Three on a Match (1932)

Three on a Match
Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak

'Three on a Match' is a hard-hitting and compelling movie drama, made in 1932, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Joan Blondell, Warren William, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis. There is also a small role for a young Humphrey Bogart, his first appearance as a gangster. It was not well received on release but has since found favour with critics as being vivid and carefully directed and acted.

The film's title comes from the superstition that of three people sharing a single match, the last to light her cigarette, will be the first to die.

"Three on a Match" was a film made at a time when the American Film Censors were changing what the general public were permitted to see. By 1934, any content that showed graphic violence or anything of a sexual nature was ultimately turned down for release. A number of the themes of the movie would be impossible to show on-screen just two years later. This is a must-see Pre-Code film!


The plot is tight and fast-moving and follows three childhood friends: Mary (Joan Blondell), Ruth (Bette Davis), and Vivian (Ann Dvorak). They meet up as young adults and as they talk, they light their cigarettes from the same match and discuss the superstition that the third to do so (in this case Vivian) will be the first to die.

The film first shows the three women as young girls, then follows them as adults going through their lives, contrasting their childhood ideals with the reality to come. In particular, we follow Vivian, whose hard-partying ways eventually wreak havoc on the lives of everyone around her (including her concerned husband, Warren William’s Robert Kirkwood).

After the relatively slow paced beginning, the movie picks up pace towards the fast-moving final part which contains an impressive array of immoral or criminal activities including adultery, drug addiction, gangsters and child endangerment, leading inevitably to a memorable and grim finale.


The main shoot took place during June, 1932.

Studio sets at this time were often reused for different films. For instance Vivian's ocean liner cabin was used in 1933 in 'Baby Face'. Similarly the scenes of frenzy caused by the enactment of Prohibition had been originally used in 1931 in 'The Public Enemy'.

There was a distinct tension and antipathy between director Mervyn LeRoy and Bette Davis. He disliked her acting and she disliked his directing, feeling that she was wasted in playing supporting roles.

An amusing aspect of the film is how it shows the passage of time by incorporating popular tunes of the era, including "The Sheik of Araby," "The Prisoner's Song," "Charleston," "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes" and "Happy Days Are Here Again."


Every performance is wonderful in Three On A Match, despite the fact that several of the stars, particularly Bette Davis, are not used to the full extent of their abilities.

Ann Dvorak was the last of the principals to be cast and her role is the most important in the film. She is at the peak of her powers and really holds the viewers' attention as the good girl accelerating into sin.

Joan Blondell is her regular smart-mouthed witty self, which gets her into the sort of difficulty she is able to escape.

The film marks the acting debut of Jack Webb of 'Dragnet' fame, as the boy in the schoolyard.

In December of 1979, co-stars Ann Dvorak and Joan Blondell would die from cancer within fifteen days of each other.

Bogart plays a cold-hearted killer, and his steady understatement makes a genuinely chilling change from the usual hammy mobsters you more often see in these movies.

From start to finish, Mervyn LeRoy tells you this tale in a manner to get your complete attention. There is no slack in the pace, no dead air, and each shot tells volumes of exposition. The final minutes of the film are unforgettable.

Main Cast

Virginia Davis ... Mary Keaton as a child
Joan Blondell ... Mary Keaton / Mary Bernard
Anne Shirley (credited as Dawn O'Day) ... Vivian Revere as a child
Ann Dvorak ... Vivian Revere Kirkwood
Betty Carse ... Ruth Westcott as a child
Bette Davis ... Ruth Westcott
Warren William ... Robert Kirkwood
Lyle Talbot ... Michael Loftus
Humphrey Bogart ... Harve
Allen Jenkins ... Dick
Edward Arnold ... Ace
Frankie Darro ... Bobby
Glenda Farrell ... Mrs. Black
Buster Phelps ... Robert Jr.
Grant Mitchell ... Mr. Gilmore, school principal


Director ... Mervyn LeRoy
Producer ... Samuel Bischoff, Raymond Griffith, Darryl F. Zanuck
Story by ... Kubec Glasmon, John Bright
Screenplay ... Lucien Hubbard
Cinematographer ... Sol Polito
Music ... Leo F. Forbstein, Ray Heindorf
Production Company ... First National Pictures
Distribution Company ... Warner Bros.
Running Time ... 63 minutes
Release Date ... October 29, 1932
Format ... B & W

Academy Awards

No Nominations

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