Three schoolgirls cross paths when one leaves her husband and another marries him, resulting in a tragic kidnapping.
In 1921 three girlfriends graduate from Public School 62. Four years later the rebellious Mary finds herself unhappy in one of the crowded reform schools; Vivian is still popular in a school for young ladies; and Ruth is in a business school. In 1930 a newspaper notes that the saying "Three on a match means one will die soon" may not have arisen from soldiers in the world war, who did not want to attract enemy fire, but from the match owner, who wanted to sell more matches. The beauty shop business is up to $2 billion a year. Mary (Joan Blondell) is a chorus girl and meets Vivian (Ann Dvorak), who is married to a prominent lawyer and has a son. Ruth (Bette Davis) is working as a secretary. Vivian tells her husband Bob (Warren William) she is not happy. She decides to go to Europe with their son.
At the ship's send-off party Vivian meets Mary and is introduced to Mike Loftus (Lyle Talbot). When the ship sailed, Vivian and her son disappeared; her husband Bob believes she is hiding. Vivian changes her name and won't let the boy outside as she drinks and parties with Mike. Mary and Ruth are worried, and Mary asks Vivian if the boy could live with Ruth. Mary tells Bob where Vivian is, and he takes the boy home.
In 1931 newspapers foresee a world war over the Japan-China conflict. Mary and Ruth are playing with the boy at the beach, and divorced Bob asks Mary to marry him. On the street Vivian asks Mary for money; she then gives the $80 to Mike. Harvey (Humphrey Bogart) tells Mike his check to Ace bounced. Mike gives Ace the $80 but still owes nearly $2,000. Mike asks Bob for $2,000 and threatens to tell the press of Mary's larceny record. Bob knows the law and tells him to leave. While Ruth is reading and the boy is playing with a toy boat, Mike takes him to see his mother. The alcoholic Vivian is surprised to see her son. Harvey and his gang come in and decide to ask for $25,000 for the kid. Later Harvey reports that there are cops all around. He tells Mike he must kill the kid so they can escape; but Mike refuses. Vivian tells her boy to hide, writes with lipstick where he is, and jumps out the window to her death. In the final scene Mary and Ruth light their cigarettes from the same match.
This story shows how people can change. After reform school Mary rises from a chorus girl to become a lawyer's wife and a responsible stepmother, while the popular Vivian degenerates into debauchery and alcoholism. Yet she nobly throws her life away to save her child. How many people died from the cigarettes tobacco companies gave to soldiers in the war, which greatly stimulated the smoking habit?