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.
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: