Three on a Match, Ann Dvorak’s crowning achievement

Three on a Match a 1932 Warner Bros film directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis. The film captures very astutely the societal structures of American people as well as detailing with great precision the female stereotypes in Hollywood. The film narrative follows the destinies of three women, from their young school years through to their adult lives, marked by the compulsory pre-Code ‘motifs’ “sex, drugs, booze, skin, kidnapping, suicide”[1], all leading up to  a moralistic denouement, befitting a 1930s audience. The three main characters of Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak), Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell) and Ruth Westcott (Bette Davis) are symbolic signs of certain types of women – stereotypes. Before we begin our analysis, a special mention of the latter stereotype must be made – Ruth. She isn’t given enough screen time for her character to become more fleshed out, thus leaving her portrayal somewhat two-dimensional. She serves as a filler between the two main driving forces in the story: Vivian and Mary. The actress portraying Ruth would go on to become one of the strongest symbols of both feminism, femininity and strength in the history of Hollywood cinema- Bette Davis. 1930s audiences would have to wait until 1934 and Of Human Bondage to catch a glimpse of the talent, ferocity and passion that made Bette Davis one of the most respected and adored character actresses of all time.

Judging by the main performances in Three on a Match, it was Ann Dvorak’s fierceness that stood out. Her offscreen story of ‘chorus girl hitting the jackpot’ enflamed the audiences’ imagination of 1932.

The title of the film, Three on a Match, comes from an advertising slogan thought up by the Swedish match king Ivar Kreuger, aimed at selling more matches. A newspaper clipping shown onscreen reads: “The saying “Three on a match means one will die soon” did not originate in the war, where it was said that to hold a match burning long enough for three lights would attract enemy gun fire. It did originate with Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish match king, who wanted the world to use more matches. It is reported that the saying brings his companies $5,000,000 more revenue annually.” Here, mythology mingles with advertising and superstition to illustrate the negative effects of psychology over the human psyche. Although Vivian doesn’t believe the superstition with regards to the matches, she is the one falling victim to it, as she is the last one to light up her cigarette from the same match as Mary and Ruth. Thus, the issue of agency is raised, suggesting that Vivian was never in charge of her own destiny, but swept along by circumstance. Her lack of agency notwithstanding, she does abandon her husband and young son, with terrible consequences.

Both Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak are used as signifiers for a female dominated audience, appearing in magazines to promote not only their films but also a certain lifestyle.

Women of the 1930s were invited to identify themselves with the female characters they see on screen. More so, they were also invited to aspire to the glamour the actresses exuded offscreen. The boundaries between the character and the actor are somewhat blurred, which leads to the majority of the female audience dreaming of a Cinderella story of their own, considering that most of the female audience in the early 1930s were suffering under Depression and were looking for a form of escapism, which the cinema provided. This would eventually backfire and lead to heavy censoring codes, as psychologists and censors all accused the studios of having a responsibility towards the impressionable minds of the young filmgoers.

Joan Blondell in a publicity still for Three on a Match

The story in Three on a Match starts in 1919. Through the use of montage of several newspaper clippings, we are given context of the times: we are first introduced to the Dry Law that marks the start of Prohibition, followed by another piece of news regarding women’s fashions of 1919. This states that the hems of the dresses have gone up in almost scandalous fashion. The image of a newspaper headline reading “Woman Suffrage passes Congress!” informs the reader that women have finally been given the right to vote. This is followed by a male oriented headline regarding a boxing match result. From the very beginning of the film, we are given the impression that the narrative is attempting a balancing act between the male and female signs, whilst giving the viewer context for the story. Women are entering a world of change, in which they are allowed freedoms without precedent. We are introduced to the ideologies structuring the society of the Three on a Match reality, and we are being presented these in a non-cinematic way – the newspaper clipping. This points to a seemingly volitional intertextual approach on the part of the director, which acts as exposition and conduit throughout the film.

Mary Keaton and Vivian Revere are our main characters. They are both school age now and the differences between them are striking, as suggested by the most obvious initial sign: Mary is wearing black bloomers (underwear) and she’s not afraid to show them to boys. Vivian is showing outrage at the sight. When asked by a boy, Vivian states proudly that her bloomers are pink. This marks the start of the intertwined trajectories of the two girls. The signifier to the colour black is “sinful, indecent, lustful”, while pink signifies “innocence, virtue, purity”. As we fast forward in time and are presented to the adult versions of the same two characters, the signifiers change significantly: albeit in a reform school, which is the mark of the fallen woman, Mary is listening to a virtuous song about heaven. As her and the other inmates are being sent to bed, we see them climbing the stairs slowly, in long rows, like angels ascending into heaven just as the mournful atoning song is heard on the piano. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Vivian, who although is seen in an all-girls boarding school, the mark of respectability, she is heard reading from a salacious book: “his powerful arms crushed her to him. And then suddenly she went limp with submission and her mouth melted into his. She was lost in a fever of pain and pleasure”[2]

