British Cinema – Jessie Matthews.

Einar Nerman's  original drawing of Jessie.
On the 20th May 2007 the RBC Film Theatre in Dumfries showed two films from the 1930s both were directed by Victor Saville and starred Jessie Matthews.  These films were being shown to celebrate the centenary of Jessie’s birth and followed a retrospective at the National Film Theatre in London in March.

Jessie cir. 1931.

First on the RBC’s programme was Its Love Again in which Jessie plays a chorus girl, Elaine Bradford who poses as a fabulous but non-existent socialite invented by a gossip columnist.  Robert Young was brought over from America to co-star. The film successfully opened at the Roxy, New York on the 22nd May 1936 in advance of the London Tivoli on the 31st August 1936 and went on general release on the 12th October the same year. Check out this clip: Slipping Through My Fingers.

Its Love Again (1936) with Robert Young and Sonny Hale.

The main feature that afternoon was Jessie’s most famous musical Evergreen. Based on the play by Benn W Levy and with music by Rodgers and Hart the movie was set in London in 1904 and 1934. It’s the story of a young actress who masquerades as her long dead mother, a famous music hall star. Jessie played both the mother Harriet Green and the daughter Harriet Hawks. The film originally opened at the New Gallery, London on the 7th June 1934 and went on general release on the 10th September 1934. It was in this wonderful movie that Jessie performs what is probable her best dance sequence,  Dancing on the Ceiling.
Evergreen (1936)

Jessie Matthews was born in a room above a butcher's shop in Berwick Street Market, in Soho London, in 1907, seventh of a family of eleven children.[1]  She died 74 years later in 1981 of cancer in a west London hospital - St Vincent’s.  Her ashes did lie in an unmarked grave in a churchyard in Ruislip West London, but thankfully there has been a plaque erected to mark the grave.

Evergreen (1936) My favourite picture of Jessie.

Jessie's natural talent for dancing and singing became apparent at a very early age to her elder sister Rose who was to become her mentor; her chaperone, manager and even dressmaker; it was Rose, whose belief in Jessie's unique talent was really responsible for what was to develop into a sensational career. 

Evergreen (1936) .
Jessie first appeared on the stage at the age of 12 at the Metropolitan Music Hall in the Edgware Road as a child dancer in the pantomime Bluebell in Fairyland produced by Seymour Hicks.  After four years of pantomime and Terry's Juveniles, her next big chance came in 1923 at the age of 16 in an Irving Berlin revue produced by Charles B. Cochran, in which she did a solo dance number. In the same year appearing in London Calling, a revue written by Noel Coward and produced by the legendary impresario Andre Charlot who took Jessie to New York where she made her first appearance at the Times Square Theatre appearing in his Revue of 1924 and during the tour of this production in Toronto its leading lady Gertrude Lawrence fell ill, allowing Jessie, who was her understudy and still only 17, to became leading lady.

Gaumont-British  publicity shot.
Many appearances in the theatre and small parts in silent films followed reaching the pinnacle of her stage career in 1930 appearing at the Adelphi Theatre in C B Cochran’s production of Ever Green[2] earning the vast sum of £250 per week. Following this Jessie appeared in her first talkie Out Of The Blue in 1931: her film career had begun.

Jessie was famous for her high kicks.
In 1932 Michael Balcon, gave Jessie her first starring role in a film called There Goes The Bride.  It was un-memorable but Jessie's performance so impressed Balcon that later he went on to produce a further seven of her films and then with Victor Seville’s directing, she made her breakthrough film performance as Susie Dean in Priestley’s The Good Companions.

Her best films followed, all directed by Victor Saville, Friday The Thirteenth 1933, Evergreen 1934, First A Girl 1935, Its Love Again 1936 were all made at the Gaumont-British Studios at Shepherds Bush. She became an International Box Office Star and the only British artiste to be in the top six Box Office earners in the thirties.  This was the very peak of her career, Britain's most glamorous star and Gaumont's most valuable asset.  So much so that Gaumont refused to release her from her contract to go to Hollywood where she could have starred with Fred Astaire.  Had that happened, Jessie's career would have taken a completely different turn. 

