Three On a Match (1932) ***


I don't know if you're familiar with Apocalypse Now, but it's basically about some prat going up a river, and meeting up with an even bigger prat, and it takes him about three hours to get there and then there's another half hour of yap when he does.
If there's one big negative distinction to be drawn between Hollywood films made under the studio system and those made afterwards, it's that the later ones tend to be more self-indulgent, because there is no objective overall control, and they often make a fetish of overlength. They are not all as megalomaniacally tedious as Apocalypse Now, of course, but the ability to keep a film whip-tight, with not an ounce of superfluous fat, was probably the hardest to achieve of all the skills that golden age cinema made look so easy.
Case in point: Three On a Match.

In roughly the time Martin Sheen spends moping about in his hotel room before we even find out what he's going to spend the rest of the film ostensibly doing, Three On a Match takes us through some twenty odd years of American social history, interspersed with the stories of three women whose lives we follow from school-age to adulthood.
In scenes that play as vivid thumbnail sketches we learn everything we need to know about the three girls, so that when the contemporary drama itself begins (ie: about ten minutes in) we already feel we know them and are interested in how their lives unfold.
One of them (Blondell) is sent to reform school and ends up a Broadway chorine, the most popular (Dvorak) marries money and enjoys every imaginable luxury, while the most grounded (Davis) is a hard-working stenographer.
Catching up on old times after the three re-encounter each other accidentally, Dvorak reveals that she is deeply unsatisfied by her seemingly perfect existence, and leaps at the opportunity Blondell's Broadway friends provide to run away with her young child in tow.

The left turn the film then takes remains shocking today.
Dvorak wallows in dissipation and eventually becomes a drug addict, allowing her child to live in neglect and squalor; Blondell helps her husband regain the child, then marries him after he is divorced from Dvorak; Dvorak's feckless boyfriend becomes heavily indebted to a gang boss and hits on the scheme of kidnapping the child and holding it to ransom, but the scheme, overseen by an especially sleazy Bogart, goes awry and it is decided the child has to be killed.
Whereupon Dvorak, physically wasted and with nothing left to live for but her son, writes the location where he is being held on her body with lipstick, and leaps to her death from the window.
That's still enough to silence almost any audience: an incredible example of what Hollywood movies were like before the Hays Code. For years it was forgotten that they ever made movies like this; now that the pre-Code era is again popular among critics and film enthusiasts, Three On a Match is again being recognised as one of the quintessential products of this uniquely free, imaginative but above all creative era of American film-making.
In particular, it has helped in the re-evaluation of Dvorak, an actress who seemed lost in the Code era, as if made to articulate the narratives that only pre-Code allowed. In this film she gives one of the most intense and vivid performances to be found anywhere in a Hollywood movie.

Of course, it's fairly obvious that what we really have here is a rather longer film, pared down to its absolute essentials in post-production.
Blondell seems to be the main character in the prologue, but the seemingly lesser character played by Dvorak takes over in the narrative proper, while in both sections Davis's character is sketched only vaguely. And while it would be interesting to take a little longer over certain scenes and see a little more of some of the characters - because it's all so very, very good - ultimately I wouldn't change a thing. It's as an example of the extraordinary narrative concision of which Hollywood film-makers were once capable that the film is perhaps most striking.
It's almost impossible to believe just how much it crams into a running time that is, though you may find it hard to believe, 64 minutes.