What I love and why I love it -- mainly classic stars and movies of the golden age. Backstories, links, sidelights -- details like these increase your enjoyment of classic films. What do they say to us now? Who were we then, and how did we solve our problems? What did we believe -- and what have we forgotten?
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.
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.
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.)
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.