Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Dancing Divinity hits 100

It's been said that each nation regards it's own popular culture with the least interest (or alternatively, the most contempt) and the passing of Jessie Matthews' 100th birthday with barely a whimper is a case in point. Not a name for many film fanatics of my generation to conjure with today - even those au faix with the likes of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers gaze back blankly when I express my admiration for the daughter of poor Soho fruit & veg sellers. Jessie may have danced on street corners for pennies as a child, but grew up to be one of the most famous international stars of the 1930s, and undoubtedly one of the screen's ultimate all-round talents.

Sadly, along with many of her contemporaries, she seems to have virtually evaporated from the national consciousness - what other opportunity will we have once her centenary has passed to enjoy a retrospective of her work, now otherwise consigned to the vaults?

Well, supposedly the BBC is currently working on a documentary, put back to coincide with a new book to be published later this year - good to see they've got their priorities straight (or not, as the case may be). Shame they didn't see fit to stick on their 1987 Time Watch doco and a couple of movies nonetheless, but there you go. Thankfully the NFT on London's South Bank did their bit with a week long retrospective of all her major films, plus a few rarities. Me being me I got incredibly excited about the whole thing but eventually only managed to make one screening...

So, what's the big deal about Matthews anyway? For a huge fan of 30s musicals like myself she really is a figure that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. A better dancer, singer, actor, comedienne and looker than many of her Hollywood contemporaries (heavy hitters such as Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, Ruby Keeler - I'm looking at you), the closest peers I can give you for this adorable bundle of talent are Charlie Chaplin and Betty Boop.

Unfortunately none of Ms Matthews best films are available on DVD at the mo, and all I have to offer are these few clips from a creaky quota-quickie, There Goes the Bride made on the cusp of her screen stardom back in 1932. In only her second Talkie, and without her soon-to-be svengali director, Victor Saville, she's not particularly well shot or lit, but despite some outrageous mugging her personality still sets the screen alight. (Saville imported American DOP Glen MacWilliams to photograph her in 1934's Evergreen. When Matthews complained about her "bulbous nose, big teeth and small chin" MacWilliams told her "Anyone who says they can't photograph you, baby, are alibiing their own damn bad photography").

The plot of the film is pure bedroom farce, with 1920s matinee idol Owen Nares well cast as a stiffly flustered Basil Fawlty type, though not quite so convincing as the eventual love interest. Adapted from a German comedy, a series of complications and misunderstanding finds runaway bride Matthews staying over one night as Nare's houseguest - a potentially embarrassing situation made all the more so by the surprise appearance of his fiancé.

Matthews only gets the following tiny segment to show off her dance skills:

Later on we get a reprise of the first song - I'll Stay With You - after Nares locks Jessie in his cab to stop her crashing a society party. Charming moment...

So, Matthews finds her way into the party and subsequently into the heart of stiff collared Nares. Hmmm, not quite convinced by all this, but either way it put a smile on my face.

The aforementioned Saville, hunting around for a suitable actress to play the key role of ambitious starlet Susie Dean in his prestige adaptation of The Good Companions caught the rushes of this film and realised immediately he'd found his girl. It's a certainty that it was one of the above sequences that caught his fancy.

After that Matthews was well on her way to movie stardom, starring in a series of glamorous art deco musicals such as Evergreen, First a Girl, and It's Love Again (along with Waltzes From Vienna for Alfred Hitchcock - an atypical film for both of them).

Of course, unlike the movies, thing rarely run smoothly in real life itself. Off screen the press had cast Matthews in the role of a scarlet woman in a marriage break up when her sensational love letters were exposed in court. This compounded with long-term emotional issues led to a series of crippling nervous breakdowns.

Despite her huge success internationally, various offers from Hollywood never came to fruition - perhaps because her home studio didn't wish to lose their prime money-machine. World War 2 knocked her screen career dead in the water - like many great performers before her, Matthews was too strongly associated with a different era, and her films were too expensive and extravagant for war time budgets. After so many dropped deals Hollywood had long since stopped knocking, and she rounded out her starring career in a 1943 haunted house comedy.

It's been speculated that Matthews would have been far too fragile for Hollywood sausage factory of the time anyway - no doubt pumping her full of uppers and downers to control her neuroses - but it's a terrible tragedy for posterity that she never appeared with Fred Astaire in 1937's Damsel in Distress. It was a role designed perfectly for her, and RKOs unsuitable replacement of the non-singing, non-dancing Joan Fontaine (who is dreadful) turns what could have been a major classic into a minor disappointment. She continued to find great success on stage (where she first found fame in the 1920s) and on radio, but her career never recovered its early momentum.

Jessie Matthews' memory as one of our greatest screen stars may be well and truly fading at the turn of her 100th anniversary, but surely that's the destiny of all the great screen stars that have fallen out of fashion, bereft of the luxury of an avid fan base. It's gratifying to report then, that the screening of her breakthrough role in the Good Companions I attended was a sell out.

For a few people at least her star still shines pretty brightly, and it was a pleasure - if only for an hour or so - to time travel back to an era where Jessie Matthews' name was on everyone's lips.


Blogger mister_tmg said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:10 AM  
Blogger mister_tmg said...

I just found this when Googling Jessie and Fred Astaire. I'm a massive fan of hers. She might be forgotten by the public at large, but she clearly does still have something special, as there are a great many of us who think she was the bee's knees - and state it whenever we can!

What a shame only Evergreen and There Goes the Bride are available on DVD from her classic period.

10:10 AM  
Blogger mister_tmg said...

Heartening to see another enthusiast. She may be forgotten by the public at large, but a good few of us still think she was the bee's knees. The same cannot be said for most of her British contemporaries.

We really need more than one of her classic musicals available on DVD.

Sorry for the late response, but I only found your blog post whilst searching for Jessie and Fred Astaire!

10:12 AM  

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