story about a racket he’s involved in.  Even though Jimmy agreed to kill the story, Eddie went ahead and bought up all of Mary’s bad checks.  Eddie tells Jimmy that he’s headed off to Atlantic City for a few days and Jimmy follows them, but when Jimmy arrives, he finds out it’s a trap and is held captive by one of Eddie’s cronies.

Meanwhile, in New York, Eddie takes this opportunity to start winning Mary over.  He sends her a bracelet and a telegram telling her to come over to his place.  Mary is scared and with Jimmy out of town, doesn’t know what to do.  Finally, her Aunt Hattie decides she can’t sit idly by and watch Mary fall in with a guy like Eddie, so she decides to settle the score herself.  By now, Jimmy has gotten away from Eddie’s cronies and makes it back to Eddie’s apartment just in time to see Jimmy dead and Hattie ditching the evidence.  Still wanting to protect Mary, he destroys all the evidence and makes it look like Eddie killed himself.  But in yet another crazy twist of fate, Jimmy’s friend Stanley (Lee Tracy) also comes by just in time to see Jimmy shove Eddie’s body off the building and assumes that Jimmy was the one who killed him.

Everyone believes that Eddie committed suicide, but Stanley doesn’t know the real story.  To protect his friend, he took some incriminating evidence from the scene of the crime and hands them over to Jimmy.  He has no intention of ratting his friend out, he just doesn’t want them falling into the wrong hands.  Later, they head back to Jimmy’s apartment and get a telegram from Mary announcing her sudden marriage to that Broadway producer.  Finally, Jimmy realizes what a sap he’s been.  He sends Aunt Hattie a little wedding present — the gun she used to kill Eddie — and declares that he will never fall in love again.  But the way he looks at Sally lets us know that won’t last long.

I think Love is a Racket is something of an underrated pre-code.  The story is pretty convoluted, but its sharp script and strong cast make it pretty enjoyable.  Doug Fairbanks, Jr., Frances Dee, Lyle Talbot, and Lee Tracy are all great, although it’s too bad that there wasn’t more to Ann Dvorak’s character.  She gets some witty lines to say, but other than that, there’s just not a whole lot of substance to her part.  Give this one a shot next time it’s on TCM.  With a runtime of just over an hour, what have you got to lose?

Girl Missing (1933)

Kay (Glenda Farrell) and June (Mary Brian) are a couple of shameless, gold digging chorus girls.  They’re on vacation in Palm Beach with Kenneth Van Dusen (Guy Kibbee), the latest rich guy they’ve latched themselves onto.  But when he comes on to June and she turns him down, Kenneth takes off and leaves the girls with the $700 hotel bill.  While they’re scheming up a way to get the money for the bill, they run into Daisy (Peggy Shannon), a rather dim chorus girl they used to work with.  She’s at the hotel to get married to the wealthy Henry Gibson (Ben Lyon), but when they go up to talk to her (and hopefully get some money), she gives them the could shoulder.  They try their luck in the casino instead, and even though Kay wins enough money to cover the bill, she looses it all when she pushes her luck to the breaking point.  But luckily for them, they run into Raymond (Lyle Talbot), one of Daisy’s ex-boyfriends.  He offers them the money for their hotel bill and train tickets out of town.

The next day, Raymond sends the money and train tickets over to the hotel, but before they leave, June runs into Henry Gibson in the elevator and flirts with him so long that they miss their train and they have to stay in town another night.  Meanwhile, Daisy and Henry have gotten married and are on their way out of town for their honeymoon.  After they get to the hotel, Daisy complains of having a headache so while she goes to lay down, Henry steps out to have a cigarette.  When he comes back in to check on her, she’s gone, apparently kidnapped.  When news of Daisy’s disappearance hits the newspaper the next day, Kay and June decide to stay and help look for Daisy.  Not that they’re terribly concerned about finding Daisy, but because there’s a $25,000 reward for any information that leads to finding Daisy.

