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'.
Ponds Cream advert featuring Jessie Matthews
Firms like celebrities to endorse their products and a sure sign of success for an actress is being famous and beautiful enough to be asked to advertise cosmetics. In the 1920s and 1930s, Jessie Matthew’s wide-eyed, clear-skinned, gamine look was one that all women wanted to emulate and so it was hardly surprising that Ponds, one of the leading producers of skin-care products, asked her to endorse their range. It was a far cry from the young Jessie who, aged 16, went to New York with the Charlot revue London Calling!. Then she was so inexperienced that when she went down to dinner on the luxury liner she pretended that she was not hungry because she wasn’t sure which cutlery to use. She had no stockings, jewellery or smart clothes and dressed in clothes borrowed from other girls in the company. But during the run of the revue she took over from the star, Gertrude Lawrence, and she returned from New York a successful elegant beauty, in high heels and Fifth Avenue suits.
Advertising flyer for musical Ever Green
In 1930, Evergreen was the most spectacular musical yet mounted by the celebrated showman C.B.Cochran. Written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and starring Jessie Matthews, it had a cast of 200, a revolving stage and elaborate scenic effects. The dances were by Billy Pierce and Buddy Bradley, the first black dancers to work on an all-white show. The revolving stage was a nightmare for them, as the dancers had never performed on a revolve before. As the floor moved one way, they had to dance in the opposite direction and kept smashing into each other. The hit song was 'Dancing on the Ceiling', in which Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale danced around a huge chandelier pointing upwards from the floor. Unusually for Rodgers and Hart, the music was written first. Hart sensed a weightlessness in the melody and wrote the lyrics around a girl dreaming that her lover is dancing above her on the ceiling. The BBC banned the song for a while because the word 'bed' occurred three times.
Publicity postcard showing Jessie Matthews in the film Ever Green
This publicity postcard shows Jessie Matthews in the film Ever Green, based on the successful Rodgers and Hart musical in which she had starred in 1930. It was her greatest stage success and featured ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’, which was to become one of her trademark dance sequences. Originally Fred Astaire, then playing in London in The Gay Divorce was approached to play opposite her in the film, but he was already under contract in Hollywood and his studio did not want him to appear in a British film. When the filming of Ever Green began, Jessie literally broke out in a nervous rash and collapsed, one of several nervous breakdowns that were to dog her career. But each time she recovered and in the 1930s became the queen of the British musical film in such productions as The Good Companions, It’s Love Again and First a Girl, which was re-made years later as Victor/Victoria.