Article by David Munro
A MONTHLY assessment of the careers of stars of the musical theatre as represented by their commercial recordings.
4 - Jessie Matthews
"Got to dance my way to heaven"
IN 1930, EVELYN Laye divorced her husband, Sonnie Hale, citing his adultery with Jessie Matthews who, at the end of the trial, was subjected to a very scathing condemnation as to her character and morals by the divorce judge. Having dealt with Evelyn Laye last time, it is now the turn of Jessie Matthews.
I hope I will be kinder to her than the judge!
Although hailed as one of the greatest stars of the Thirties films, and a musical comedy star of the first rank, when one comes to look at her career at the top it was very short. Her lasting memory is in the records she made which, during the thirties she made in great abundance.
Most of these were re-recorded on to LP and latterly on to CD. The Decca records are preserved on two LPs, A Tribute to a Star, (Decca RFL-17) and Over My Shoulder (Decca ECM 2168). The Columbia recordings (mainly of the thirties) appear on Jessie Matthews - Looking Over My Shoulder, (Music For Pleasure MFP 1127) and Springtime in Your Heart (World Record Club SH 425).
An independent company, on a record Dancing on the Ceiling, (AJA 5063) re-recorded 22 assorted numbers from both labels, including one or two titles not on the LPs. This LP was transferred intact to CD (ASV CD AJA 5069).
There are two other CDs, The Jessie Matthews Songbook (PLATCD 182) and My Heart Stood Still (Pearl Past CD 9746).
The ASV and the Pearl CD duplicate most of the same songs but, unfortunately, there are one or two which one has, and the other doesn't, (The PATCD is completely duplicated by both of the others and only has 16 songs as opposed to their 22). Therefore, in order to have as complete a representation as possible, it is necessary to have both these CDs, irritating though the duplication may be. I will indicate where possible those songs which do not appear on LP or CD.
Jessie's career can be easily divided (like Gaul) into three parts. One - The Ascent, the musical stage career of the Twenties and early Thirties. Two - The Peak, the films of the Thirties, and Three - The Descent - the Forties and thereafter, broken only by her six years in the radio soap opera, Mrs Dale's Diary, as the eponymous Mrs Dale in the Sixties.
Her first attempt to get into the theatre was in 1923 when, at the age of 16, she auditioned for C.B. Cochran, a well known theatrical producer of revue and spectacular shows, for a part in the chorus of The Music Box Revue, an Irving Berlin revue that Cochran was producing at the Palace Theatre in which she was given two solos.
Cochran describes his first view of Jessie as a little girl who came to an audition with ill-fitting clothes and clutching a large umbrella. Substitute talent for the umbrella and you find the key - a little girl who went through life clutching a huge talent like an umbrella, which was unable to protect her from disappointment, disillusion and, ultimately, a despair that drove her to a series of mental breakdowns and an attempted suicide.
An innocent abroad, she was dominated by men both in her career and at home. When the domination was removed, she was lost and, after her career collapsed in the Forties, she was unable to stand up to the pressures of her private life and of her profession on her own, and so drifted, without any aim or purpose, through the rest of her career.
After The Music Box Revue she had a rapid rise through the chorus to second lead in a series of revues presented by another producer, Andre Charlot, culminating in the lead in his revue of 1926 from which she recorded four numbers, two with her soon-to-be husband Henry Lytton Jnr., for British Columbia. These were The Good Little Girl and the Bad Little Girl and Silly Little Hill (Col 4189), Friendly Ghosts and Journey's End (Col 4192), the last of which was re-recorded by World Record Club.
She then signed with Cochran, who starred her in three revues written respectively by Rodgers and Hart, (One Damn Thing After Another, 1927), Noel Coward (This Year of Grace, 1928) and Cole Porter (Wake Up and Dream, 1929).
The only record that Jessie made from those revues was My Heart Stood Still from One Damn Thing After Another (British Brunswick Br 135 - re-recorded on the Decca LPs and Pearl CD only). On the same record, she sang Just a Memory, which she may or may not have sung on the stage. It has not been re-recorded.
Cochran then engaged Rodgers and Hart to write the score for a musical Ever Green (1930). According to Jessie's autobiography, Over My Shoulder, she was not Cochran's first choice. That was an American actress, Ada May, who had appeared in one of his revues, but Jessie convinced him otherwise and her greatest triumph in her stage career was secured.
