powered by AFI
To this day Victor Saville's Evergreen (1934) remains the iconic British musical of the Thirties, thanks to memorable musical numbers such as "Dancing on the Ceiling" and "Over My Shoulder," airy Art Deco sets and, above all, the charming screen presence of Jessie Matthews.
Born to a poor family in Soho, Jessie Matthews (1907-1981) was one of sixteen children. As a child dancer, she debuted at the age of twelve in the show Bluebell in Fairyland (1919). Her first appearance on the West End was as a chorus girl in Charles B. Cochran's production Music Box Revue (1923). After performing in several Andr Charlot revues and even replacing Gertrude Lawrence in the lead for the U.S. road tour of Charlot's London Revue (1924), she returned to work with Cochran, who offered her bigger roles, among them Ever Green (1930).
The original stage revue Ever Green, with a book by Benn Levy and music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, had a loosely constructed narrative about a woman in her sixties (Jessie Matthews) masquerading as a woman in her twenties. The various settings included a French provincial circus and a Spanish village. Sonnie Hale, whom Matthews married the following year, played opposite her as the male lead. Besides providing one of Matthews' most successful stage roles, the revue was notable for its use of a rotating stage, the first of its kind in England. In fact, Cochran had to import the machinery from Germany. The play also provided Jessie Matthews with a real-life love interest; she married the leading man Sonnie Hale in January 1931, a few months after the revue opened.
Matthews's film debut was the poorly regarded Out of the Blue (1931); in her autobiography Matthews declared, "Out of the Blue was adapted from a stage musical and never should have left the boards." While some of her other early films still hold up well today, it was the director Victor Saville who truly recognized her talent as a film actress and cultivated it in the J. B. Priestley adaptation The Good Companions (1933). By this time Matthews was already an established star on the West End, but according Victor Saville, when he first cast her in the latter film, she was convinced that she wasn't photogenic enough to succeed on the big screen. In particular, she was self-conscious about her snub nose, which Saville countered was one of her more attractive features. He recalled telling her: "You're a hell of a good actress, just act as though you knew you were a very attractive female."
For the 1934 film version of Evergreen, the producer Michael Balcon and the director Victor Saville thoroughly reworked the revue. Beyond compressing the title into a single word, the film jettisons most of the original numbers and keeps only three from Rodgers and Hart: "If I Give In To You," "Dear Dear" and the signature tune, "Dancing on the Ceiling." Because Rodgers and Hart were working on another project at that time, Balcon and Saville enlisted the popular Tin Pan Alley songwriter Harry M. Woods, who added "When You've Got a Little Springtime in Your Heart," and "Over My Shoulder." The film also radically reworked Benn Levy's original story from a woman who never ages to a more complicated plot about a young girl who impersonates her mother, an Edwardian stage star who left the London stage years ago. According to Matthews, Victor Saville later received a telegram from Rodgers and Hart saying, "Wish we'd thought up this story."
For the male lead Balcon and Saville wanted to cast Fred Astaire, who had just appeared in Flying Down to Rio (1933). Although Astaire liked the script, MGM-Gaumont was unable to work out a deal with RKO. Instead they cast the fresh-faced Barry MacKay, who made his film debut as Tommy Thompson. This time Sonnie Hale played the older impresario rather than the male love interest. In December 1933, shortly before shooting began, Matthews collapsed due to nervous exhaustion and had to take off two weeks to recuperate. When she returned to the set to begin filming she fainted once again, evidently still in frail condition.
When Evergreen was released in London, the critic C. A. Lejeune in the Observerstated: "Her movement and poise in this new picture of Victor Saville is enchanting; she has found just how to get maximum effect from the minimum appearance of effort[.]" When the film opened in New York, Variety declared it "the first musical from across the sea that comes this close to competing successfully with the best efforts of Hollywood." In particular, they said of Matthews: "She's going to be an eye-opener for a lot of people. Pretty, graceful, possessed of a fine singing voice and an exceptionally clever pair of feet, she ought to be established by this film." At the same time, Variety felt that the new Harry M. Woods song "Over My Shoulder" was unlikely "to be much of a success." Much to the contrary, it became one of Jessie Matthews's favorite stage numbers, and she even used the song title for her autobiography.
Producer: Michael Balcon
Director: Victor Saville
Screenplay: Emlyn Williams and Marjorie Gaffney, based on the play Ever Green by Benn W. Levy
Songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, with additional songs by Harry M. WoodsPhotography: Glen MacWilliams
Film Editor: Ian Dalrymple
Art Director: Alfred Junge
Cast: Jessie Matthews (Harriet Green), Sonnie Hale (Leslie Benn), Betty Balfour (Maudie), Barry Mackay (Tommy Thompson), Ivor Maclaren (Marquis of Staines), Hartley Power (Treadwell), Patrick Ludlow (Lord Shropshire), Betty Shale (Mrs. Hawkes), Marjorie Brooks (Marjorie Moore).
by James Steffen
"Ever Green" The Times (London), December 4, 1930, p.14.
"Evergreen." Variety, January 15, 1935.
Nolan, Frederick. Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Mathews, Jessie. Over My Shoulder: An Autobiography. As told to Muriel Burgess. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974.
Saville, Victor. Evergreen: Victor Saville in His Own Words. Edited by Roy Moseley, with a Foreword by Sir John Woolf. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.
Thornton, Michael. Jessie Matthews: a biography. London: Hart-Davis, McGiboon, 1974.