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Jessie Matthews

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Most of Jessie Matthews' recordings seem quaintly antique, artifacts of a by-gone age -- and, to some extent, they are just that, her fluttering, plummy toned voice with its romantic yearning turning back clocks as it fills a room at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. But for most of the '30s, Matthews was the most popular musical star in England, and the only British film music personality who was ranked on a par with such American performers as Fred Astaire, Ruby Keeler, or Ginger Rogers. She was a favorite of Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, all of whom gave her some of their very best work. And her magnum screen opus, Evergreen, remains the only British musical of the '30s to be ranked by fans of the genre on a par with American musicals of the period. Matthews was born in London in 1907. One of 13 children of an impoverished Soho fruit vendor, she endured a childhood of dire poverty. She showed extraordinary dancing ability from an early age, beginning to dance immediately after learning to walk. Her formal education ended when she was 12 years old and began working in vaudeville. Three years later, she'd worked her way up to legitimate theater, when Irving Berlin spotted her in the London production of his 1923 Music Box Revue. The composer was so charmed by Matthews, that he gave her "I Want to Go Back to Michigan" as a featured number in the revue. Matthews' most important performer-composer relationship, however, was with Rodgers & Hart, beginning with the 1928 production of One Damn Thing After Another, for which they wrote the song "My Heart Stood Still." In 1930, that show's producer, Charles B. Cochran, was looking for a new vehicle in which he could star Matthews and her soon-to-be second husband, Sonnie Hale, and Rodgers & Hart devised a show called Ever Green, about a woman who switches identities with her mother. The show included a song called "Dancing on the Ceiling, " which they'd dropped from an earlier work, and which became one of Matthews' signature tunes; the gentle, lyrical "Dear Dear" (which the newly married Rodgers wrote for his wife Dorothy); and the clever, bouncy "If I Give in to You" (containing a Lorenz Hart couplet, worthy of an award, that rhymes "go and grin" with Lohengrin). Ever Green was a hit -- one of the few, and perhaps the only success by Rodgers & Hart that never ran on the American stage. Jessie Matthews found herself the reigning queen of the British musical stage, acclaimed for her singing as well as her dancing. Even as she was solidifying her theatrical career, however, the movies were beckoning. Matthews had appeared in films in the early '20s, and played small roles, often awkwardly, in a few films in the early '30s. Neither her talent nor the technology were quite ready, however. First, the movies had to improve technically. The coming of sound to the screen had taken a little longer in England than it did in America, and with just as many technical problems, but by 1932, the bugs involved in making and showing talkies had been worked out. Matthews made her breakthrough performance on screen that year in The Good Companions, directed by Victor Saville. Saville was, after Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, the most prodigiously talented director in England during the '30s (and, like Hitchcock, he was later snapped up by Hollywood), and he took Matthews under his wing, coaching her carefully so that her work in The Good Companions was the best of her career up to that time. Over a year after The Good Companions, Saville and Matthews began work together on what proved to be their magnum opus together, and the best musical to come out of England for the next 30 years: Evergreen. Adapted from Rodgers & Hart's Ever Green, the film jettisoned many of the plot details of the original play along with numerous songs that didn't fit the new screenplay (co-written by Emlyn Williams, and which Richard Rodgers, in particular, liked better than the play's book). The three most important songs were left in, and were joined by new numbers written by Harry Woods (best remembered for "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover"), including "When You've Got a Little Springtime in Your Heart, " "Tinkle! Tinkle! Tinkle!, " and "Over My Shoulder." The choreography was the best ever seen in a British movie, and a match for the best that American movies could offer -- no surprise, because the choreographer was an American, Buddy Bradley, who had taught Busby Berkeley and trained Fred Astaire, Ruby Keeler, and other musical stars, but who had to go to England to be recognized fully, because he was Black. The producers of Evergreen, Michael Balcon and Gaumont-British Studios, had hoped to cast Fred Astaire -- who was appearing on the London stage at the time in The Gay Divorce -- as the male lead in their film, but RKO refused to lend out the services of its top new musical star. (Gaumont-British later got even, refusing to lend Matthews to RKO for Astaire's non-Ginger Rogers vehicle A Damsel in Distress). Evergreen was recast, and one of the parts rewritten for a non-dancing leading man, Barry MacKay (best remembered in films for his charming portrayal of Scrooge's nephew in the 1938 M-G-M version of A Christmas Carol). Even without Fred Astaire, Evergreen proved a gold mine for everyone involved. It generated a hit for Matthews in the guise of "Dancing on the Ceiling, " which, in the film, is played. against a gorgeous art deco setting as a gossamer-textured yet impassioned mating ritual between two people in separate rooms; "When You've Got a Little Springtime in Your Heart" also became an indelible part of her song legacy, and "Over My Shoulder" was a tune so closely associated with her that it became the title of her autobiography 40 years later; Evergreen became the first British musical ever to open at Radio City Music Hall; and it got Hollywood to look seriously at everyone involved. M-G-M wanted Jessie Matthews, and got Victor Saville and Barry MacKay. Unfortunately, Matthews couldn't immediately avail herself of the benefits from the film -- apart from the fact that Gaumont-British had her under contract, she had terrible personal difficulties at that point in her life. Unknown to the public or the music or movie industries at the time, she'd had a mental breakdown during shooting, growing out of the psychological strain she was under, and was incapacitated for months. She eventually returned to screen work, and, in fact, made a series of films in which mistaken identity -- the crux of Evergreen's plot -- were central to the story lines. The most important of these was the delightful First a Girl (1935), based on a German play that was later the basis for the film and stage musical Victor/Victoria, starring Julie Andrews. Ironically, Matthews was very much the Julie Andrews of her era, a plucky "girl-woman" who charmed with her manner as much as her voice. Her later films weren't remotely as good as First a Girl or Evergreen, however, lacking not only songs as good as what Rodgers & Hart, or Harry Woods, had written for her, but also the talents of Victor Saville (who was working on bigger movies, like Goodbye Mr. Chips) and Bradley's choreography. Her husband, Sonnie Hale, directed several of them, that paled in comparison with her best films. Still, the hits came, including "May I Have the Next Romance with You" by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, from the musical Head Over Heels, which she performed hundreds of times. Matthews gave up musicals after the '30s. She was tired, and they didn't seem to fit in with the mood of the war in England, even if someone had been willing to produce them. She entertained during the war, and directed a short film, Victory Wedding, during World War II. After the war, she was best known in England in a new career, as a radio actress, on the BBC's Mrs. Dale's Diary -- Matthews was later awarded the OBE by the Queen. She returned to the screen once, to play the mother of the diminutive hero in Tom Thumb (1958), and returned to the stage in 1973 in an acclaimed performance in Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies. The following year, she published her autobiography, Over My Shoulder. Matthews' voice, with its gentle flutter and vulnerable, plaintive, yearning tone, is like a sound out of a distant past between the wars, beckoning us still further back, to the innocence of pre-World War I England (Evergreen had her living in the time of the Boer War, which seemed somehow to fit her). Her choice of songs, however -- among the cleverest and also the most heartfelt of her era -- always pulls us in the opposite direction, toward popular music's peak of sophistication for the '30s. ~ Bruce Eder

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11 March 1907 in London, England

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