Until a 1948 Supreme Court ruling, the five major Hollywood studios controlled the entire movie business, from production to distribution. The studios contracted performers and paid them a salary. The performers worked five days a week like anyone else. When one film wrapped, they moved to another. Thus, films like Three on a Match came stock-piled with current and future stars.
The story begins in the fall of 1919. The film sets the time with what's now a common device, a montage of newspaper headlines. Jack Dempsey wins the world heavyweight title. Prohibition passes. Woman's suffrage passes. Then, a smaller article. The New York City schools are set to reopen after summer vacation.
Cut to Public School 64. The camera pans back to reveal a schoolyard teaming with children. Hundreds of them. Were they not twirling about, playing on slides and swings, it would pass for a prison yard. Here, we meet three pre-teen girls.
Mary is an exhibitionist. She doesn't mind her bloomers showing while she's playing on the swing or the attention it gets from the boys. Much to the chagrin of class-beauty Vivian. When Mary skips class to smoke cigarettes with some boys, Vivian wants to tell on her. She's dissuaded by studious Ruth.
Time passes with more headlines. The girls are set to graduate. Ruth is valedictorian. Vivian is voted most popular. Mary’s been in so much trouble, she’s almost held back.
After the ceremony, Ruth and Vivian talk about their futures. Ruth's family can't afford her going to high school, so she's off to secretarial school so she might get a job. Vivian, however, is off to an exclusive boarding school. They both wonder what will become of Mary.
More time passes. It's 1925 now. The girls are teenagers. Mary, now played by Joan Blondell, is in reform school. Vivian, now played by Anne Dvorak is reading lewd romance novels to her rapt roommates in Miss Jasons School for Young Ladies. Ruth, now played by Bette Davis, toils away in secretarial school.
Now it’s 1930. Mary sits in a beauty parlor getting her hair done. She’s telling her beautician how she ran into Ruth earlier that day and how she hasn’t seen her since their days at Public School 64. Vivian is at the same beauty parlor and overhears Mary’s mention of Public School 64. Reunited, the three women meet for lunch.
Something I love about the pictures of this era. Running just over an hour, they had to be efficient. Here, we get ten years of backstory and characterization in under five minutes.
At lunch, the girls catch up. We learn Mary has turned her life around and is now an actress who’s just gotten her first break. Ruth is working as a secretary. Vivian has married a wealthy lawyer and has a three-year-old son. Mary and Ruth envy Vivian. But Vivian is restless and bored with her life.
Some days later, Vivian talks her husband, Robert, into letting her travel with their son to Europe. Robert agrees, but not without some reluctance. The night they're set to sail, he sees her off. After he leaves, Vivian runs into Mary, who’s now a bona-fide stage star. Mary’s there seeing another friend off. Vivian has the ship's stewardess watch her son and joins Mary's party. She drinks and flirts with a young rake named Michael. Before the ship leaves port, Vivian takes her son and debarks with Michael.
From here, Vivian descends into a drug-and-alcohol-fueled nightmare. We see her strung out on the sofa, while her son, dirty and unwashed, begs for some healthy food.
Mary, feeling responsible, visits Robert and tells him where to find Vivian. Robert reclaims his son and divorces Vivian. Mary and Robert grow closer. On the day his divorce is final, he asks Mary to become his wife. Mary agrees. Ruth joins the family as a nanny.
In between, we have the obligatory pre-code shot of a woman putting on her stockings. Here, it’s Bette Davis.
Meanwhile, Vivian has continued her fall from grace. Michael turns out to be a gambler and the two are now desperate for money to feed their habits. Vivian, waiting outside the same uptown apartment building she used to call home, begs Mary for money. After they burn through that, Michael tries extorting Robert. When that doesn’t work, Michael kidnap’s Robert’s son.
Unfortunately for all involved, Michael owes money to a mobster named Ace, played by Edward Arnold. Ace gets wind of the plot and muscles his way in via his henchman Harve, played by Humphrey Bogart. When the heat closes in, Harve leans on Michael to off the kid. Vivian, in a moment of lucidity during her withdrawal haze, saves her son in a startling (and over the top) fashion.
It’s a lot of plot for 63 minutes. This is a good thing. Things move so fast we’re not given much time to consider the insanity. And make no mistake, this movie is nuts. Vivian’s fall from society lady to street-corner junkie plays like a caricature. Mary wastes her school years getting into trouble and ends up a society darling. Vivian spends her life doing what’s expected of her and sees her world collapse the first time she steps out of line. And Ruth, poor Ruth. She works, head down, as hard as she can, only to end up working for Mary. How’s that for a mixed message?
But Three on a Match works despite all the crazy. Or is it because of it? I’m not sure. With a cast this good, one is hard-pressed to care.