First A Girl (1935)
But this period before the Second World War also saw Jessie falling prey to the mental illness that was to affect her intermittently, and disastrously for the rest of her life, making her final screen appearance in 1958 in an MGM comedy Tom Thumb, which was made at Elstree. 

Another publicity shot.
In 1960 Jessie returned to England from her home in Australia where she had lived and worked, running a dancing school since 1958, always needing to work she toured in rep. In 1963, completely by chance a new identity was found - Mrs Dale on BBC Radio.  For six years she was happy in a part that was a household name right across the country. By the early 1970’s she had became a dramatic actress of considerable ability, which culminated in some of the finest theatre performances of her career, critically acclaimed for The Killing of Sister George, Night Must Fall and The Circle.  The high point at this period was her appearance in A Talent To Amuse, the tribute to Noel Coward on his seventieth birthday at the Phoenix, at which she received a standing ovation.  Jessie Matthews received an OBE in 1970.

In 1979 an operation at University College Hospital confirmed cancer, after this she never worked again.  She died in St Vincent’s Hospital in Pinner in 1981. Jessie Matthews lived a full, and - many would say - a lucky, life, brilliant and talented she never stopped working from the age of 12 until her seventies, belonging to an age that was not quite as innocence as it looked. 

Jessie as serene as ever in the 1970's
Jessie was one of the finest performers this country has ever produced, a legend in her own time winning the hearts of millions around the world and yet her incredible peaks were always tinged with tragedy.   ‘The Dancing Divinity’ that moved millions, was always the ordinary little girl from Soho.

The Films.

The Good Companions 1933 UK.

The Victor Saville directed adaptation of J B Priestley's novel The Good Companions (1933) is one of my own personnel favourite Jessie Matthews movies and the one that made her an international star. Saville knew how to bring the best out of the British star and went on to direct her in such classics as Evergreen (1934), First a Girl (1935) and Its Love Again (1936). In Good Companions Jessie shares the bill with a great cast, which includes the award winning John Gielgud, who was knighted in 1953, Edmund Gwenn and the Welsh actress Mary Glenne. Also seen in this film is a first role in a feature film for Max Miller and early roles for Jack Hawkins and Finlay Currie.

Jessie plays Susie Dean a member of a failing concert party called the Dinky Doos and dreams of stardom. The story is about the rescue of this touring troupe by three widely differing people. The first is a joiner from Yorkshire Jess Oakroyd (Gwenn) who has lost his job for complaining about unfair working practices, another is a middle-aged spinster from the West Country Miss Elisabeth Trant (Glenne) who yearns for adventure and agrees to finance the theatrical company. The third member of the rescue squad is a disillusioned music teacher Inigo Jollifant (Gielgud) who can not only play but can write some canny musical tunes and words.
Jessie with John Gielgud.

Originally there was a problem casting the role of Susie Dean. Ten weeks had already been devoted to condensing Priestly's novel into script form and £2000 had been spent on 30000 feet of film stock and they had still not chosen who was to play Dean. That was until Saville, had seen Jessie in There Goes the Bride (1932), decided that she was just right for the role but the problem was that she was already contracted to appear in The Midshipmaid, that was until Michael Balcon intervened and the films were rescheduled so that Jessie could appear in both. She was quickly becoming the busiest and most sought after British star and her performance as Dean proved she could not only sing and dance but could also act.

The Good Companions was the first talking picture to be seen by King George V and Queen Mary but it was deemed inappropriate for Jessie to be presented to the King and Queen so soon after Jessie's much publicised involvement in a divorce case. But when the screening was completed the Royal couple both acknowledged Jessie, who had been sitting at the back of the cinema, much to her delight. The film was remade in 1957 but nether the film or it's leading lady Janette Scot was a patch on the original and Jessie's diamond bright performance has stood the test of time. The movie opened in London in February 1933 and went on general release the following April.

 Friday The Thirteenth 1933 UK

This Victor Saville directed movie was the first time that Jessie Matthews had been paired with her then husband and comedy star Sonnie Hale who appeared as Alf the cockney bus conductor. The Gainsborough Production Friday The Thirteenth was the fourth film that Jessie released in 1933 and the last before her career-defining movie and the most widely acclaimed of her films, Evergreen was released the following year. As well as Jessie and Sonnie it starred some well-known faces including Max Miller, Ralph Richardson, Emlyn Williams and Robertson Hare.

Produced by Michael Balcon, with art direction in the capable hands of Alfred Junge, it was co written by Sidney Gilliat and Emlyn Williams as an attempt to emulate The Bridge of San Luis Ray (1929) a film realised by MGM in both silent and part talkie versions[1] based on Thornton Wilder’s second novel telling in retrospect the lives of these killed or injured when a bridge collapses. 

Our story involves seven very different people who are all travelling on a London bus on a rain lashed Friday evening when at one minute to midnight lightning strikes a crane which collapses, the bus takes avoiding action and crashes through a shop window in Piccadilly Circus killing two passengers and injuring many others. Turning back the time twenty-four hours we learn about seven of the passengers that are to be involved in the disaster.
The soon to be famous Max Miller.
This very talkative movie in which in my opinion we do not see not enough of its top billed star who plays Millie the non-stop variety girl. The film opened at the London Tivoli on the 15th November 1933 and was on general release from 5th February 1934.  

[1] Only the silent version exists at the George Eastman House film archive.

Evergreen 1934.

The first, and best, of the Jessie Matthews musical vehicles designed to emulate the gloss and glamour of Hollywood, Evergreen (based on the star’s 1930 London stage hit) is a ravishing treat for both ears and eyes. The catalogue of splendid songs (largely courtesy of the distinguished partnership of Rodgers and Hart) combines with the high production values and art deco-inspired sets to conjure up a memorable musical feast.

With a backstage story that moves between the Edwardian period and the 1930s, the film gives the star plenty of opportunity to demonstrate her ability in the handling of a wide range of musical styles. While the highlight is probably her famous balletic number ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’, other gems remain, including the bizarre female emancipation number ‘Springtime in Your Heart’, complete with chorus girls turning into shells bound for the western front, and the suitably lavish climactic number ‘Over My Shoulder’ (written by Harry Woods), that, abetted by some Busby Berkeley-style staging, introduced what would become her celebrated signature tune. [1]

The Man From Toronto 1934 UK.

This early outing for Jessie Matthews did not exploit her obvious talent as a musical star but does succeed in capturing her comedy skills. Her timing and beautiful natural facial expressions make this Sinclair Hill directed movie a humorous treat for all fans of this uniquely British star. Adapted by W P Lipscomb from a novel by Herbert Jenkins this Gainsborough Production was produced by the great Michael Balcon, who also produced Jessie in There Goes the Bride (1932), The Good Companions (1933), First A Girl (1935) and her best known film Evergreen (1934).

Jessie with Ian Hunter.

Jessie plays a young widow Leila who lives above her means so when she is bequeathed a fortune by a distant uncle she imagines it will change her life, but not quite in the way it's intended. When she visits her family retainer he explains that she will have to share the money with Fergus (Ian Hunter), the man from Toronto of the title, but only if the pair get married within the next twelve months! Neither of the young couple have ever met before and before Leila agrees to anything she needs to know what sort of man she's expected too spend the rest of her life with. So when the Canadian arrives to check out the woman he is supposed to wed Leila disguises herself as his maid, but it's the maid Fergus falls in love with and she with him. But when Fergus finally discovers the truth will he feel cheated and will he forgo the money and return to Canada without a wife?

Leila’s retainer is played by the great character actor Frederick Kerr, who adds a superb comedy element to the movie. It also stars a young Kathleen Harrison as Leila's maid.  

Head Over Heels 1937 UK.

