Saturday, February 21, 2009

Movies: Three on a Match

Brutal! Movies from the thirties (this one from 1932) always make me wonder why they don’t make them like they used to—lurid, cruel, and unapologetically cautionary. In only three minutes over an hour, Joan Blondell, Betty Davis, and Ann Dvorak grow from their eighth grade classroom (where their destinies are already pre-determined—the flirt will grow up to be a showgirl, the valedictorian a secretary, and the popular beauty the wife of a rich lawyer), to adults on a roller coaster ride.

The beauty, bored with her husband and three year old boy, runs off with a no-good man and is quickly on skid row, dark circles under her eyes from an unfed cocaine addiction (we never see any powder, just her raving and a few twitches of the nose). Her concerned girlfriends divulge her whereabouts to her husband, only so that he can rescue his son. In gratitude, the wealthy lawyer marries the showgirl the day his divorce is finalized, and gives the secretary the job of governess.

When the no good lover needs more money for her habit and to pay off debts to a gangster (whose right-hand man is a young Humphrey Bogart), he kidnaps the toddler for ransom. Smelling a profit bigger than two grand, the gangsters take over, and try to kill the boy when the heat comes. To save her son, the socialite, who had never been satisfied with life anyway, jumps out the window, a message about the boy’s whereabouts scrawled on the front of her dress in lipstick.

Because of time (or budget?) constraints, the movie marks the passage of thirteen years with newspaper headlines, on everything from the optimism on Wall Street (ha) to the shortening length of dresses to the explanation that the old saying “Three on a match means one will soon be dead” did not originate in war (where a match lit long enough to light three cigarettes could provide too good a target for enemy gunfire) but from a manufacturer of matches, who enjoyed increased profits when more matches were used. But the film’s closing scene rings ominously: the two remaining girls share a match to smoke in front of their mansion’s fireplace; the third, who shared that match at a reunion luncheon just a few years ago, is now dead.

Particularly in these times, it’s good to see the ungratefully wealthy go punished onscreen, and it must have been even more delicious for audiences in the 1930s.

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