I wish I could put into words how I feel about old movies from the 1930s. I wish I could understand why I love them. I didn’t live through that era like my parents, not being born until 1951. I grew up with black and white television and reruns of old films were a staple of TV stations back then, so that’s how I got hooked. Millions of my fellow baby boomers growing up at the same time never learned to enjoy these films.
So why did I? I think it has something to do with staying up late and watching them in the dark, with their flickering black and white light creating a strange alternate reality that imprinted on my mind. I like to watch them best now late at night, when my mind is half dreamy, when they put me in a trance.
Last night I watched Three on a Match, a film I’ve seen before. This DVD I got from Netflix is part of a collection called Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 2, a series that focuses on pre-code films (before hard censorship in 1934). A good book that introduces that era is Sins in Soft Focus by Mark A. Vieira. Many of the great pre-code films deal with feminist issues, and Three on a Match is one of them, even though it’s ending completely supports the status quo.
I think the best of modern movies are better made, better written, better acted than the old shows from the 1930s, but my soul resonates with the old black and white films. Three on a Match is not a great movie, and most young people if they did watch it, would find it strange and clunky, if not silly and laughable. For me, Three on a Match oozes history, both about life in America before 1932, and tinsel town.
What the moral police wanted back then, was to censor Hollywood from showing strong willed women. The kind of women who wanted their own careers, or ones that wanted to explore their sexuality or escape the bondage of marriage, motherhood and even morality. Three on a Match is actually a slight film, only 64 minutes, and much of that is filled with filler and back story. Young Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart have minor roles in this film, but story is about Vivian Kirkwood, played by Ann Dvorak, who is little remembered today.
Vivian Kirkwood does well in school, marries a rich New York lawyer, and has a child, but is bored. In the scene pictured above she runs into two old friends from school. The Bette Davis and Joan Blondell characters envy Vivian’s success and can’t understand why she’s not happy. The flaw in this film is the audience is not shown why she’s unhappy. We are given in a few short scenes where Vivian avoids her husband, especially his touch, and shows little interest in her son. I wanted much more. Maybe real explanations were too explicit even for pre-code Hollywood.
Mrs. Kirkwood asks her husband, a slightly older man played by Warren William, if she can go off on a vacation without him. William, another forgotten star, is wise enough to indulge his wife. He hates to see her take his son, who he dotes on, but feels the kid belongs with his mom, and assumes the mom is less likely to go running around if she has the kid. He was wrong. Three hours after her husband leaves her, Vivian takes up with low life Michael Loftus, nicely played by Lyle Talbot. Everything happens way too fast in this movie.
The movie is too short, but well illustrated by a few key scenes. Vivian gets caught up in parties, drinking, and even cocaine if you catch a gesture that Humphrey Bogart makes. Ultimately, Vivian comes to a tragic, but heroic end.
I wished the movie had been twice as long so we could have gotten deeper into Vivian’s head. What made her so unhappy with riches, marriage and motherhood? What drove her to risk everything? We know the subject all too well, because we see it happening to young women today, with modern films telling the same story far more explicitly, depicting girls taking a walk on the wild side, but are today’s films any better at explaining why?
Personally, I think Bette Davis or even Joan Blondell could have played Vivian Kirkwood better. Ann Dvorak does a good job, but she doesn’t look the part. Ann Dvorak looks more suited to play the Joan Blondell part, and we know Bette Davis had the personality for the role.
Even though this film was slight, it was delicious. I almost feel like watching it again tonight, to savor the beautiful black and white cinematography and to study all the character actors, but I’ve got to watch the end of Lost tonight.
I’ve leave you with this clip that mostly shows the back story, but it has many fascinating news reel clips – especially notice the two girls dancing, something that couldn’t be shown after the code was enforced. There is practically nothing in this clip that deals with the heart of this film, so don’t judge Three on a Match by it. It’s design to showcase the music, and uses extra content from the film for imagery.
JWH – 5/23/10