Warren William Under the Stars, part 8: Three On a Match

Three on a Match will be broadcast on TCM, August 30th, 2012:


THREE ON A MATCH (1932) *** Dir: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, Warren William, Humphrey Bogart


If you intend to watch Three On a Match for another glimpse of the amoral, conscienceless, pre-Code Warren William, you can drop that particular thought right now. Although the film is an uncompromising look into a sordid world of sin and drugs, here Warren stands outside that particular milieu. In fact, he’s so earnest and straight in this picture that he should be wearing a neck scarf and a series of merit badges. It is only around him that salaciousness swirls, but what a wind it whips up.


The credits tell us that a trio of Warner Brother’s young contractees – Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak and Joan Blondell – headline Three On a Match, but it is truly director Mervyn LeRoy that is the star of this production. LeRoy’s unblinking camera lens tells the story of three young school friends, the intellectual Ruth (Davis), vivacious Vivian (Dvorak) and bad-girl Mary (Blondell), embarking on wildly different paths in life. Through a series of deftly handled montages, we see their development from youth to adulthood, where we find Mary in reform school, Ruth attending BusinessCollege, and Vivian married and bored – she’s reintroduced reading a cheap romance novel – to the wealthy lawyer Robert Kirkwood (Warren William). Of the three interconnected stories, LeRoy uses Vivian’s arc as the centerpiece, and his observation of the disintegration of her marriage is succinct and devastating. She is utterly uninterested in the life or her young son Junior and similarly uninterested in her husband; when we see a glimpse into their marital bed LeRoy shows us her deliberately unused scanty lingerie, and a woman who would rather feign sleep than have any type of intimate contact. Painfully aware of Vivian’s ennui, Robert is sympathetic and offers her time away with their son, hoping she will return rededicated to the marriage. It is a grave mistake. Vivian’s need for excitement draws her into a tawdry romance with a low-life gambler, and she instantly disappears with her son into a life of drinking, drugs and sex.


It is here that Mervyn LeRoy becomes something more than simply a storyteller. His uncompromising vision of the squalid world that Vivian inhabits exhibits an honesty that was uncommon even during the pre-Code era. After Robert has retrieved his son from the bankrupt life he was stolen into, we see Vivian degenerate into a deeply damaged drug addict, punishing herself as a failed wife, mother and woman. LeRoy elicits a chillingly dark performance from Ann Dvorak, culminating in a dramatic sequence of despair and redemption that – for dramatic reasons – I will not describe here. He also populates Vivian’s world with a series of character roles that reach deeper into reality than most studio productions: Edward Arnold as the gambling boss Ace (he’s introduced reflected in a magnifying mirror as he plucks his nose hairs), Allan Jenkins as a low-rent thug, and a genuinely menacing early performance by Humphrey Bogart in his first role as a gangster on film. The weakness of Three On a Match comes largely through the other girls stories. Bette Davis is entirely wasted as the colorless Ruth, and when Robert and Mary are thrust together through circumstances, we never quite buy their subsequent romance. Additionally, one resents the use of Warren William in such a boring, stand-up role; there were only so many months in the pre-Code carnival, and seeing them wasted in such a manner is like watching Babe Ruth run a gas station.


Contemporary critics were not kind to Three On a Match; more than one called it “distasteful,” which is an accurate enough description, but one that has no truck with modern audiences who have seen far worse in the supermarket checkout line. It is the honesty of the film – at least through LeRoy’s treatment of Vivian’s story – that demands our attention. Performing one small function of art, it reminds us that there are some things we want to look away from, but beg instead to be seen.


Three On a Match appears on Turner Classic Movies Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William, August 30th, at 1:00 PM (EST).



About magnificentscoundrel
John Stangeland is the biographer of 1930's film icon Warren William, a lazy business owner and a washed-up comic book artist. He's not bitter, though.

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