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24 July 2018

Three On a Match: One of the All-Time Classic Pre-Codes

Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, and Ann Dvorak, school friends who meet again

In an effort to escape daily history in the making, I’ve been rewatching some of the classic films of the Depression era, from Safe In Hell to Law and Order to The Petrified Forest. Of course, most of these didn’t think they were classics; they were produced as popular entertainment with stories ripped from the headlines. In those times, ordinary people lived with the very real danger of losing everything, as well as well-founded fear of gang violence erupting in the streets. Films of this era also celebrated features of American life that were later swept under the rug, like ethnicity, cities, and, of course, sex. But occasionally the combination of script, cast, and director produced a really superior movie. And this is certainly one of them.

The story opens with scenes of the three female protagonists during their school days, punctuated by songs and news headlines from the past that would remind audiences of their own childhoods. Vivian, the pretty, snooty one grows up to be Ann Dvorak; Mary, the adventurous, rule-breaking one becomes Joan Blondell; Ruth, the studious one, Bette Davis. After going their separate ways, they meet again by chance as young women. Their stories entwine, and we follow each one.

As always, director Mervyn le Roy gets subtle, intelligent, affecting performances from his actors. Fine performances are practically a hallmark of a le Roy picture. This includes supporting players; Lyle Talbot, for example, was a usually a useful second lead, but here, as a dissolute playboy with a gambling problem, he is terrific. His terror and shame as he gets in way over his head with a bunch of gangsters are harrowing. The cold-eyed, brutal gangsters include Edward Arnold, Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins, and Jack La Rue, all of them extremely scary.
Watching the film, you  get so involved that you don't notice it, but the way the story is told is interesting and unusual. The various characters go to jail, repent, fall in love, get married, have a child, commit adultery, get divorced, take to drink, remarry – and you don’t see any of these events. You infer what has happened from the scenes you do see.
Warren William and Joan Blondell

The most startling development has Ann Dvorak’s character, Vivian, beautiful, rich, and pampered, leave her loving husband (Warren William) out of boredom  begin a downward spiral that ends in a drink and drug fueled crackup. And there is no doubt whatsoever that she has been sniffing cocaine. (Later the code would explicitly ban all mention of drug abuse, as well as drunkenness -- in women.)
Unlike some pre-code films which veer into simple sensationalism, this builds into a swift, compelling drama, conveying quite complicated plot developments clearly and logically.The story, which has Vivian’s child being snatched by the gangsters, was frighteningly resonant with contemporary audiences because the tragic kidnapping of the only son of aviator Charles Lindberg happened just a few months before.
Ann Dvorak faces the worst

There's a reason most of the iconic pre-codes, including this, Safe in Hell, Midnight Mary, Night Nurse, Baby Face, and so many others, are female-based stories, In real life, women faced the danger of sexual violence every day, and these films show this with great frankness. But this fact of life that was too difficult for the forces of convention, as embodied in the censorship authorities, to face. As films disappeared into a fairyland of middle-class blandness, this reality too was made to disappear.

Anyone who wants to understand what "pre-code" means, or why these movies are so valued, should see Three On a Match. 

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