I just saw my first Jessie Matthews movie. It was Evergreen (1934) and I’ve already watched it twice in under 24 hours. Now I want more.
Until last night I only knew Matthews as a pretty face cropping up in nearly every British tobacco card issue of the 1930s. The cards often picture a pose from Evergreen. All I knew was that she was gorgeous. Okay, her teeth are a little big, but even before I saw her I was willing to consider that single imperfection an enhancement. After all, perfection is boring.
I had no idea of her talent. To be honest I assumed most of it was in her looks. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I enjoyed Evergreen from its first moments, but after I had witnessed Matthews' playful and sensual “Dancing on the Ceiling” performance I was completely bewitched. Here it is (and embedded below). It’s been on YouTube three years now so I don’t think it’s going anywhere:
Evergreen is more than a few dance scenes, though they’re in there. For U.S. viewers who have yet to stumble across this major British movie musical, picture the plot and dialogue of a classy Astaire and Rogers musical at RKO with all the fanfare and bluster of a down and dirty Warner Brothers’ Busby Berkeley affair.
Yes, Evergreen is that good!
Evergreen began life on the London stage in 1930 as the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical Ever Green (correct, two words) with story by Benn Levy. Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale also starred in the stage hit, but the Gaumont-British film is said to have only retained a few elements of the theatrical version.
It also trimmed all but three of the Rodgers and Hart tunes: “Dancing on the Ceiling,” which you met above, “If I Give In to You,” and a Matthews-Barry MacKay duet, “Dear, Dear.” Several songs by Harry M. Woods were added in their stead, including “Tinkle, Tinkle, Tinkle,” performed by Sonnie Hale in a fun rehearsal scene, "When You've Got a Little Springtime in Your Heart” and “Over My Shoulder,” which serves as the finale.
But as Andre Sennwald wrote in his 1935 New York Times review, “Titles are singularly useless as a guide to the melodic pleasure which these songs provide.”
Buddy Bradley choreographed the dance numbers for both stage and screen, the earlier effort marking a major moment in the career of the previously unheralded African-American dancer who had transplanted himself to Britain to make his name. Read more about Bradley HERE.
The Gaumont British film was produced by Michael Balcon and directed by Victor Saville, who had first worked with star Matthews in The Good Companions (1933), one of six movies she appeared in for him including Evergreen.
Evergreen opens set in “Yesterday,” or more precisely Edwardian times in that first decade of the twentieth century.
Harriet Green (Matthews) is giving her farewell performance before an adoring crowd prior to her retiring to become wife to the Marquis of Staines (Ivor McLaren). At a banquet after the show Harriet’s friend and understudy, Maudie (Betty Balfour), accepts the proposal of Lord Shropshire (Patrick Ludlow), much to the dismay of fellow performer Leslie Benn (Sonnie Hale). The two women celebrate by singing and dancing atop the banquet table for their friends.
The celebration is interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. Hawkes (Betty Shale), Harriet’s dresser, who whispers some disturbing news into her employer’s ear. Harriet apologizes and excuses herself, riding off with Hawkie for a clandestine meeting with the father of her young daughter, George Treadwell (Hartley Power), who sees Harriet’s impending title as the start of a long line of blackmail. But Harriet surprises her former lover, escaping his treachery by jilting the Marquis, leaving her daughter and all of London behind to run back to where she came from, South Africa.
Complicated Fame for Harriet, Jr. - Setting Up the Story
Which brings us to “To-Day.” 1934.
Harriet Green has died but Matthews is still our star playing Harriet’s young daughter all grown up. She is also named Harriet. Not only does she look just like her mother, but she has stage aspirations as well.
Meanwhile, Leslie Benn, who had been so fond of Harriet’s pal, Maudie, is now a demanding stage director. His temper is on display in a blowout with the young publicity man, Tommy Thompson (Barry MacKay), who bumps into Harriet, Jr. for a brief moment as each unhappily leaves Leslie behind.
Maudie, who had gone through with her titled marriage, is now a widow on the prowl for work. She finds old flame Leslie at the agency office where she arrives hoping to reinvent herself as an opera singer.
Harriet sits with other youngsters in the waiting area outside the same office. Tommy happens by and she immediately recognizes him from earlier. The young publicity man has decided to give acting another turn.
Maudie is astounded when she spots young Harriet and her recollection of Harriet’s famous mother gets Tommy’s wheels spinning. When Leslie later arrives at Maudie’s apartment, he’s upset to find Tommy is also there. But the curtain is soon pulled and Leslie is just as astounded by the appearance of young Harriet as Maudie was. She’s the spitting image of her mother.
