Jessie Matthews: The Dancing Divinity

Jessie Matthews (1907-1981) was a major British stage and screen star of the 20th century, who also worked in the States.

Raised in poor circumstances, Matthews made her professional debut at age 12 as a dancer in Seymour Hicks’ Bluebell in Fairyland (1919) at the Metropolitan Music Hall. Her breakthrough year was 1923, when she appeared in her first film, the silent The Beloved Vagabond, and the first of numerous Charlot’s Revues, during which time she went from the chorus to understudying for Gertrude Lawrence, for getting to go on in the star’s place, to experiencing runs on Broadway and tours of Canada. A star of the West End, she performed in shows with original songs by Noel Coward and Cole Porter, culminating with Rodgers and Hart’s Ever Green (1930), a show loosely based on the careers of Marie Lloyd and Marie Lloyd Jr. She also starred in the 1934 film version of that show. From 1926 through 1929 she was married to Henry Lytton, Jr., son of the D’Oyly Carte stars Sir Henry Lytton and Louie Henri, and future ringmaster of the Blackpool Tower Circus.

Out of the Blue (1931) was Matthews’ first starring role in a talkie. She was to star in over a dozen more pictures through 1938, including Hitchcock’s Waltzes from Vienna (1933), Carol Reed’s Climbing High (1938), and several directed by her husband Sonnie Hale, to whom she was married from 1931 through 1944. The relationship with Hale, who was also an actor, had begun in 1928, when both were still married to other people. The resulting scandal briefly hampered her career. (This is just one of many eyebrow-raising stories about Matthews’ past, some of which didn’t come out until after her death. Some of what transpired will not elevate your opinion of the British Royal Family. I won’t go into it here, because I can’t be bothered to fact check such stuff this morning, but if you’re interested in century-old gossip, I direct you here. You can also Google for many more accounts of these events).

In 1939, war came to the U.K. and Matthews spent the next several years entertaining troops. In 1943 she made her Hollywood film debut in the all-star Forever and a Day. She then directed a short called Victory Wedding (1944) starring John Mills and Dulcie Gray and had a small supporting role in a thriller called Candles at NIne (1944). The war years had killed her star status, unfortunately. For the next several years she appeared in live theatre, regional panto, music hall, and had the occasional television part. Some later screen roles include parts in George Pal’s 1958 Tom Thumb with Russ Tamblyn; Paul Morrisey’s 1978 The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore; a 1978 TV mini-series called Edward and Mrs. Simpson (significant subject matter to her, if you believe the whispers), and a guest shot on Tales of the Unexpected (1980), her last performance. She was awarded an OBE in 1970 — shortly after John Lennon returned his!

To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous