Saturday, August 4, 2018

Evergreen (1934)

(This post is part of the Rule, Britannia Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts)

When Americans think of British cinema, they are inclined to think of Gainsborough melodramas, Ealing comedies, Hammer horrors, spy dramas, and war films. What might not come to Americans' minds when they think of British cinema are musicals. Despite this, the British have produced many movie musicals through the years, many of which date to the early years of the Talkie Era. In fact, it was in the Thirties that the British produced their first bona fide movie musical star: Jessie Matthews. Beautiful, shapely, a talented singer, and a fairly good dancer, Jessie Matthews was a superstar in 1930s Britain.

Jessie Matthews was already a star of the stage when she made the transition to film. She had appeared on the London stage in This Year of Grace and Wake Up and Dream before her breakout, starring role in the Rogers and Hart musical Ever Green (1930). With such success on stage, Miss Matthews made the transition to movies. Her first major role came in 1931 with Out of the Blue. It was followed by The Midshipmaid (1932) and There Goes the Bride (1932). It would be the 1934 movie adaptation of Ever Green, retitled simply Evergreen, that would make Jessie Matthews a film star.

Directed by Victor Saville for Gaumont British, Evergreen was changed substantially from the original stage musical. The original stage play centred on Edwardian music hall star Harriet Green, who returns to London after living in South Africa for many years and then masquerading as her twenty-something daughter. The film version centred on Harriet Green's daughter, who masquerades as her mother (an Edwardian music hall star who died years ago in South Africa). The film version also jettisoned most of Rogers and Hart's songs, retaining only "If I Give in to You", "Dear Dear", and "Dancing on the Ceiling". Victor Saville turned to songwriter Harry M. Woods to write new songs for the movie: "When You've Got a Little Springtime in Your Heart" and "Over My Shoulder" (which would become Jessie Mattthews's signature tune). Rogers and Hart were apparently happy with the changes, as Miss Matthews later said that Victor Saville received a telegram from them which read, "Wish we'd thought up this story."

While there was no doubt that Jessie Matthews would play the dual role of Harriet Green and her daughter, Evergreen could have had a very different leading man from young Barry MacKay (for whom Evergreen would be his first major role). Gaumont British wanted Fred Astaire, then appearing in London in a stage production of The Gay Divorcee, for the role. Mr. Astaire even wanted to star in the movie. Unfortunately RKO, to whom Fred Astatire was under contract, refused to loan him to Gaumont British.

As to Jessie Matthews herself, in many ways the production of Evergreen was not a particularly happy time for her. Always a fragile woman, Jessie Matthews was close to a nervous breakdown at the time, and she only did Evergreen because she believed it could be her breakout film role. Her experiences with director Albert de Courville on the sets of There Goes the Bride and The Midshipmaid had been particularly unpleasant. Fortunately, Victor Saville was the exact opposite of Albert de Courville, and offered Jessie Matthews all the support she needed to make it through filming. Amazingly enough, the beautiful Jessie Matthews worried that she was not photogenic enough for film. In particular, she worried about her nose. Victor Saville actually thought her nose was one of her best features. He told her once during filming, "You're a hell of a good actress, just act as though you knew you were a very attractive female."

Evergreen received overwhelmingly positive reviews on both sides of the Pond. What is more, it also proved to be a box office hit in both the United Kingdom and the United States. In the wake of the success of Evergreen, MGM reportedly approached Jessie Matthews with an offer, but Gaumont British refused to release her from her contract. Other Hollywood studios would follow MGM in wooing Miss Matthews, including RKO (home of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), who offered $50,000 for her to co-star with Fred Astaire. Each time Hollywood was rebuffed, either because Gaumont British would not release Miss Matthews or because of her ill health and personal problems. Jessie Matthews would remain an exclusively British star.

Seen today it is not enough to say that Evergreen compares favourably with Hollywood musicals of the era, as it actually surpasses many of them. Jessie Matthews gives a good performance as Edwardian music hall star Harriet Green and her daughter of the same name. Miss Matthews was also a very good singer and a very good dancer, often better than some of the American musical stars of the period. What is more, Miss Matthews simply oozes sex appeal--I have to wonder that many British men of the era didn't fancy her. This is helped not only by the fact that Evergreen was a pre-Code film, but by the fact that it was made in Britain (the British Board of Film Censorship was less uptight about sex than the Hays Office). The film features some brilliant musical sequences, including those for "Dancing on the Ceiling" and "Over My Shoulder".  While these sequences might not match those created by Busby Berkeley, they are impressive on their own (and let's face it, very few musical sequences ever match those created by Busby Berkeley). The songs are all quite good, particularly "Dancing on the Ceiling" and "Over My Shoulder". Early in the film Jessie Matthews even gives a charming rendition of the Victorian standard "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow Wow". The film also benefits from impressive set design, a perfect example of Art Deco in the Thirties.

Although a huge hit upon its initial release in the United States, today Evergreen has largely been forgotten by most Americans. It certainly is not as famous as some Hollywood musicals of the era, such as 42nd Street and Top Hat. That having been said, there is every reason Evergreen should be better known. It is one of the best musicals of the Thirties and proof that the British could easily compete with Hollywood when it came to make movie musicals.


Caftan Woman said...

I was enchanted reading your article and discovering all of the background of Jessie and Evergeen.

When I think of Jessie Matthews it is always Dancing on the Ceiling that pushes its way to the front of my memory.


Wow, Evergreen sounds very interesting - and to think Fred Astaire could have been on it! I'll look for the film.
Thanks for hosting this great event!