Jessie Matthews

Jessie Matthews, Alhambra Theatre, London, 1917, black and white photograph

Jessie Matthews, Alhambra Theatre, London, 1917, black and white photograph

Jessie Matthews (1907–1981) made her name in the theatre before becoming Britain’s favourite 1930's musical film star. Born one of ten children in London in 1907, she made her stage debut at 10 in the children’s play 'Bluebell in Fairyland'. At 16, she was in the chorus of Charlot’s revue in London and New York. She idolised the show’s star, Gertrude Lawrence and in her hotel bedroom would practise her hit number, ‘Parisian Pierrot’, remembering every movement and gesture. When Charlot asked who was Lawrence’s second understudy, Jessie piped up ‘Me’. Impressed, Charlot made her the first understudy. In theatrical tradition more usual in fiction than real life, the night came when the star was off and Jessie was on. She never looked back.

In 1928 Jessie was contracted to C B Cochran for the Noël Coward revue 'This Year of Grace', starring opposite the popular Sonnie Hale. They fell in love. Unfortunately Hale was already married to much-loved musical star Evelyn Laye, and despite her own popularity, this temporarily alienated Matthews from the public. She and Hale later married, although the marriage did not last.

In 1930 Matthews had one of her greatest successes in Rodgers and Hart’s 'Ever Green' in which she danced and sang ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’ around a stage set with an upended chandelier. She played a young girl who pretends to be a 60-year old woman miraculously kept young by cosmetics.

For most of the 1930s, Matthews was Britain’s most popular film star, kept busy making one box-office smash musical after another, including 'First a Girl' (later remade as 'Victor Victoria' starring Julie Andrews), 'Ever Green' and 'The Good Companions' opposite John Gielgud. However the pressures were too great and Jessie began to suffer from depression and attempted suicide. She later remarried and went to live in Australia. When she returned to England, the more mature Jessie found it difficult to restart her career, but in the 1960s she became a household name again as the eponymous heroine of the hugely popular radio soap 'Mrs Dale’s Diary'.

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