Mary fantasises about a better life, like the one Vivian seems to have. Vivian, in turn, fantasises about the one thing she seems to be missing – passion and adventure, having lived under the constraints of respectability for too long. Mary, having already lived out her adventures, soon outgrows her loose morals. She is now ready to be a good woman and settle down. Vivian is weighed down by the maturity of her school years and fantasises of escaping her life of conventions in favour of great passions and adventures. The balance starts to shift as soon as Vivian starts to do the wrong thing and Mary starts to do the right thing. Each of the two women has reached a point when they envy each other’s lives. Just before they meet as adults, Mary asks (about Vivian): is she still pretty?” indicating at least some form of remnant jealousy. As soon as they meet, Vivian finds herself jealous of Mary’s independence and courage. Throughout the film the two women are at the polar opposite of each other, and, surprisingly enough for a film of the era, there is no major conflict between them where there is a man involved, despite the fact that Mary ends up marrying Vivian’s discarded husband (played by the ever suave Warren William). All inherent jealousies and fantasies of each other’s life are connected to their psyche and lifelong desires. The one thing they have in common is their femininity as defined by 1930s standards.

Joan Blondell at the beauty parlour

The beauty salon provides the catalyst for what is to unravel, as the two main characters are reacquainted under its roof. It isn’t before long that both Vivian and Mary express their envy for each other: Vivian envies Mary’s independence and courage while Mary envies Vivian’s “kitty car with the Russian Grand Duke for a chauffeur”. The usual trope of the poor little rich girl who has everything but isn’t happy is quite apparent. At the same time the concept of luck is raised in a rather sinister way, considering Vivian was the one who lit her cigarette last. If the superstition is to be believed, she will be the first one to die. However, this theory would absolve her of any agency and thus of any responsibility she might have of her own destiny.

The entire trajectory of Vivian’s story may serve as a cautionary tale of the fallen woman, who gives up her family in favour of a debauched life. She must pay the price for her folly with her own life. At the same time, the film raises the issue of hidden depression and anxiety. Vivian has followed the rules her whole life. She was pretty, popular and wealthy. Despite that, she isn’t happy. She confesses that she believes herself inherently different from other women, which indicates to individualism. Following the natural path of things, getting engaged, getting married, having children doesn’t satisfy Vivian. She craves for independence, but she lacks the courage to take her destiny into her own hands. The film hints at the idea that every woman’s individual needs and wants are different, but it fails to embrace it fully, bailing out at the last minute. Mary has “been in the port for repairs every now and then”, meaning that she’s paid for her sin of being uncompromising, and the film doesn’t require her to make the ultimate sacrifice in the search for her own peace of mind, because she hasn’t committed a sin against sacred the institution of marriage.

Vivian (Dvorak), against her friend Mary’s advice, chooses lover Mike and a life of debauchery over family life

To a certain extent, all three women fight against their already established labels and stereotypes. However, Ruth, despite being the cleverest of her class (we are told she graduates valedictorian with the highest grades ever achieved in school) can only find work as a stenographer. As she becomes attached to Mary and Mary’s new family (Vivian’s former family), Ruth discovers she enjoys spending time with Junior, Vivian’s son; her inclinations as a governess are now revealed and her character arc is complete. If that’s the best the best can be, what is there left for the rest of the women? Mary, who has served her time, paid for her sins and learned her lessons, wins the jackpot. Hers is a true Cinderella story that audiences of 1930s crave for, as she meets and falls in love with Vivian’s ‘discarded’ husband. For Depression era audiences, the possibility of a rags to riches story is the main reason they went to the movies in the first place, so to see a chorus girl win the affections of a rich, educated and handsome man was, even if implausible (as deemed by the reviews of the time), enough escapism and enough entertainment.

Vivian’s is the most complex story and, for the censors of the time, the most misunderstood. Her sheltered life of appearances causes her unhappiness and even depression. They are all temporarily cured by alcoholism and drug addiction, but the cause of her inherent unhappiness isn’t fully explored. On the contrary, it is dismissed in an almost Victorian fashion by her husband who jokes that he “might try beating [her] every morning before breakfast.”

What makes Three on a Match different from most of the Pre-Code films is the surprising fact that it wasn’t censored as much as the other films. Research among the correspondence between the studio executives and the censors suggests that the censors were quite satisfied with the script, notably the ending and that they were ready to accept any moral transgressions during the film, as long as they were not condoned at the end. For instance, there is overt indication that Vivian becomes addicted to cocaine when we see her touch her nose repeatedly. Even one of the minor characters, played by a very young Humphrey Bogart, notices the gesture and makes fun of it. It is a subtle nod to an adult audience, which a younger audience might miss. Thus, even as early as 1930, a subtle gesture filled with meaning will serve as important character defining device: we now know that Vivian has descended into a life of drugs from which it will be difficult to find the way back to light and redemption. Complicating things is her lover Mike, who kidnaps her son from his father in order to get the money he owes to a group of murderous gangsters.

