Jessie Matthews was one of the biggest British screen stars of the 1930s. She achieved success not only in Britain, but also in the US, even though she never made a Hollywood film. Matthews starred in a whopping fourteen films between 1931 and 1938; yet most contemporary articles foreground her private life over her film career. The BFI article linked to above references her ‘generally loveless marriages’; many sources refer to the details surrounding her second marriage to co-star and director Sonnie Hale.
Such interest in Matthew’s romantic life, with its undertones of tragedy and disapproval, undermine her considerable professional success. Matthews was not only an actress, but also a singer and dancer; her films showcase her considerable talent and the hard work she put in to master her craft.
Matthews was a commercial success almost from the start of her film career, but her establishment as a real star originated from the beginning of her collaboration with director Victor Saville. Saville and Matthews first worked together on The Good Companions; followed by Friday the Thirteenth (both 1933); Evergreen (1934); First a Girl (1935); and It’s Love Again (1936).
The Good Companions was based on a J. B. Priestley novel; the text, as Lawrence Napper has argued, seeks to “express ‘modernity’ (…) without a retreat either away from the popular audience or into cultural pessimism.” In other words, it seeks to create a balance between literary intellectualism and popular entertainment. By casting Matthews in a prominent role in the film, Saville picked an actor who herself embodied this duality. Matthews was born in a large, working-class family in Soho but much-commented-on elocution lessons allowed her to shape an upper-middle-class star persona.
After The Good Companions, in which Matthews plays an ambitious actress from a humble background, Saville continued to cast Matthews in similar roles. The seemingly upper-class actress repeatedly played aspiring stage stars from common backgrounds:
- In Friday the Thirteenth, as related in the post about that film, she’s an aspiring stage star caught in a bus crash.
- In Evergreen Matthews is the daughter of a famous turn-of-the-century music hall star, who decides to impersonate her mother to achieve fame and success.
- In First a Girl – an adaptation of the German film Viktor und Viktoria (1933) – she is an aspiring stage star who pretends to be a female impersonator to achieve fame and success.
- In It’s Love Again she’s an aspiring stage star who pretends to be a socialite to achieve fame and success.
It was not unusual for 1930s actors on either side of the Atlantic to have such a defined star persona and to appear in a number of films along the same formula. In fact, in this respect Matthews had much in common with the other big British female star of the time, Gracie Fields. Although one of Fields’ key characteristics was her strong Northern accent, which was diametrically opposed to Matthew’s ‘plummy’ pronunciation, Fields also starred in a number of films in which she is a performer from a humble background who ends up achieving great success. As a female film viewer the message you received remained the same, regardless of whether you identified more with Matthews or Fields: being a stage performer was a desirable and exciting career through which you could find romantic love.
However, whereas Fields’ films were grounded in a very British, very working-class environment, with a strong emphasis on community, collaboration and staying positive in the face of adversity; Matthews’ films on the other hand presented the viewer with a glamourous and consumerist fantasy. The sets are bright and light, with smooth floors that are perfect for impromptu dance performances. In Evergreen, Matthews’ character and her would-be love interest stay in a modern mansion in which she can showcase the latest luxury homeware whilst waltzing across the rooms.
To the modern viewer, the Matthews/Saville musicals feel akin to Hollywood films of the same period. Although the films are (mostly) set in Britain, they express a cosmopolitan outlook. They contain handsome, worldly men; art deco architecture; cocktails; and trips to the French Riviera. Contemporary audiences were already familiar with this fantasy world through the American films also available at the British box office. Matthews’ films brought that glamour to a British setting, suggesting that the same level of sophistication and modernity was also within reach on this side of the Atlantic. Although intellectual circles in interwar Britain retained a stubborn anti-Americanism, the popular success of Matthews as a film star indicates that the mass audience had no such qualms.
Today, however, Gracie Fields has remained relatively prominent in the public imagination, whereas Matthews is largely forgotten. Fields body of work evokes supposedly fundamental British qualities which appear to reflect the ‘good old days’ of community, common sense and national pride. Matthew’s oeuvre, on the other hand, shows only how much 1930s British culture was also about international cultural exchange and a dissolution of national identity. In the current times, which seem to be a near-constant quest of what it means to be ‘British’, it is Field who provides the more appealing answer to most; but the films of Jessie Matthews show that even a hundred years ago, being British was as much about having an international outlook as it was about celebrating local culture.
Jessie Matthew’s films are available on DVD from Network On Air.
 Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), p. 207
 Lawrence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), p. 83
 Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace, pp. 208-209
 Sarah Street, ‘‘Got to Dance my Way to Heaven’: Jessie Matthews, art deco and the British musical of the 1930s’, in Studies in European Cinema vol 2. no. 1 (2005), 19-30