Musical star Jessie Matthews was at the prime of her career in 1935 when she starred as the lead in First a Girl. This musical comedy directed by Victor Saville is one version of a popular film plot; it is a remake of the German comedy Viktor und Viktoria (1933), which was re-made in West Germany in 1957, and most famously adapted by Hollywood in 1982, as Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews.
The basic plot of all four films, including First a Girl, is similar. An aspiring stage actress (in the British film she’s called Elizabeth, and naturally is played by Matthews) meets Victor, an actor who aspires to Shakespeare but in reality performs as a female impersonator. When a bad cold prevents Victor from performing one evening, he persuades Elizabeth to take his place, by pretending to be a man who pretends to be a woman. This is a great success, and ‘Victoria’ quickly becomes an international star, forcing Elizabeth to appear as a man when in public. Things get complicated when Elizabeth falls in love with a (straight) man, who believes her to be a man also.
Whilst both the 1933 original and the 1982 American version are regularly interpreted as queer films, First a Girl underplays the homosexual possibilities of Elizabeth’s flirtation with her male love interest. This is partly due to Matthews’ own appearance. As The New York Times noted upon First a Girl’s US release in 1936:
Normally it is with sorrow and self-hatred that this column hints at the inadequacies of a star, but this time it is a distinct pleasure to call Miss Matthews’s acting performance hopelessly bad. In “First a Girl” she is pretending to be a man and making no headway at all, except with the members of her supporting cast, who swoon with astonishment upon discovering her sex.
Quite beside Matthew’s obviously feminine appearance, First a Girl underplays any potential sexual tension between Elizabeth and her love interest, Robert, until Robert understands that Elizabeth is a woman. Prior to that point, the film focuses on the comedic potential of Elizbeth’s cross-dressing, rather than any transgressive possibilities in her relationship with Robert.
All versions of the film appear to include a similar sequence in which ‘Victoria’ is ‘forced’ to perform activities which are coded as specifically masculine, to comic effect. In First a Girl this sequence is set in a Parisian nightclub, where Victor and Elizabeth find themselves during their European tour. Elizabeth has to wear a tuxedo here, and hangs out at the bar with Robert – a part of the club only available to men. She quickly gets drunk when trying to keep up with Robert’s rate of drinking, and struggles when trying to smoke a cigar. Whilst these scenes give Matthews an opportunity to display her comedic talent, they also undermine her sexual capital whilst she is performing as a man. As soon as Elizabeth’s true gender identity is revealed to Robert, she turns from an unsophisticated youth into a charming young woman.
It is significant that these scenes of gender-bending performance are set in Paris – a location that invited connotations of licentiousness and sexual transgression in the British popular imagination of the 1930s. Interestingly, in the 1933 German film, ‘Victoria’ is in London when forced to undertake activities which may ‘out’ her as a woman. ‘Victoria’ finds herself in an environment that is both literally and figuratively foreign to her.
As Jeffrey Richards points out, male and female impersonation had a long tradition on the British theatrical and music hall stage. The character of Victor, then, works well in this British film. He is portrayed as older than Elizabeth (although actor Sonnie Hale was only five years Matthews’ senior) and can easily be read as a music hall performer in the Victorian tradition. His female impersonation act is purely comic, whilst Elizabeth’s is sophisticated. He links the film’s plot to a specifically British performance tradition, whereas the glossy song-and-dance numbers performed by Elizabeth have more in common with Hollywood productions. The film makes no explicit reference to its German origins.
First a Girl, then, significantly dilutes the queer and transgressive possibilities of the original source material, which allowed the film to flourish in interwar Britain. According to the BFI, it was a great commercial success when it was released (something also suggested by its export to the US the following year). It remains a very watchable and enjoyable film for modern audiences; and a good example of how British interwar filmmakers moderated both European and Hollywood influences to arrive at a British compromise between the two.
First a Girl is available for rental on BFI Player (UK only) and on DVD via Network on Air.
 Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), pp. 217-218
 Ibid., p. 218
 This is not unusual for Jessie Matthews films. See Sarah Street, ‘Got to Dance my Way to Heaven’: Jessie Matthews, art deco and the British musical of the 1930s, Studies in European Cinema, 2:1, (2005), 19-30