Tommy convinces Leslie that Harriet can provide them the perfect stunt to put a show over. As Tommy puts it, “A stunt that will put Hitler and Aimee McPherson in the shade.”
Tommy’s idea is that Harriet Green of Edwardian times, who had in actuality died in obscurity in South Africa a few years before, returns to the British stage at age 60 looking every bit as young as she had at the turn of the century: “Meet the star who will never grow old,” he says.
Harriet is an immediate sensation, but as you can imagine her impersonation must overcome several complications.
First bit of trouble comes when a reporter shows Harriet the glowing review he’s written about her return performance. Next to that article in the Telegraph is an unrelated headline about a man being sentenced to three years in prison for impersonating someone else. Gulp! Harriet shows the paper to Leslie, and he to Maudie, each of whom registers worry.
Before Harriet and company can completely digest that information, who should stroll in to pay his respects but the old Marquis. He is immediately as enchanted by Harriet as he had been when her mother had left him all those years ago. And why not, he believes this is the same woman. When the Marquis asks after her child, Harriet looks to Tommy for an answer, but the Marquis mistakes the look for a claim of ownership. Tommy becomes Harriet’s son, a bit of a problem since there’s been sparks between the two from their first meeting.
Escaping the press conference Harriet returns to her hotel where yet another unwelcome face from the past greets her: Her father. Or is that her ex-lover? While that could get creepy very fast any such potential crisis is quickly averted when George tells her that he knows she’s his daughter. Dear old Dad begins a new cycle of blackmail threatening to expose Harriet’s true identity unless he is regularly paid off.
George Treadwell’s pet line after putting the bite on one of his victims: “I’m a reasonable man, as long as I can keep body and soul together that’s all I ask for here below.” Now you’d better pay up!
The Return of Harriet Green - A Photo Essay
Harriet is kept under wraps until the night of that premiere. Her youth and vivacity shocks press and public alike because, after all, this is a woman of about sixty, right?
I couldn’t find a video of this scene, other than its being contained in THIS clip of the entire film at the Internet Archive.
The Cast of Evergreen, Almost Including Astaire
Just as I had little prior knowledge of Matthews, this American was only familiar with the other stars of Evergreen by way of old tobacco card issues. By the time of the film version of Evergreen Matthews was married to Sonnie Hale (Leslie in the film), with a great deal of scandal leading to the altar.
Betty Balfour lived up to her nickname as “Britain’s Queen of Happiness” in her role of Maudie.
Barry MacKay appeared with Jessie Matthews in two additional films after Evergreen, but is probably most recognizable to Americans as Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, in the 1938 MGM version of A Christmas Carol that starred Reginald Owen as Scrooge.
They are all effective but Matthews can’t help but to stand out as an absolute delight. She’s wonderful at light comedy, has a pleasant singing voice (though I like how she puts over a song better than her actual voice, a little high for me) and seems to be able to dance in any style called for though she certainly loves her high leg kicks, sexy shimmies and tight and speedy spins. Sennwald in praising the film in the Times calls Matthews, “a nimble and winning dryad of song and dance, who deserves to be better known to American film audiences.” He then refers to her as the feminine counterpart of Fred Astaire.
In fact, Balcon and Saville had tried to cast Astaire, in what I assume turned out to be Barry MacKay's part, and Astaire wanted to do the movie. RKO said no. On the heels of Flying Down to Rio (1933) they didn’t want to loan out their hot new property. “I was denied a brilliant bit of casting,” wrote Victor Saville in his autobiography (76). The director added, “The team might have easily been Matthews and Astaire instead of Rogers and Astaire,” had RKO gone through with the loan.
History may have paved the best way though. Matthews would have had to share a lot of her spotlight had she had Astaire as her dance partner. While the film would certainly be better known in America had Fred Astaire appeared in it, it is nice to watch it today and be solely overwhelmed by the talent of Jessie Matthews. What if? Sure. But Evergreen doesn’t need to be any more than what it already is.
I recorded Evergreen off of Turner Classic Movies some time last year. Somehow it does not have a Region 1 DVD release, though the 1934 Gaumont British production was released on VHS in America in 1993 and it had been released on Laserdisc at some point in the ‘80s or ‘90s by Criterion (Guessing 1993). I see Matthews made it to DVD on another Gaumont British production, First A Girl (1935), just last year. Hopefully Evergreen follows soon.