Although she never recorded anything from the show, her best known number, Dancing on the Ceiling, was later recorded when she made the film Evergreen, which was based on the stage play (see main picture).
After Ever Green, she appeared with her then husband, Sonnie Hale, and Stanley Lupino in Hold my Hand (1931) at the Gaiety Theatre, from which she recorded two numbers, Hold my Hand and Turn on the Music for British Columbia. (Col DB 760). The title song was re-recorded on World Record Club and Pearl CD.
This was her last appearance in a musical on the London stage until 1940, as, during its run, she entered her most successful period as a star in British films.
Although she had appeared as an extra in three silent films in the Twenties, her major film career commenced in 1931 when she appeared (with second billing) with Gene Gerrard - a well-known stage comedian - in Out Of The Blue, which was the film version of a Vivian Ellis musical, Little Tommy Tucker.
She was then put under contract by Michael Balcon for Gainsborough/Gaumont British for whom she made 13 films between 1932 and 1938, all of which, except the last one, were enormously successful at the Box Office and made Jessie the major British film star of the decade (and some would say of all time).
The first and third, There Goes the Bride and The Midshipmaid, were directed by Albert de Courville, a one-time presenter of stage revues now turned film director. The second film was a comedy, The Man From Toronto, who appears to have returned there without making any impression on Jessie's career.
Jessie recorded one number from each film on British Columbia, I'll Stay With You, (There Goes the Bride) and One Little Kiss (The Midshipmaid, Col DB803 - also on LP and CD).
According to Jessie's autobiography (which can be faulted in many respects) de Courville was a sadist who drove her into a nervous breakdown. Whether this is true or not is immaterial, the fact is she did suffer, while filming The Midshipmaid, a nervous breakdown, the first of many, but the cause is open to question.
It has been suggested that she never really got over the public humiliation of the Judge's remarks in the Evelyn Laye/Sonnie Hale divorce and this affected her mental stability for the rest of her life. Another reason given is that she was not mentally equipped for the rigours of the life which is concomitant with being a star. The physical work involved and the constant attention of the press and public proved too great a strain under which she mentally crumpled.
Her book makes it clear that she was a fundamentally simple girl who had this blazing talent which overwhelmed her like Frankenstein's monster and she was compelled, possibly against her wish, to strive for more than she was mentally equipped to attain in order to keep up with and control it.
Whatever the reason, from then on she was subject to breakdowns on the set and elsewhere, which ultimately must have affected her career more than she was ever prepared to admit.
Luckily for Jessie, a new and sympathetic director, Victor Saville, took over her career; directing her in what was probably the most prestigious film she ever made. The Good Companions (1933), based on the J. B Priestly novel and play.
She appeared opposite John Gielgud, who had played the lead on stage and for the first time the persona, for which she is remembered appeared on screen. She recorded two of the numbers she sang in the film on British Columbia. Three Wishes and Let Me Give My Happiness to You (Col DB1102 - also on LP and CD).
Under Victor Saville's understanding direction, her career rocketed. Her next film was a drama, Friday the Thirteenth (1933), about a crashed bus and the lives of its passengers, in which she played a chorus girl and proved that she could act as well as sing and dance.
The film which followed was directed by, of all people, Alfred Hitchcock. Waltzes from Vienna (1934) was based on an extravagant stage show using Strauss music and purporting to deal with the dissention between Johann ll Strauss and his father.
On stage, it may have worked, on film it definitely didn't. However, it can't have done Jessie's career any harm, as immediately filming ceased she returned to Victor Saville and started filming Evergreen.
This may not have been a good idea, as she was beset by mental troubles during the shooting, the memory of which remained with her so vividly that when nearly 40 years later she was invited to attend a re-viewing of it at the National Film Theatre she took an overdose of sleeping pills because, as she writes in her book, 'How could I come back and watch Evergreen, the film that had given me some of the deepest misery of my life. Evergreen, that was when it all began'.
