Sonnie Hale was born John Robert Hale-Munro in London in 1902. His father, Robert, was also an actor. After an education at the Roman Catholic Beaumont College, Hale turned to a career in show business. During the interwar years, he was one of the most recognisable comedy stars in British film, often co-starring with Jessie Matthews, who would become his wife in 1931.
Like other interwar comedy stars, such as Gracie Fields, Hale’s career in the 1920s was based on the stage. His brand of comedy was mainly verbal – Hale was great at the quick repartee. The silent films made during this decade demanded a different, more physical type of comedy. During the 1920s, therefore, Hale appeared in revues which allowed him to perfect his singing and dancing skills. Once sound film became an established medium in Britain in the early 1930s, Hale combined his theatre work with film appearances.
Musical comedy was a popular film genre in 1930s Britain, and Hale packed his schedule with film roles in the first half of the decade. He starred in two films each in 1932 and 1933, a whopping four films in 1934, and three in 1935. He then appeared in one film each in 1936, 1938 and 1939. His acting output slowed down in the second half of the decade because he had at that point also turned his hand to writing and directing, directing three films across 1937 and 1938.
Hale’s first feature film role was a leading part opposite star Jack Hulbert. In the musical comedy Happy Ever After, Hulbert and Hale star as two window cleaners, both named Willie, who try and help a young starlet who is hoping to break into Hollywood. Hale’s time on the stage had evidently given him good connections with stars such as Hulbert and Hulbert’s wife Cicely Courtneidge, who also starred in the film.
From 1933, Hale started appearing in films with Jessie Matthews, by that point his real-life wife. From 1926 to 1930 Hale had been married to actress Evelyn Lay. Matthews had been married to her first husband for the same period. The relationship between Matthews and Hale started when he was still married to Lay, and caused much publicity and controversy at the time. Matthews was cited as co-respondent in Hale’s divorce case against Lay and Matthews’ letters to him were read out in court. The press, naturally, lapped it up, and the judge saw it fit to make comments about Matthews’ conduct.
Public sympathy was with Lay, but Hale and Matthews proved to be a successful professional as well as personal couple, and the public did not reject their collaborations. They appeared together in the ensemble piece Friday the Thirteenth (Hale as a comic bus conductor, Matthews as a chorus girl) and Hale played a supporting role in the Matthews’ star vehicles Evergreen, First a Girl and It’s Love Again, all directed by Victor Saville.
In none of these films, however, does Hale play the love interest to Matthews; he lacked the traditional good looks that 1930s British cinema demanded for the part of the romantic lead. Instead, Hale is the funny, supportive sidekick to either Matthews herself, or to the male lead. In It’s Love Again, for example, he plays Freddie Rathbone, who helps his friend and gossip journalist Peter Carlton come up with his gossip column every day. When Peter’s job is on the line, the pair come up with a fictional society figure, Mrs Smythe-Smythe, about whom Peter can make up the most outrageous stories and thus scoop his rivals at other papers. Hale plays Rathbone as a bit of a waster, who mainly enjoys going to society parties for the free food and wine. He is also, however, loyal to Peter and supportive of Peter’s attempt to impress the aspiring actress Elaine Bradford, played by Matthews.
After It’s Love Again, Hale took over from Saville as director. He directed Matthews in three films: Head over Heels, Gangway and Sailing Along. All three are less accomplished than Saville’s turns directing Matthews, and Hale gave up directing after 1938.
He did not, however, give up acting. His next role after It’s Love Again was a move away from musical comedy. Hale starred as petty criminal Sam Hackett in the Edgar Wallace crime thriller The Gaunt Stranger. Although Hale’s performance still has comic touches to it, the film’s overall tone is much darker than his previous work. It was only a brief foray into a different genre – by 1939 Hale was back to comedy, in the Walter Forde-directed Let’s Be Famous.
The Second World War caused a hiatus in Hale’s film career, although he was able to pick up his stage career which had languished for most of the 1930s. He briefly returned to film and TV films in the second half of the 1940s – by now divorced from Matthews and married to his third wife, Mary Kelsey. Towards the end of his life, he wrote the comedy play The French Mistress which was a success in the West End and made into a film in 1960. Hale died in London in 1959.