But for the recalcitrance of RKO, Evergreen could have been the finest of Fred Astaire’s movies. Instead, it was never an Astaire film, but “merely” the best musical ever made in England, and the finest film of the legendary Jessie Matthews (1907-81), the queen of the London musical stage.
Matthews’ was a true Cinderella story. One of 13 children of a Soho fruit vendor, she suffered a childhood marred by dire poverty. She started dancing soon after learning to walk, and her formal education ended at age 12 when she began working in vaudeville. In 1923, she appeared in the Music Box Revue, during which she so charmed Irving Berlin that he gave her “I Want to Go Back to Michigan” as a featured number.
Matthews’ association with Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart began with One Damn Thing After Another, a 1928 production of London impresario Charles B. Cochran, for which the two wrote “My Heart Stood Still.” In 1930, Cochran began looking for a new vehicle to star both Matthews and her soon-to-be-husband, Sonnie Hale, and Rodgers and Hart devised the entire show. It was Hart who thought of the idea of a young woman switching identities with her mother—which evolved, with help from author Benn Levy, into a story about the younger woman becoming a singing star in Paris.
Rodgers and Hart turned in a bumper crop of good songs for the show, entitled Ever Green, including “Dancing on the Ceiling” (which had been dropped from an earlier show), “Dear, Dear” (which the newly married Rodgers wrote for his wife Dorothy), and “If I Give In to You.” Ever Green was also notable for its use of a rotating stage and a set designed as an upside-down ceiling, complete with chandelier, for “Dancing on the Ceiling.”
Matthews’ movie career took off in 1932 when she appeared in the movie version of J. B. Priestley’s The Good Companions, directed by Victor Saville. Meeting Saville was fortuitous, for not only did his coaching result in Matthews’ best performance to date, but he was a filmmaker with vision and ambition. Evergreen, as the play was renamed or the screen, was their tour de force.
Nearly a dozen Rodgers and Hart numbers were jettisoned for the film, partly because of major changes in plot and setting, but the three key songs remained, and a fourth, “In the Cool of the Evening,” appeared in the background score. Added were new numbers by Harry Woods (a composer best known for “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover”) including “When You’ve Got a Little Springtime in Your Heart” and “Tinkle! Tinkle! Tinkle!” and Joseph Tabrar’s 1892 music-hall hit, “Daddy wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow.” Gaumont-British had hoped to get Fred Astaire—who was appearing in the London run of Cole Porter’s The Gay Divorceacute—to star with Matthews, but RKO refused to loan him out. The lead went to singer/actor Barry Mackay, while Sonnie Hale portrayed Leslie Benn, the cynical, half-mad director.
British film musicals were thought of as dull, creaky, and sluggish, with none of the spirit of their American counterparts. Victor Saville changed all of that in Evergreen, with assistance from screenwriter Emlyn Williams and original stage choreographer Buddy Bradley. Evergreen displays the snappy pace and humor found in such American films as 42nd Street (Leslie Benn to a chorus girl: “Don’t you get any sleep?” Her response, with a knowing look: “What do you think?”). The choreography shows extraordinary vigor, and is a superb showcase for the work of Buddy Bradley, a little-known African American dancer from New York who devised numbers for Fred Astaire and Ruby Keeler, among others, before Cochran brought him to London. The art deco sets by Alfred Junge remain eye-catching 60 years later, especially in the “Hourglass Dance” and “Dancing on the Ceiling” sequences.
Evergreen was the first British musical at Radio City Music Hall. Its success was an introduction to America for Victor Saville, who came here as a producer and was later responsible for the production of several Mickey Spillane novels, including Kiss Me Deadly. Jessie Matthews was considered for Fred Astaire’s partner in A Damsel in Distress, and was approached by MGM, but chose to remain in England. After retiring from films, she became a radio star and wrote an autobiography, Over My Shoulder.