This 1937 musical romance demonstrates the enchanting nature of its star. Jessie Matthews is Jeanne Colbert an up and coming young singer and dancer who performs at a Paris Nightclub. When Pierre (Robert Flemying in his film debut) a radio engineer meets Jeanne he immediately falls in love with her but his courtship is curtailed when he introduces her to his flatmate Marcel Larimour (Dutch actor Louis Borell), a would be actor and womaniser, it's with him that Jeanne falls in love. To service his own career Marcel takes up with an actress Norma Langtry (Whitney Bourne) on the promise of an acting job in Hollywood. It's the gallant Pierre who restores the young performers broken heart by helping her become a famous radio star, but her gratitude is soon forgotten when Marcel reappears on the scene. Will the faithful and loyal Pierre final win the hand of fair maiden or will it be the ne’er-do-well rather slimy two faced Marcel?

The enchanting Ms Matthews.
Based on the play Pierre ou Jack by Francis du Croisset and adapted for the screen by Fred Thomson it was Jessie's then husband, the over possessive and potentially jealous, Sonnie Hale directing for the first time. Musical Director Louis Levy gives the fine British dancer some memorable numbers to perform including Head Over Heels in Love and May I Have the Next Romance With You. Alfred Junge, carrying out his normal superb job as Art Director, gives the movie that extra bit of class.

It was during the making of this film that Jessie suffered a nervous breakdown said to be due to her deteriorating relationship with her husband and the worry surrounding his lack of directorial skills. But even with these off screen problems the filmed turned out to be a great success in the UK and a bigger success in America with Jessie being labelled the ‘Queen of Broadway’ by the Daily Mirrors New York correspondent.  The film opened in London at the Gaumont, Haymarket on 27th February 1937 with a general release on the 29th March 1937. Shown in the USA as Head Over Heels in Love.

Climbing High 1939 UK.

The last film that Jessie Matthews was to make under her Gaumont-British contract at Pinewood, which was due to expire on the 30th September 1938, was to be have been called Asking for Trouble. It was originally to be directed by her then husband Sonnie Hale and have five substantial dance numbers.  It has been alleged that Gaumont-British purposely delayed the start of this film to stop Hale directing it after his previous three movies, Head Over Heels (1937), Gangway (1938) and Sailing Away (1938) were nowhere near as successful as the studio expected and his contract expired on the 30th June. With financial problem’s casting doubt on this film ever being made the musical numbers were cancelled and it was decided to make a lower budget romantic comedy called Climbing High (1938) to be directed by the thirty one year old Carol Reed. Finally after two force appointments it was decided that Jessie’s leading man was to be Michael Redgrave the cocky young Liverpool actor who had just played opposite Margaret Lockwood in Hitchcock’s overrated The Lady Vanishes (1938).  
Jessie with co-star Michael Redgrave.
This romantic rather farcical comedy was certainly not the best of Jessie’s films and Redgrave admitted that it was not one of his most distinguished either, saying that both he and his leading lady did the best they could with the somewhat feeble script.  Jessie’s supreme talent for singing and dancing were completely wasted in this story about a wealthy young playboy Nicky Brooke (Redgrave), who despite his engagement to the so called poverty stricken aristocrat Lady Constance Westaker (Margaret Vyner), falls in love with a working model Diana Castles (Jessie) after he knocks her down in his car. Brooke changes his name and pretends he is also ‘poor’ hoping this guise will persuade Diana to return his feelings.
The scene stealing Alastair Sim.
Even taking into account the dodgy script and the low budget its still an enjoyable romp, especially the slapstick scenes, helped by Alastair Sim who stole every scene he appeared in. It has been alleged that a strong relationship built up between the young director and his beautiful leading lady, with Jessie admitting that they did fall in love but never elaborating on the details!

[1] BFI Ten Best British Musicals.

The Service of Thanksgiving at the actors church in Covent Garden.

 For a 1972 interview with Jessie please access link:

Dirk Bogarde talks about Jessie.

[1] Sixteen children in all five did not survive.
[2] Dancing on the ceiling was banned by BBC Radio for two mentions of BED

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