by Allan Fish
(UK 1934 90m) DVD2
A little springtime in your heart
p Michael Balcon d Victor Saville w Emlyn Williams, Marjorie Gaffney play “Ever Green” by Benn W.Levy ph Glen MacWilliams ed Ian Dalrymple, Paul Capon md Louis Levy m/ly Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Harry Woods art Alfred Junge, Peter Proud ch Buddy Bradley
Jessie Matthews (Harriet Green/Harriet Hawkes), Sonnie Hale (Leslie Benn), Betty Balfour (Maudie), Barry Mackay (Tommy Thompson), Ivor McLaren (Marquis of Staines), Hartley Power (George Treadwell), Betty Shale (Mrs Hawkes), Marjorie Brooks (Marjorie Moore), Miles Malleson,
Evergreen manages to live up to its title. It’s that most bizarre of contradictions in terms, an excellent British musical. If I’m perfectly honest with myself, it might not quite be worthy of the classic epithet seventy years and more on, and yet it represents so much of cultural importance. It represents the British cinema of the time as much as the early thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock and costume histories of Alexander Korda. It also starred one of the great musical stars of them all, Jessie Matthews, at her absolute zenith.
Harriet Green is a top-liner music hall entertainer in the Edwardian period – or ‘yesterday’ as the caption tells us – giving her final performance before retiring to marry aristocrat the Marquis of Staines. Everything seems ideal, only for her bad penny ex-, George, to return and blackmail her into giving him more money in exchange for keeping quite about their past, which included a daughter. Harriet decides she must escape from everything, running away to South Africa, leaving her beloved fiancé behind and her daughter in the care of her friend, Hawkie. Cut forward a generation to ‘today’ and Harriet’s daughter is struggling to make her way in the same profession, until she finds the backing of the besotted Tommy Thompson and one of Harriet’s old friends, the recently widowed Lady Shropshire, better known as Maudie. They cook up a scheme for Harriet to impersonate her mother, complete with grey hair, in the greatest comeback of the British stage, but her perpetual bad penny father steps in to try and get a piece of the action again.
No-one could doubt the opulence of the production, for it looks an absolute dream. Matthews and director Saville had worked together splendidly in two differing films the previous year, the dramatic Friday the Thirteenth and the semi-musical The Good Companions, and he not only made her a star but brought the best out in her (her lesser later vehicles were handled by her husband and co-star Sonnie Hale). It’s a quaint, frightfully British film in many ways, and Matthews personifies that Englishness, and yet people tend to forget just what a looker Matthews was. Often described, not inaccurately, as elfin, she’s actually remarkably sexy with a very pleasing figure, which she delights in showing off in the flimsiest and most translucent clothes possible, with nipples standing to attention like soldiers on parade, but in a way that could cause offence to no-one. It’s all the more alluring when one considers how, at the same time, such sauciness was being banished from films across the pond by the Hays Code. Her form of dancing is poles apart from that seen in Hollywood, but she has an undoubted grace and incredible poise. Whereas other dancers glided, Jessie almost seemed to take off completely, and this was never more apparent than in the production numbers she’s given here. Additions to the stage show including “Over My Shoulder” became signature themes, but if we remember any sequence, it’s that of her floating around her two storey apartment like a proverbial Puck-like minx to “Dancing on the Ceiling”, one of the most magical moments in British film. Film buffs may also marvel at another number which seems to take its inspiration from Lang’s Metropolis and the montage work of Eisenstein of the previous decade. The plot itself, which borders on the subversive and incestuous, has a delicious perversity to it, Hollywood exile Bradley’s choreography is intoxicating and it is gorgeously shot and set, in a homage to Hollywood art deco.