Not strictly true, of course, but she clearly focussed on Evergreen as the turning point in her personal life, perhaps because on December 18, 1934, nine months after the shooting ended, she gave birth to a son who died after four hours. A loss from which she never really recovered, and for which she tried to compensate by the adoption of a little girl, who in her turn added to Jessie's mental distress.
Also, her stardom was causing Sonnie Hale to torment her out of jealousy and although she appeared to rise above it, this must have marked the start in the deterioration of the marriage for her as well.
None of this shows in the film, which was a huge success both in Great Britain and, more surprisingly, in the States which up until then had tended to treat such British musical films as were shown there as amateur and second rate.
Now, however, interest began to be taken in Jessie and as a result she was proposed as the replacement for Ginger Rogers when she and Astaire terminated their screen partnership.
The film she was sought for was Damsel in Distress, a P. G. Wodehouse story, with a Gershwin score. Balcon, however, refused to release her and the part went to Joan Fontaine, who must have felt about Jessie as she later did about the first Mrs de Winter.
Jessie recorded five of the Evergreen numbers, only one of which, Dancing on the Ceiling, came from the original show. The rest were by Harry Woods, an American composer who wrote the scores for several British musicals in the Thirties. The songs Dancing on the Ceiling, Just by Your Example, When You've Got a Little Springtime in Your Heart, Over My Shoulder and Tinkle, Tinkle, Tinkle, appear on two British Columbia records (Col DB 1403/4 also on LP and CD).
She made two further films with Victor Saville, First a Girl (1936) an early version of Victor/Victoria, which Julie Andrews subsequently made into a film and stage musical, and It's Love Again (1936), which she made with the Hollywood star, Robert Young.
Both were successful and Jessie recorded four numbers from each on Decca records. From First a Girl, Say the Word and It's Yours, I Can Wiggle My Ears (not sung by her in the film), Everything's In Rhythm With My Heart and Little Silkworm, not on CD (Decca F5728/9 - also on LP and CD). From It's Love Again, It's Love Again, Tony's in Town, (I nearly let love go) Slipping Through My Fingers and Got To Dance My Way to Heaven (Decca F5982/3 - also on LP and CD).
Sadly, however, Victor Saville left Gainsborough to further his career and Jessie's next three films, Head Over Heels (1937), Gangway (1938) and Sailing Along (1938) were given to Sonnie Hale to direct. Jessie felt that it was wrong for a husband to direct his wife even though she agreed to him doing so, and so it turned out.
Sonnie failed to show her the understanding that Saville had and gave her no let up at home or on the set. The result was another breakdown and the delayed shooting of Head Over Heels. Her two records from this film were Head Over Heels in Love, Looking Round Corners For You, There's That Look in Your Eyes Again and May I Have the Next Romance With You? (Decca F6286/7, also on LP and CD).
Hollywood was still after her and it is alleged that MGM set up two films (which were eventually made with Eleanor Powell) for her but Balcon again refused to release her, which is slightly ironic in that Balcon left Gaumont British shortly afterwards and opened MGM's studios in England.
Gaumont British was also in difficulties and, while Sonnie and Jessie were taking a recuperating break after filming Head Over Heels and the breakdown, the Shepherds Bush studios, where up until then she had made all her films, were closed.
The result was that Gangway and Sailing Along were both shot in Pinewood and under severe financial restrictions. It showed, and for the first time Jessie's films started receiving adverse criticism.
It is generally accepted that the blame lay with Sonnie Hale who was not capable of directing his wife and getting the performance out of her that Saville had. This, added to the budget curtailments on clothes and sets, meant that the films lacked the quality the public had come to expect from a Jessie Matthews film and the Box Office receipts began dropping.
Jessie's personal popularity remained high and she again recorded her numbers from both films. From Gangway Moon or No Moon (never re-recorded), When You Gotta Sing, You Gotta Sing, Gangway and Lord and Lady Whoziz (Decca F7640/1, also on LP and CD). From Sailing Along Trusting My Luck, My River, Your Heart Skips a Beat and Souvenir of Love (Decca F 6672/3 - also on LP and CD - you need both CDs to get the full score).
After Gangway, Sonnie wrote an elaborate screenplay for her next film in the anticipation that it would be approved by the Ostrer brothers, who were then in charge of Gaumont British, which it was, and he would direct it, which he didn't. In the event, the scenario was shorn of all its musical numbers and directed by an up and coming director, Carol Reed with whom Jessie had a brief affair.
