Three on a Match (1932) - full review!
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy with a story by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon (The Public Enemy (1931)) and a screenplay by Lucien Hubbard (The Star Witness (1931)), this 60+ minute drama features many of the actors and actresses who would become Warner Bros.’s biggest stars, early in their careers. The story moves so quickly, utilizing several film montages of newspaper headlines to mark the passage of time from 1919 to 1932, that many of these stars’ roles barely exceed that of a cameo appearance. Its pre-code subject matter is noteworthy though, and given the small time investment to watch it, most viewers will "leave" satisfied.
It's 1919 at public school #62: Mary Keaton (Virginia Davis; Clara Blandick, uncredited, appears briefly as her mother), the preteen that smokes with the boys, doesn't graduate, and goes to reform school, grows up to be chorus girl Mary Bernard (Joan Blondell); the school's most popular girl Vivian Revere (a young, unrecognizable Anne Shirley, as Dawn O’Day) wears pink bloomers, does better in school, and has wealthy parents that can afford to send her to the best boarding school, eventually marries a successful lawyer Robert Kirkwood (Warren William) and has a son; Ruth Wescott (Betty Carse), who graduated valedictorian, and can only afford to go to trade school, becomes a stenographer (Bette Davis). According to imdb.com, Grant Mitchell and Jack Webb both appear, uncredited. All three childhood "friends" end up meeting 9 years later (1921 is the year they left the public school) in 1930. While it appears that Vivian, who treats the other two to lunch, has done the best, her life feels empty since she's accomplished nothing on her own; her busy husband has given her everything she has. Realizing she's not happy, Kirkwood offers to take a trip with her to a foreign locale; she accepts, but only if she can "get away" from everything, including him, except their 5 year old son (Buster Phelps, uncredited).
So, Vivian and her son board a cruise ship. Kirkwood is interrupted by a message, and then called away on business before its scheduled midnight sailing time; he excuses himself with his regrets. Coincidently, Mary and a couple of her male friends are onboard to help celebrate another couple's sendoff. They run into Vivian and convince her to join them later, after her son is asleep such that he can be watched by an attendant. When she does, she gets to know Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot), one of Mary's friends, so much better that, in the span of less than 90 minutes, she decides to hurried leave the ship with him, and her son, before it sails. The newspapers report that Robert Kirkwood's wife and son are missing, and the lawyer urges the police (and hires others?) to find her. Mary soon learns where Vivian is, shacked up with Loftus, and discusses the deplorable conditions in which Vivian's son is living with Ruth. Ruth has a sister who's a widow with a young child of her own, so the two friends decide to offer Vivian a chance to let them take care of her son. When Vivian refuses Mary's offer, she goes to Kirkwood such that the boy is rescued from a near passed out Vivian.
After many months, with both Vivian's and Ruth's assistance, things are back to normal for Kirkwood's boy such that he's fallen in love with Vivian, whom he marries, and hires Ruth as his son's nanny. A destitute Vivian (later, it becomes even more clear that she's addicted to drugs) approaches the recently wed Mary when she exits the beauty parlor and asks her for money; Mary gives them all she has, $80. Vivian and Loftus have pawned her jewelry and the $80 isn't enough to satisfy the $2,000 debt he owes a loan shark named Ace (Edward Arnold). Ace, with heavies Harve (Humphrey Bogart), Dick (Allen Jenkins), and another (Jack La Rue, uncredited) threatens Loftus that he has to pay or else. Desperate, Loftus uses an assumed name and goes to Kirkwood, threatening to expose Mary's reform school past to the press. Kirkwood says that no newspaper would print the libelous story but, if one should, he'll break every bone in "Loftus’s" body. As Loftus is leaving Kirkwood's office, he notices Ruth bringing the lawyer's son into the office. So, he hatches a plan to kidnap the boy, intending on ransoming him for the $2,000 he owes Ace.
*** SPOILERS ***
Vivian is horrified when Loftus returns to their squalid apartment with her son, but not as much as she is when Harve (and company) knocks on the door and takes over the operation. Having heard of the kidnapping on a police radio, Ace figures Kirkwood's boy is worth a lot more than $2,000 and ransoms him for $25,000 instead. However, the police have a pretty good idea, because of witnesses, where the boy is being held. So, as the search gets closer and closer to the apartment, the hoods get desperate. Loftus is killed because he won't kill the boy. Vivian "comes to" in time to realize what is going on, so she hides the boy under her bed. She then writes a message using lipstick on her dress as to the location (4th floor) of the Kirkwood boy. When La Rue’s character enters the room, she jumps out the window to her death. Presumably the bad guys are caught, and the boy is rescued, because the last scene has the two remaining childhood friends sharing a match to light their cigarettes.