Why do we love pre-Code films? Fast pace? Check. Great stories? Check. Great casts? Check again. Oh, come on. Let’s be honest. It’s the sex, depravity and lingerie!
I consider all pre-Code films guilty pleasures. Each generation seems to think it is the first to discover sex. To be honest, the biggest kick I get out of pre-Code films is the fact that we are seeing depravity and sex before the big Hollywood clean up. It’s kind of like watching a movie of your grandparents dirty dancing. Many of the pre-Codes are terrific and have marvelous stars, but I’m being honest when I say I’m in it for the sex, drugs, depravity, slips and frilly undergarments. There.
That being said, Three on a Match, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is one of my favorite pre-Codes. It has all of the above-mentioned ingredients, plus kidnapping, child neglect and so much more. And – it’s all done in 63 minutes. It comes from my favorite 1930s studio, Warner Brothers. Their early 1930s films have that make-it-quick “ripped from today’s headlines” look, but are loaded with so much talent that these tawdry stories are elevated to an art form. In 1932, the year of Three on a Match, the Warner’s roster consisted of James Cagney, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson and our delicious cast of characters.
Our little story stars a trio of my favorite Warner Brothers ladies: Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell and Bette Davis. The male cast is headed up by Mr. pre-Code himself, Warren William, and nasty support comes from Allen Jenkins, Lyle Talbot, Edward Arnold and that old pre-Code meanie, Humphrey Bogart.
The three ladies in question are childhood school acquaintances (PS 62). The opening sequences quickly establish their fate: little Mary is mischievous, likes the boys, smokes and has trouble with authority. Clearly, she is a candidate for the dreaded reform school. Ruth, the class valedictorian is a bookish goody-goody who will be the good girl of the trio, and Vivian is the beautiful and spoiled rich girl.
Time marches on (shown through a neat montage of newspaper headlines and popular songs depicting the ensuing years from 1919-1930 when our story begins) and each girl has fulfilled her destiny. Mary (now Joan Blondell) is in that sinful trade, show business. Ruth (now Bette Davis) is a stenographer (class valedictorian = secretary. Ah, those were the days, but I digress…). Vivian (now Ann Dvorak) is married to attorney Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), still rich, spoiled and now bored. They meet for lunch and, throwing caution to the wind, knowingly light their three cigarettes on one match. Legend has it that it is unlucky to light three smokes on one match, as the holder of the third one lit will die. Vivian envies the other women and confides that she is restless (“I want things passionately and, then when I get them, don’t seem to want them anymore”). She is the third one on the match. Uh oh.
Viv has an annoyingly curly-headed little son who seems to think he is Shirley Temple, a handsome home and an attentive husband who senses her restlessness. Wanting to please her, he books an ocean cruise to Europe, but before the ship sails he gets called away on business, leaving Viv and Junior to take the trip by themselves.
Mary, still the catalyst for mischief, meets Vivian on the ship before it sails. She and her chums are going to a bon voyage party, but are not taking the cruise. Viv is invited and before you know it, sparks are flying between her and no-good gambling man Mike Loftus (Lyle Talbot), who proves his admiration for the sophisticated Vivian by telling her “you’re not like those other stuffed brassieres on Park Avenue.” What girl could resist a line like that?
Well, before you know it, Vivian gets off the ship and on the dope. She takes her boy and leaves her husband for a life of sex and drugs, liquor and lingerie. Mary and Ruth are concerned and side with husband Kirkwood (who falls for Mary and marries her after divorcing Vivian, but likes to keep Ruth around as a governess. Hmmm….). Kirkwood even gets his boy back, but not for long.
Vivian and Loftus eventually run out of money and Loftus gets in deep with some bad gangster-types. Owing a lot of money he can’t repay, he agrees to kidnap Vivian’s boy in order to extort money from Kirkwood. Well, things go bad and, in a tense finale (where Bogey figures it’s best to kill the little boy), the police close in on the kidnappers and the boy. Vivian, suffering from withdrawal, finally finds some sense of self-sacrifice and mother-love (to a child that has been horribly neglected). Feverishly, she scrawls the location of her son on her nightgown in lipstick to alert the police and jumps out of a four-story window to her death.
The final scenes reunite Junior and Kirkwood and we see Mary and Ruth share a match to light a cigarette (only 2 on a match now, so all’s well that ends well).
Why I love this film:
In case you didn’t already know, I worship Ann Dvorak, so this film is a home run for me. The fact that Ann got the showiest role is a testament to how much Warners thought of her star power. And, being the chic, elegant, edgy and ultra-femme actress that she was, she did not disappoint (especially in those pathetic, drug-deprived scenes with her kid). And, I have to side with Vivan here, a bit. Aside from the child abuse and drug addiction, who can blame her for wanting someone more exciting than stuffy old Kirkwood? And, isn’t it “convenient” that Mary just happend to be there for Kirkwood? Just sayin’.
She gives Jeanne Eagles a run for her money in the jumpy, I-need-a-fix category, and the fix she needs comes not only from a bottle or a needle, but apparently from what Lyle Talbot was giving her in the bedroom (and Warren William was not).
Bette Davis in a slip
Platinum Blonde Bette doesn’t do much in this film and has the least interesting role. But, she gets to look sexy in a slip and in a bathing suit. When assessing the talents of the fabulous Miss Davis, we tend to overlook the fact that she was awfully cute and had a kick-ass body. That needs to be said. Bette didn’t care much for this film and her part was bland, but she should have been proud of how swell she looked.
Joan Blondell fit Warner Brothers pre-Codes like a glove. Although there was something invariably nice and comfy and decent about her, it’s easy to imagine her as the reform school dropout. She’s the sassy, big hearted gal who just can’t say “no” to anything that just might be fun. And depravity is fun, isn’t it?
A Warners pre-Code regular, no one plays a stuffed shirt better that Warren William. And I just can’t help thinking that a guy who takes Joan and Bette into his house and enjoys watching them frolic on the beach is not all that pure. Maybe Kirkwood and Vivian had more in comon than they thought. Depravity comes in all disguises.
Oh, is he a meanie in this and he does it so well! No heroic noir-guy here, just a nasty baby-killing thug that he plays to the hilt. Favorite moment: his smarmy smirk and “uh oh” when Vivian repeatedly wipes her nose (obviously because she is on the snow).
The great Warner Brothers stalwart is mean through and through in this one. Really. No redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Before signing on with the infamous Ed Wood, Jr., Talbot had a respectable Hollywood career. He really breaks out into good sweats in this.
A small role as crime boss Ace, but it’s fun to watch him pluck his nose hairs as Loftus tells him he can’t pay his debt.
I could be high-handed and say I love the pre-Codes because they are the voice of freedom before the iron fist of censorship silenced great art, but, just between us, I’ll come clean. It’s the sex, the drugs, the depravity and the swell lingerie that reels me in every time.
What are your thoughts on pre-Code Hollywood films? Let us know in the comments.
Marsha Collock has been an avid fan – not scholar – of classic films since she saw the first flicker of black and white on the TV screen. Her muse is Norma Desmond, to whom she has dedicated her blog, A Person in the Dark, a site designed for all of the wonderful people out there in the dark who have an unabashed passion for silents, early talkies, all stars and all films. Visit her Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/FlickChick/155690437779073