They suspect she’s run off with Raymond and rush to tell Henry their theory, but when a detective overhears them, he assumes that they are involved and brings them in for questioning.  They tell the police their theory about Raymond, but when they question him, he doesn’t strike them as suspicious.  But later that night, they see Raymond’s chauffeur messing with Henry’s car.  They try to warn Henry, but he’s in a hurry and won’t listen, so they have no other choice but to hop in a car and chase him down.  When they finally do stop him, they’re able to prove his car has been tampered with.  Kay has the idea that if he wrecks the car, the person trying to kill him would come out of hiding.  So he wrecks the car and Kay plants a story about Henry being killed in a car wreck and sure enough, her plan works.  When Daisy hears the news, she goes to the police station.  But by now, the police have some real dirt on Daisy and even though she almost weasels her way out of the situation, Kay manages to get the truth out of her.

Girl Missing is a lot of fun.  I adored Glenda Farrell and Mary Brian in it, they made a great couple of wise cracking show girls.  The two of them made it fun to root for the characters you’re not always supposed to root for.  It’s full of snappy lines and I love a movie full of snappy lines.  Not only is it funny, but the mystery element of the movie is also pretty enjoyable.  Definitely keep an eye out for this one on TCM.  If you like The Thin Man, you would probably like Girl Missing.

Three on a Match (1932)

3 on a Match 1932 Ann Dvorak Joan Blondell Bette Davis

Even as children, it was clear that Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell), Vivian Kirkwood (Ann Dvorak), and Ruth Wescott (Bette Davis) were on three very different paths in life.  Ruth was always very serious about doing well in school, graduated top of the class, and grew up to be a stenographer.  Mary was a bit more rebellious and even spent some time in a reform school, but grew up and went into show business.  Vivian, on the other hand, was the popular girl and went on to marry Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), a rich lawyer, and become a housewife.

After their time together in school, years go by and the girls fall out of touch.  But they end up meeting up again for lunch and Vivian reveals that even though it looks like she’s got it made, she’s really quite bored with her life.  To add some spice to her life, she takes a cruise, where she meets Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot).  But before the ship even leaves, she takes her son and runs off with Michael.  While Vivian takes up a hard-partying lifestyle full of booze, cocaine, and parties, quality parenting gets put on the back burner.  Police investigate their disappearances, but the only person who finds them is Mary.  Mary tries to talk some sense into her, but when she won’t listen, she goes to see Robert to tell him where they are.  He takes his son back, divorces Vivian, and goes on to marry Mary.

Meanwhile, Vivian has hit rock bottom.  She’s run out of money and she and Michael owe $2,000 to a trio of gangsters, Harve (Humphrey Bogart), Dick, and Ace.  Michael goes to Robert and threatens to go public about Mary’s criminal background, but Robert isn’t fazed by him and throws him out of his office.  Instead, Michael hatches a plan to kidnap Mary’s son and hold him hostage.  The whole ordeal makes Mary realize just how far she’s fallen and, in order to save her son, takes some lipstick, writes a note on her nightgown, and throws herself from the window.

Three on a Match is one wild ride!  I just love it.  The cast is really outstanding.  This is one of Bette Davis’ early movies and she wasn’t really being used to her full potential yet.  Joan Blondell was good, but the real star was Ann Dvorak.  She did a spectacular job playing a junkie.  When she was supposed to be strung out, she was so jittery and nervous, it must have been really hard to get that just right.  This was also was also an early appearance from Humphrey Bogart.  In fact, it was the first time he played a gangster and he certainly showed a lot of promise in that type of role.  Three on a Match is quite possibly the ultimate example of a movie that packs a lot into a short amount of time.  It’s only 63 minutes long, and doesn’t waste a minute of it!  A fantastic cast, great performances, it’s well written, and it’s all packed into just over an hour.  What’s not to like here?