Her leading man was Michael Redgrave who didn't think much of the script and clearly agreed by his performance with Carol Reed that you can't make a musical script into a straight film by denuding it of the songs and dances it was written to showcase. The outcome was Climbing High and a flop marking the end of Jessie's British film career and her stardom. The descent had started.
Sonnie then decided they should return to the stage so they mounted with their savings, a musical, I Can Take It with music by Harry Woods, which opened in Sheffield in January 1939 and was scheduled to open, after a provincial tour, at the London Coliseum on September 12, 1939.
I Can Take It couldn't, however, take the outbreak of war and was a casualty of the theatre closures which ensued and never opened. Sonnie Hale, however, adapted a lot of the material from the now defunct show and fashioned a revue around it which did open at the Phoenix Theatre in March 1940, titled Come Out To Play, which ran until they decided to appear in pantomime in Birmingham in December 1940.
Following the pantomime run, Jessie was offered the lead in an American musical The Lady Comes Across, with music by Vernon Duke, which she accepted and set sail for America alone and unhappy with the knowledge that Sonnie was having an affair with their child's nursemaid, whom he subsequently married and who supplanted Jessie in the adopted daughter's affection thereby causing a rift between the child and Jessie which lasted on and off until Jessie's death.
Whilst she was in America she filmed a sequence for an all-star omnibus film made to raise money for the American and British Red Cross, Forever and a Day. Jessie appeared in the third sequence, directed once more by Victor Saville and gives an enchanting performance.
The new show, The Lady Comes Across, was not so enchanting. Jessie found the American style of rehearsal and theatrical discipline confusing and alien. Things weren't helped when the co-star, Ray Bolger, left the show during rehearsal.
The book, which had done service for another production which had closed out of town, was being constantly re-written and the pressure on Jessie, who by now was carrying the show, was enormous. The show opened in Newhaven in December 1941 and then moved to Boston where the reviews were lukewarm.
At the end of the Boston run, Jessie had another serious breakdown and was admitted to a New York clinic through the help and support of Gertrude Lawrence, where she remained until March.
She returned to England after convalescence in Bermuda, again arranged by Gertrude Lawrence, in May 1942 only to find that her marriage was to all intents and purposes, over. She and Sonnie remained together for another six months when Sonnie left her for good. They were divorced in July 1944; Sonnie married the nanny and brought up their adopted daughter whom Jessie seldom saw again.
After her return to England, Firth Shepherd, a West End producer, offered her the title role in a revival of Sally, an old Dorothy Dickson musical with music by Jerome Kern. It was re-titled Wild Rose for the revival and opened in April 1942 and ran until January 1943 at the Princes Theatre. It would be five years before she would be seen in the West End again. She recorded two songs from Wild Rose for British Columbia, Look For the Silver Lining and Whip-poor-will (Col DB 2094 - also on LP but not CD).
In 1944, Emile Littler then offered her the lead in The Quaker Girl, which he was presenting at the London Coliseum, but Jessie walked out of the show 10 days before the opening at Coventry.
Both she and Emile Littler gave different versions as to why this came about, but what really infuriated Littler was a press interview she gave criticising his management and the quality of the production, thereby signing her death warrant so far as starring again in a quality production on the London stage. Littler swore that, as far as he was concerned, she would never appear in the West End again and, apart from two or three not very successful appearances, she never did.
For the next five years she did variety tours, entertained the troops, and made a film, Candles At Nine, which was a flop. Her name was still magic for many of the public but a new generation was growing up in the post-war period for whom she was yesterday's news.
In 1947, she opened as the star in a revue Maid to Measure in Edinburgh, toured it and opened at the Cambridge Theatre in May 1948, following a short season at the Kings Theatre Hammersmith, where it had received outstanding reviews from the London papers, enabling the producer to bring it in to the West End. The success was short lived, four and half weeks, 36 performances, and Jessie was back on the road once more.
Her next appearance in the West End was two years later when, in 1949, she appeared, second billed, in a naval-based farce Sweethearts and Wives, which ran for less than a month.
