Family & Companions
Awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1970
Exuberant, coyly girlish, immensely popular star of British musicals of the 1930s, arguably the one real international superstar created in England during the Depression years. Matthews's elegant dancing earned her such tags--conjured by the publicity department--as "The British Ginger Rogers" and, more memorably, "The Dancing Divinity."
With her endearing "funny face" prettiness, lovely large dark eyes, toothy smile, gawky but oddly graceful gangliness and charming coo of a singing voice, Matthews typically played pert gamines and waifs caught up in mistaken identity complications and backstage musical comedy shenanigans. A big success on the London stage during the late 1920s, she clinched her film stardom in the open-air freshness of "The Good Companions" (1932), directed by Victor Saville. Probably her best-remembered film is the delightful musical "Evergreen" (1934), also helmed by Saville, in which she played both mother and daughter and performed to songs ranging from "Dancing on the Ceiling" to "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow-Wow." The beguiling, effervescent Matthews also did well by "First a Girl" (1935), a mild remake of the German gender-bending farce "Viktor und Viktoria" (1933) which later inspired Blake Edwards's "Victor/Victoria" (1982). One of her lesser films, though, was "Waltzes from Vienna" (1933), with young director Alfred Hitchcock completely lost at sea and bored helming an operetta.
Unlike some of England's popular film stars whose background was the music hall tradition and whose appeal was somewhat limited to the U.K., Matthews found that her vivacious flair for comedy and delightful dancing, showcased in films much more lavish than many other English efforts of the day, traveled extremely well. At several times Hollywood beckoned (once proposing to team her with Fred Astaire), but nothing ever came of the attempts. Matthews' second husband was stage comedian and director Sonnie Hale, who played goofy comedy roles in several of her starring vehicles, but whose direction of three of them (including the lesser if enjoyable "Head Over Heels" 1937) left a bit to be desired.
After her stardom declined at the end of the decade Matthews returned to extensive stage work (from "Wild Rose" in 1944 to "Water Babies" in 1973, and even doing a spot of directing). Her many radio appearances included the long-running 1960s radio program "Mrs. Dale's Diary," and her tours in a wide variety of plays were international in scope. Late in life, Matthews also gave a number of concerts in America and on the London stage where her career got started, her light soprano retaining a great deal of its nostalgic charm. Matthews also made a handful film appearances from the 1940s on, perhaps most memorably by bringing a warm glow to the modest role of the tiny protagonist's mother in the beloved fantasy, "tom thumb" (1958).
Cast (Feature Film)
Began dance training at age ten at the Madame Elise Clerc School (date approximate)
Made stage debut in pantomime with Terry's Juveniles in "Bluebell in Fairyland"
Danced onstage in C.B. Cochran's "Music Box Revue"
Was a stand-by chorine in Andre Charlot's revue, "London Calling"
Made film debut in a bit part in "The Beloved Vagabond"
Travelled to the U.S. To understudy Gertrude Lawrence on Broadway in "Andre Charlot's Revue of 1924"
Took over lead of Charlot's 1924 revue when Lawrence hospitalized
Played the second female lead back in London in "Andre Charlot's Revue of 1925"
Played the female lead in Charlot's "Show of 1926"
Returned to Broadway to star in "Earl Carroll's Vanities"
Played the West End in director Frank Collins's staging of "One Dam Thing After Another"; introduced what came to be her signature song, "My Heart Stood Still" (composed by Richard Rodgers)
Starred onstage in "This Year of Grace", written by and directed by Noel Coward
Starred in the Cole Porter musical "Wake Up and Dream" (directed by Collins) first in London and then on Broadway
Starred on the London stage in "Evergreen" (directed by Collins) and then "Hold My Hand" (directed by stage star Stanley Lupino)
Returned to films after seven years to play a leading role in "Out of the Blue"; was also her first sound film
Signed contract with Gaumont-British Studios
Made first of six films with director Victor Saville, "The Good Companions"; film's success also clinched her film stardom
Last stage appearance for six years, in "Sally Who?" Opposite second husband Sonnie Hale
Starred in film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, "Waltzes from Vienna"
Offered contract by MGM; plans made for her to star in musical "This Time It's Love", but parties were unable to agree upon terms
Considerable talk that Matthews would make her U.S. Film debut opposite Fred Astaire in RKO's "A Damsel in Distress", his first starring film without Ginger Rogers; again terms were unsettled and the studio used a very young and new contract player, Joan Fontaine
Last British starring vehicle of the 1930s, "Climbing High", directed by Carol Reed
Returned to British stage in "I Can Take It"; played Blackpool, Sheffield and other places as out-of-town tryouts, but play didn't in London due to outbreak of WWII; later that year a revamped version of the same play did open in London until the title "Come Out to Play"
Travelled to the USA to appear in musical, "The Lady Comes Across"; suffered nervous breakdown while show was in try-out stage and Matthews returned to England
First US film; also first film appearance in four years, the all-star anthology drama, "Forever and a Day"; Matthews's segment directed by Saville
Made film directorial debut with "Victory Wedding", a short subject made for the National Savings Committee's "Salute the Soldier" week
Appeared in the London West End production of "Wild Rose"
Toured during WWII with the Entertainments National Service Association
Appeared in two featurettes, "Life Is Nothing Without Music" and "Making the Grade"
Toured South Africa in play, "Larger Than Life"
Directed the stage play, "The Policeman and the Lady"
Reunited with ex-husband Sonnie Hale in "A Nest of Robins", produced in Liverpool
First feature film in 14 years; also second American film, "tom thumb" (deliberately not capitalized), directed by George Pal
Lived in Australia for a time; opened acting school
Toured Great Britain in the Peter Shaffer drama, "Five Finger Exercise"; also performed in the pantomime, "Dick Whittington"
Appeared as herself as one of the interviewees in the medium-length film, "A Hundred Years Underground"
Returned to the London stage to act in "A Share in the Sun"
Performed in Cardiff in a production of the comedy-drama, "The Killing of Sister George"
Performed onstage again in London's West End in "The Water Babies"
Performed in London and on tour in "The Jessie Matthews Show"
Last film, Paul Morrissey's semi-satirical remake of "The Hound of the Baskervilles", written by and co-starring the team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore
Performed in Los Angeles in the one-woman show, "Miss Jessie Matthews in Concert"
Cast in "Never Never Land/Second to the Right and Straight on Till Morning/Second Star to the Right/Straight on Till Morning; replaced by Evelyn Laye during course of production
Was the subject of a British TV film, "Catch a Fallen Star"
Awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1970