Until then, here is the complete film uploaded to the Internet Archive:
Rob McKay says
I envy you for having the opportunity to discover all the Jessie Matthews films for the first time!
I first saw her onscreen about 1970 and have been a big fan ever since. Probably her best starring films are EVERGREEN, IT’S LOVE AGAIN and FIRST A GIRL – and it’s no coincidence they were all directed by Victor Saville. The good news for you is that VCI Video has just announced that they are releasing nine of her films on dvd this coming year, which will compliment their earlier release of FIRST A GIRL. I’m hoping VCI has access to superior film elements for their video transfers, since for many years a good number of her films have only been available in mediocre quality prints. VCI’s FIRST A GIRL looks terrific.
In November 1979 I was lucky enough to meet Jessie and see her in concert in Santa Monica, Ca., during her final visit to the USA. Now THAT was a memorable evening.
Cliff Aliperti says
I was going to stat with another Saville, THE GOOD COMPANIONS (1933), so it seems like I’m on the right track. Fantastic news on the VCI releases, sounds like exactly what I’d hoped for! Thanks for sharing that, my Googling hadn’t taken me that far.
Would you know off-hand if I’d be better off reading her autobiography or the MIchael Thornton biography from the ’70s?
That one article I linked to was by Thornton in 2007 and I was a little worried about how it portrayed my new favorite. Wondering if the book is solid or trashy and your last paragraph has me wondering if you might know.
Hope you’ve been well, it was great to hear from you.
Rob McKay says
GOOD COMPANIONS is more of an ensemble film than a starring vehicle for Jessie. It was one of the most popular British films of the early 1930s, based on the famous 1929 novel by J. B. Priestley. For many years it was virtually impossible to see. In the late 1970s I acquired one of the three known extant 16mm prints of the USA cut, as released by Fox. In the late 1980s the full original British release version was finally made available on VHS tape, taken from film elements held by the British Film Institute. The film is a bit dated, but does a good job of capturing the great charm of Priestley’s book – and certainly made Jessie one of the major stars of British cinema at the time.
I haven’t read the Thornton book since it came out, but I recall it is a bit on the sleazy side. I DO know that Jessie was NOT pleased by it. Jessie’s autobiography is a good read and frankly pulls no punches in telling her life story, which was certainly no “bed of roses”. She had a tough life with more than her share of adversity.
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks for the recommendation on the autobiography. That’s pretty much what I wanted to hear, so I’ll pick up a copy on my next Amazon visit. Those were my fears on the other book as well.
Fascinating stuff on GOOD COMPANIONS, thanks for adding that here! Dated usually isn’t an issue for me, so I may give it a try–far from a 16mm print, but someone has it up on YouTube at the moment and I want to catch it before it gets pulled from the site!
I first saw several of Jessie’s movies on TCM a few years ago and became a big fan of hers. After seeing First a Girl, Evergreen, Sailing Along and The Good Companions I wanted to learn more about Jessie. I bought both Jessie’s autobiography and the biography written by Michael Thornton. I’m glad I bought both books. In my opinion Michael Thornton’s book is not trashy and it’s much more detailed about Jessie’s career than Jessie’s book.
I read Jessie’s book first as I wanted to read her own words before going to the biography. However, in my opinion both books are worth reading for fans of Jessie.
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks for your input, Robert, it’s helpful. The era seems ripe for trashy bios and such older books don’t pile up the reviews on Amazon and other sites like newer books do, so I’m often purchasing blind.
Since writing the EVERGREEN piece I’ve caught THE GOOD COMPANIONS and ordered a copy of her autobiography. You’ve put the Thornton book back on my radar for afterwards, thank you!
I’d never even heard of Jessie Matthews – she’s very talented! Thanks for this post.
Cliff Aliperti says
The blog doesn’t extend beyond the U.S. too often, but I’d been teased by her face on so many tobacco cards. Knew I had this one sitting from a TCM recording and it was one of those oh-so-pleasant unexpected discoveries the first time I pressed play!
Glad you liked the clip and hope you spotted the additional embed of the entire movie near the bottom of the page!
Just a “heads-up” to say that both “Evergreen” and “First a Girl” have been issued here in the UK on DVD in the last couple of years.
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks Siriami. FIRST A GIRL came out in the U.S. last year; as Rob mentions above we have 9 more Jessie Matthews titles coming soon, but no EVERGREEN from what I can tell.