Jessie now realised that she had to hang up her dancing shoes and take straight acting parts, none the less, when in August 1949 she was offered the opportunity to take over from Zoe Gail in Cecil Landau's revue, Sauce Tartare, she accepted with alacrity.
Her presence was favourably noticed by the London critics, the only fly in the ointment was her co-star, Renee Houston, who resented her and provoked one of the most acrimonious theatrical feuds which led on one occasion to the two of them coming nearly to blows.
Sauce Tartare closed in February 1950 and this time it was 16 years before she returned to the London theatre.
By now, no major London management would consider her. Apart from Littler's baleful influence she was no longer Box Office and her health gave cause for concern. She was, therefore, forced to accept anything offered, tours, pantomimes, weeks with repertory companies and variety tours.
She went to South Africa and Australia, intending to settle in the latter country and open a drama school but tired of it and returned to England. She appeared with Sonnie on tour in a play he had written, Nest of Robins, but they were still estranged and the tour was not a happy one, particularly as Sonnie's new girlfriend, Frances Bennett, was also in the cast.
She did, however, agree a few years later to play another tour of it to help Sonnie out as he was then in financial problems. This was the last time they met, as he died in 1959 when she was in Australia.
In 1958, she appeared as Tom Thumb's mother in the film of Tom Thumb, but her one song, After All These Years, was apparently dubbed by one Norma Zimmer. Did Jessie know she had been framed? Her name appears on the LP soundtrack album (MGM C772) and she can be heard in dialogue extracts.
In 1963, her luck changed. She auditioned for and got the part of Mrs. Dale with the BBC and played the part (apart from two occasions when she had to leave "for health reasons") for six years, when the series was axed by the Corporation.
During the run of "The Dales", she appeared at the Cambridge Theatre in a short-lived comedy, A Share in the Sun, which brought on another breakdown from the stress of appearing in the play and "Mrs Dale" at the same time.
After "Mrs Dale", she virtually retired from the stage, doing cabaret and taking the occasional part, when offered, out of London. She played in a revue in Norwich, Judith Bliss in Hay Fever, a pantomime in Eastbourne, June Buckridge in The Killing of Sister George (a strange irony when she herself had been the "axed " lead in a radio soap opera), Lady Catherine Champion-Cheney in The Circle, until 1973, when she made her last appearance in London at the Royalty Theatre as Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby in The Water Babies, in which she was hardly noticed. In fact, some of the publicity did not even carry her name! In 1970, she was awarded the OBE.
When The Water Babies closed she did little more; in 1976, she toured in The Jessie Matthews Show and, in 1978, she made her last appearance at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and subsequently on tour as the Duchess of Berwick in A Woman of No Importance and appeared in her last film, The Hound of the Baskervilles.
She died on August 19, 1981 and was buried in Ruislip Cemetery, in an unmarked grave, although I understand that in the last few years, a memorial has been erected to her.
During her years in the wilderness, apart from her TV and Radio appearances, she made several recordings - she appears on a "Tribute to Michael Holliday" (1964- COL SX1635) "Charlie Girl" (1966 - MFP 1082) "Children's Favourites" (1968 - MFP 1175) "The King and I" (1969 - MFP 1257), a 45 rpm of two songs from "Dames at Sea" (1969 - CBS 4576) "Twenty Five years of Royal Variety at the London Palladium" (1973 - Pye RVP 25) and as co- presenter on an Argo record, "Let's all go to the Music Hall" ( which I have not managed to trace).
In addition, her records appear in many retrospective collections other than those quoted in this article.
She also made 78rpm records not directly connected with her performances. These are "By the Fireside" and "One More Kiss" (1932 - Col DB 803 - and on LP and CD) "The Cat and The Fiddle" vocal gems (1932 - Col DX 348) "Jessie Mathews' Memories" (1937 - Decca K 871) and "Aladdin" (1942 - Col DB 2621/2).
PS. As a matter of interest, I recently discovered a shop in Hove, West Sussex that has a good stock of Nostalgia and Original Cast LPs and CDs, including some mentioned in this and my earlier articles. This is Fine Records, 32 George Street, Hove, BN3 3YB Tel:01273 723345. It might be worth a call if you are interested in hearing some of the voices I have highlighted in these articles.
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Click here for Gertrude Lawrence...