Pre-Code Corner: Oh, No You Don’t – Or Yes, You Do? Three on a Match and Kidnapping

Oh, No You Don’t – Or Yes, You Do?: Three on a Match and Kidnapping

Three on a Match (1932) doesn’t play around. The notorious pre-Code jam packs scenes featuring drunkenness, dope, illicit sex, gangsters, and suicide all within a cool 63 minutes. No sweat for the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) to handle, right? Sure, with the exception of a subplot appearing in the film’s final 10 minutes involving a kidnapping, ransom, and a subsequent child murder scheme, which morphed into a pretty big deal.

Three on a Match movie posterCan you correctly identify Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis? Neither can I. Interesting how supporting actor Warren William Robert, playing a rare congenial pre-Code role, appears largest and most menacing – and right above the match. (Fun fact: William starred as The Match King a mere two months after Three on a Match came out.)

In Three on a Match, Vivian (Ann Dvorak), Mary (Joan Blondell), and Ruth (Bette Davis) resume their friendship over a decade after parting ways. As the wife of lawyer Robert (Warren William) and mother to Junior (Buster Phelps), Vivian leads a comfortable life – during the Great Depression, no less – but there’s one problem: she’s terribly bored. Upon leaving Robert for the thrills Mike (Lyle Talbot) offers, Vivian tumbles into a life of drugs, thugs, and depravity that culminates with Junior’s abduction and ends with Vivian’s epic sacrifice to save her son’s life.

Three on a Match Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, and Ann Dvorak Who knew what luck – and tragedy – this little reunion would bring.
(Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, and Ann Dvorak )

Despite encompassing approximately 0.1666 of Three on a Match’s runtime, the kidnapping, ransom, and plot against Junior’s life, all universally touchy subjects, generated ample anxiety from the SRC for another reason: the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping dominated global headlines for months in early-mid 1932, and the grief was still etched in the public’s mind when this picture came out.

Three on a Match Buster PhelpsDirty, hungry Junior (Buster Phelps) breaking hearts with those innocent, sad puppy eyes.

Compared to the apprehension the story later provoked, Warner Brothers’ first script submission in May 1932 remarkably only elicited minor notes, mainly involving drunkenness and suggestive dialogue. Such a tepid reply was possible because no abduction angle existed in the tale – yet. That bombshell plot addition, plus the child murder conspiracy, only appeared in the finished film the SRC reviewed in August 1932. Surprise! Appalled, the SRC’s Jason Joy reprimanded Warners’ Darryl F. Zanuck and Jack Warner:

I’m at a loss what to say about it… The general impression here has been that no one would follow the Lindbergh tragedy with a picture dealing with the kidnapping of a baby for ransom. With the present fear on the part of parents… the public resentment is apt to be strongly against such a picture.

The SRC’s concern pervaded the studio, too. In late September, right after the SRC reviewed a re-edit and approved the film, something I’ve never heard of before happened: Zanuck entreated Joy to contact the New York censor board and “in a round-about way, put in a plug for ‘THREE ON A MATCH,’” as the producer sensed a hit and figured “it certainly proves that kidnapping is a very unhealthy occupation from which nothing comes but misery, grief and no reward whatsoever.”

Three on a Match Lyle Talbot  Mike (Lyle Talbot): Bad news.
Three on a Match - Buster PhelpsA child kidnapped by someone he knows – that wouldn’t terrify parents or anything. (Phelps and Talbot)

Following Zanuck’s request, Joy directed Vincent Hart in the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s (MPPDA) East Coast office to visit the New York board and promote the movie’s “fundamental moral values” in consideration of the baby snatching point. Joy insisted the industry be able to portray this and “any other subject within reason so long as the moral and legal values are rightly handled,” and in Three on a Match, right triumphs over wrong in the end as we are to assume the gang is captured – by way of Vivian’s suicide, but still.

Vivian’s descent:

Three on a Match - Ann Dvorak and Lyle Talbot Three on a Match - ann dvorakThree on a Match ann dvorak

Following Hart’s visit, the New York entity approved Three on a Match, as the kidnappers’ plot was foiled; miraculously, no other cuts were recorded. With that reaction from one of the country’s strictest boards, Warners requested Hart extend his service to Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio at the studio’s expense. In Hart’s notes from the road, he reported that the organizations promised to carefully consider the picture while also cautioning against similarly themed movies in the future. Ironically, Hart arrived in most locations before the print did, which meant that he stressed the film’s moral elements – and then it was up to the picture to do the rest of the heavy lifting.

Three on a Match Humphrey Bogart and Ann Dvorak  Gangster Harve (Humphrey Bogart) referring to one of Vivian’s rather immoral habits.

After the movie finally made its official rounds, the feedback rolled in. Joy boasted to Zanuck that Hart’s promotion resulted in Three on a Match passing the states visited with either no edits (New York, Maryland, Ohio) or minor ones unrelated to the kidnapping (Pennsylvania); in reality, Ohio’s censors excised a shot featuring a knife in the third act and dialogue alluding to the child’s death, while Pennsylvania cut an innocuous line delivered by a gangster during the film’s final scenes. Outside of Hart’s tour, Three on a Match passed Maryland, Kansas, and Virginia without a cut, while Massachusetts edited two minor items evidently too lewd for the churchgoing crowd, as they applied for Sunday screenings only.

Three on a Match - Vivian fallsMassachusetts assumed this shot of Vivian falling to her death was too ghastly for pious Sunday viewers.

Considering all the unscrupulous subjects Three on a Match covers, the fact that the film squeaked by untouched in some areas and with only miniscule edits in others is astonishing. Equally surprising to me was Zanuck’s request and Hart’s resulting personal censor board tour, proving just how ardently the SRC worked on behalf of the studios, which was their job, after all. Did the SRC’s staunch defense of the picture, in particular the kidnapping, blind the boards and allow other potential violations to slide? Who’s to say? Nevertheless, Hart’s journey also verified the SRC’s effectiveness in reducing state censor edits; I mean, what else could account for the fact that Three on a Match was approved without eliminations by New York, one of the country’s strictest boards, following Hart’s visit, while another territory recognized for its tough policies, Chicago, rejected the film outright due to the gangster, kidnapping, and murder plot points?

Three on a Match - Lyle Talbot If Mike was petrified by that blurry object on the table (the knife), surely audiences would be too. This scene was cut in some states and probably not appreciated by Chicago, either. (Lyle Talbot)

While the SRC did their best to assist Warners in getting the picture past state boards, when the Production Code Administration (PCA) opened after Code enforcement began in summer 1934, they took a different attitude and approach. In September 1936, Warners submitted a request to the PCA to reissue the film, but the office suggested they rescind their request, as the movie’s “central theme,” the kidnapping of a child, basically prohibited a re-release; as a result, the picture was shelved. That’s a far cry from Joy and Hart touting Three on a Match’s morality in lieu of the kidnapping just four years prior, wouldn’t you say?


–Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Kim’s Pre-Code Corner articles here.

Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.



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3 Responses to Pre-Code Corner: Oh, No You Don’t – Or Yes, You Do? Three on a Match and Kidnapping

  1. Billy Slobin says:

    Terrific article-thanks for sharing!

  2. David Hollingsworth says:

    I just watched Three on a Match recently, and I have to say that it was quite a revelation. So much salaciousness in a 63-minute film!

  3. HCS says:

    Buster Phelps is like a male version of Shirley Temple, he would have been perfect for Our Gang.

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