I actually surprised these haven’t all long been available in the U.K.
My dad is a huge Jessie Matthews fan so I sent him your post with a note that he’d like your first paragraph. 🙂
I’ve only seen one of her films so far, IT’S LOVE AGAIN, with Robert Young, but I really enjoyed it ( http://laurasmiscmusings.blogspot.com/2011/01/tonights-movie-its-love-again-1936.html ). Need to start watching more!
Although it was just a couple years ago that I first saw one of her movies, I read her autobiography after my dad picked it up off a bargain shelf when I was a teen. Very enjoyable book which I do recommend you pick up. (Read Anna Neagle’s book around the same time frame and have only started to catch up with her movies in recent years, too!)
Cliff Aliperti says
My copy of the autobiography is on its way to me!
There doesn’t seem to be much Matthews available in the US beyond the one you saw and FIRST A GIRL (remade into VICTOR/VICTORIA) … but that appears about to change! (See above conversation).
I had EVERGREEN off of a TCM recording and I also enjoyed THE GOOD COMPANIONS since, courtesy of YouTube. She’s largely absent from the first half of that one, but more or less takes center stage in the second half. Also stars Edmund Gwenn and John Gielgud.
Thanks for sending this along to your dad!
First I want to say I hope you enjoy “Over My Shoulder”. I would be interested in your opinion after you read it.
I assume you know this but just in case. Besides “Evergreen” and “The Good Companions” there are several other Jessie Matthews movies on YouTube. “There Goes the Bride”, “Friday the 13th”, “First a Girl” and :Climbing High” are available. Also there is a documentary about Jessie that was produced by the BBC back in 1987 which is worth watching.
Cliff Aliperti says
I’ll try to post something on the book after I read it–either a separate post or perhaps just a comment here.
Yes, am going to move on to some others soon. I hadn’t looked for the documentary yet though–that will likely be next for me. Thanks for pointing it out!
Paul Smith says
Great review of Evergreen, many thanks for this. I’d been working my way through the Busby Berkley musicals of the 1930’s and a friend suggested Evergreen and Jessie’s films as a sort of British equivalent. Now, charmed and smitten with Jessie I’m reading her autobiography at the moment too.
An unexpected co-incidence is that I live in Farnham, which is where Jessie owned and ran a pub (the Alliance Inn) from 1945 for a number of years.
I’ve collected a good number of her films now too – there’s four easily available for download via archive.org ( http://archive.org/search.php?query=Jessie%20Matthews ) as they are now Public Domain – Evergreen, There Goes The Bride, Waltzes From Vienna (directed by Hitchcock no less) and Friday The Thirteenth.
If anyone is particularly interested I can drop-box others if you send me an email address. It’s Love Again is particularly lovely and another film directed by Victor Saville. I’ve got Sailing Along, Climbing High and The Good Companions as well as all the parts of the Dirk Bogarde led TV tribute ‘Catch A Fallen Star’ and some of her TV appearances. Hoping to soon have Head Over Heels, Candles at Nine and the Man From Toronto too.
Cliff Aliperti says
Thank you for the helpful comment! I just reactivated my Netflix Instant account and see that they offer two titles as well: FIRST A GIRL and SAILING ALONG, so those are probably next for me since I can watch them on my TV as opposed to my desktop. As pointed out in the comments, there are also several titles on YouTube as well as a documentary (that I still have to watch!).
Ah, I haven’t reached the war years in my reading yet. I just made it through the Sonnie Hale-Evelyn Laye breakup and first mentions of EVER GREEN on stage.
Sounds like we’ve recently gone down the exact same path, Paul!
I realize this is several years later (after this review), but just saw the movie on Roku (Mystery Channel/ musicals). It was very enjoyable. What I was trying to look for here was the identity of the actor playing the barrister in the courtroom scene at almost the end of the movie. Was he any relation to Hugh Laurie of “Bertie Wooster” and “House” fame? I spotted Jeremy Brett as “Freddy” in “My Fair Lady” (“On the Street Where You Live”) after his fame as Sherlock Holmes. I wondered if I was correct about this one as well.
Please sign me, “a mystery fan who also sings”
Cliff Aliperti says
I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t know. Took a quick look around a few of the usual internet sources, but didn’t bump into any leads. Maybe somebody else will chime in here eventually? Sorry about that!
Thanks, anyway. Yes, maybe someone else will know. They didn’t give much credit for non-headliners in those days, did they?