Jessie Matthews made her name in the theatre before becoming Britain’s favourite 1930s 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.
Ponds Cream advert featuring Jessie Matthews, early to mid 20th century
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 Charles Cochran's musical Ever Green starring Jessie Matthews, Adelphi Theatre, London, 1930, printed flyer on silver card
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, photography by Raphael Luck and Sons Limited, 1920 to 1935, black and white photographic postcard
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.