Ann Dvorak as Vivian, descending into a life of addiction

But find her way back she does and through a last act of humanity, directed by maternal instinct mixed with desperation and remorse, she sacrifices her life for that of her child by jumping out of the window and revealing to the police the whereabouts of the gangsters turned kidnappers. This ending seems to go down well with the censors, as one of them, Jason Joy, head of the Production Code Administration exclaimed: “In this case, the kidnappers come to grief. They can’t get away with it! And it seems to me there is clearly presented a moral to the effect that kidnapping is one business the American people will rise, as one man, to overthrow.”[3] This comment was in relation to the recent real life kidnapping (and subsequent murder) of the Lindberg baby. Touching on the concept of fantasy and the blurring of lines between the real and make-believe, it is striking to see how punishing the fictional villains serves as a satisfactory conclusion for an audience looking for an outlet of their grief for the Lindberg baby murder. The real murderers couldn’t be apprehended, but at least the make-belief ones could.

Vivian (Dvorak), tries to save her young son from the murderous clutches of Harve (Bogart)

Gillian Rose states in her book Visual Methodologies: “if women are indeed often represented as smooth surfaces on display for a male gaze, fetishisation might not be the only way to interpret that representation. Perhaps the smooth surface does not hide something horrible, does not conceal a castrated body. Perhaps it hides something else. Or perhaps it is simply that: a surface that hides nothing – a masquerade.” Rose then utilises the work of psychoanalyst Joan Riviere to reinforce her argument with regards to cinematic views on feminism and femininity. “Femininity can be seen as a mask, a masquerade, performed by mimicking what being a woman is meant to be about. Femininity might be thought of as ‘a decorative layer which conceals a non-identity’ (Doane, 1982:81)”[4]

Using Three on a Match as case study, one can find examples of masquerade in the character of Vivian, who is a woman only on the surface. She herself confesses to her friends that she feels unhappy, “left cold” by those things which would normally bring joy to any ‘normal’ woman. She has lived her life according to a set of rules imposed on her from the outside, forcing her to present herself in a certain way so that she could continue to be seen in that way. The security of the familiar and known had been her driving force. She is a show woman, who ceases to play the masquerade as soon as she finds, or believes she’s found, someone who will look at her differently from all the other ways she’s been looked at before. However, not being a real woman, not having the real experience of life Mary has had, she falls prey to the male gaze of her new lover, Mike. It is also in this scene that the director Mervyn LeRoy uses close-ups in abundance, signifying the male gaze that becomes of paramount importance for Vivian. She is now ready to abandon the security of the familiar and venture in the unknown.

Vivian finds passion in the arms of a stranger

One can identify a reading of the film in relation to the Gaze theory as written by Lacan and Bryson. In Three on a Match, it is Mary who aims to be seen the way she intends to, and more importantly, seen by Vivian, her old school rival. This isn’t a sexualised male on female gaze, but a desexualised female by female gaze. The chance meeting at the beauty parlour marks the first time Mary is, albeit briefly, part of Vivian’s class. The two women aren’t seen together during their beautifying phase, but after. They may even look at each other with envy, as suggested by the question Mary asks one of the beauticians, just before she meets Vivian: “Is she still pretty?” Later, at the reunion lunch, Mary is happy to pick up the check, sign that her newfound, temporary status as a chorus girl allows her to be extravagant. It also indicates a need to show off on her part. Gillian Rose quotes Kaja Silverman to reinforce the idea that the Gaze is not exclusively ‘woman as image, man as bearer of the look’. She goes further to state that “the Gaze allows a greater range of ways of seeing to become possible, some of which may work against the cultural construction of some visualised identities as inferior.”[5]

A powerful performance by Ann Dvorak

Matthew Kennedy, in his biography on Joan Blondell, makes a poignant observation on the film’s ending “The idiom-filled dialogue had forward momentum and gutter-inspired realism. With its uncompromising conclusion, Three on a Match became a primal scream against the injustices visited upon women.”[7] There is only redemption in death for Vivian, whose transgressions are too unfathomable to be forgiven by a 1930s audience, who think that, with her death, justice has been served. She had committed a sin against the institution of marriage and, worse still, against her own sacred status as a mother. The psychological details of her character, that a 21st century audience might find plausible enough to justify her, if not excuse her, were almost inexistent at the time. Fortunately for contemporary gender studies scholars and film historians, Three on a Match exists to offer a perspective on the real and imagined struggles, battles and successes of a 1930s woman.


[1] Rice, Christina – Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s forgotten rebel, The University Press of Kentucky (2013), p 83

[2] Three on a Match (dir. Mervyn LeRoy) min: 12:00

[3] Jason S. Joy to Vincent Hart, September 2, 1932, Three on a Match file, Production Code Administration papers, MPAA Collection, Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills.

[4] Rose, Gillian – Visual Methodologies, Sage Publisher (2016), p 166

[5] Rose, Gillian – Visual Methodologies, Sage Publisher (2016), p 172

[6] Ibid, p 173

[7] Kennedy, Matthew. (2007.) Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes. University of Mississippi Press: Jackson, MS.

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