Jessie was a very cute and appealing young Brit, who usually got to sing a song or two and did nice high kicks. Her glory days were the 1930s, and VCI has two collections of her work, each with five films. Herewith my pondering on the first five:
The movies aren’t classics, but they’re quiet fun. At worst, they feel like first roughs for better movies by Lubitsch, Sturges, Capra, or Wilder. Those masters built precision comedies with razor-sharp jokes. These films are content to present an amusing if implausible situation and the occasional witty quip, trusting solid British actors -- mostly unknown to me -- to make the most of what they get. The prints range from acceptable to pretty good.
THERE GOES THE BRIDE (1932): Jessie is being forced into a marriage as part of her father’s big business deal. She runs away, determined to stay invisible until the groom’s scheduled departure for South America the next day. She ends up in the amusing if implausible custody of a wealthy bachelor, who must conceal her from his fiancee. Then she impersonates the fiancee at a party. Two songs and some surefire farce, but not the best Mischievous Girl Inconveniences And Wins Over Flustered Man movie (to be fair, that’s not a small niche). Odd attempt at raciness, after the fiancee has just stomped out — forgetting she left her dress behind:
BACHELOR: “What will people think?”
JESSIE: “That she’s everybody’s … fiancee.”
THE MAN FROM TORONTO (1932): Flighty young widow Jessie will inherit a needed fortune from an eccentric old admirer. So will the old boy’s handsome Canadian nephew. But they have to marry each other. Through amusing if implausible circumstances, Jessie, the Canadian and their mutual old lawyer end up in a village full of gossipy locals. Jessie pretends to be her own maid to see if he’ll love her for herself and not her money. She’s more the screwball scatterbrain than the manic pixie dream girl in this one. Doesn’t get to sing, but she’s still cute and funny. The old lawyer’s sufferings are less comic than convincing. An overpowering Margaret Dumont type fares better, cheerfully bullying everybody into a revival of Olde Arts & Crafts.
THE GOOD COMPANIONS (1933): Based on a popular novel, it starts out gritty and serious: A concert party (a small touring variety troupe) is left flat broke by an absconding manager. A tough old carpenter finally walks out on his failed marriage. A spinster, whose father just died, rejects her destiny as an old lady’s paid companion and seeks adventure. An impudent academic (very young John Gielgud) welcomes dismissal by a puritanical headmaster. Everybody ends up in the same pub. The spinster will gamble her savings on the group. The academic becomes their new pianist and songwriter. The old carpenter becomes their stage manager. Company ingenue Jessie Matthews, here an outright little minx, targets Gielgud for herself while fixing the spinster’s love life. Yes, some amusing if implausible events along the way.
FRIDAY THE 13TH (1933): An odd one. A London bus carrying a handful of types has an accident just before midnight. A newspaper headline reveals that two passengers were killed. We then see Big Ben spinning backwards to that morning, as various people who were on the doomed bus start their day. We then cut between the different stories; some comic, some dramatic. Jessie is a saucy “On the Go Variety Girl”, whose engagement to schoolmaster Ralph Richardson (even he was young once) is on rocky ground. Seems he doesn’t like his future wife being ogled by a cad dangling a Paris gig. Eventually you know who you HOPE was killed; it’s the other one you wonder about as characters finally board the bus (including Jessie) and replay the opening moments. Nothing excessively implausible this time, but they don’t get you sufficiently invested in all the stories to really care about the outcome. The final shot isn’t quite a twist or summation; just an odd afterthought.
FIRST A GIRL (1935): Remade as “Victor / Victoria”, and itself a remake of a German film. Much simpler and more innocent than the Blake Edwards epic. Delivery girl Jessie meets desperate Shakespearean Victor (Sonnie Hale, a solid comic song and dance man). His sideline is female impersonation; a loss of voice and he gets Jessie to go on his place. They somehow pull it off, despite such issues as a shared men’s dressing room, loose geese and acrobats. “Mr. Victoria” quickly becomes the toast of the Continent. Then Jessie takes an interest in Robert, your generic wealthy bachelor, while Victor is smitten with Robert’s aristocratic fiancee. Victor is 100% straight; there’s barely a hint of gay in this movie. Most of the farce is Jessie trying to be somewhat masculine offstage while avoiding exposure (in her onstage numbers, Jessie doesn’t try to suggest a man in drag). Robert, who has suspicions, contrives for Victor, Jessie and himself to have to share a hotel room. That’s as suggestive as it gets, but it’s still the liveliest outing in the set. Some suitably campy Busby Berkeley-type numbers qualify it as a musical.
The first three of the second VCI set, 1936 to 1938. They’re a bit slicker on all fronts, and budgets are edging upwards. Still, it’s cheerfully unambitious froth. The prints are still okay, I guess.
HEAD OVER HEELS (1936): A lot of Jessie singing, but not much else. The main interest is that this is a British-shot version of Paris, where maybe two characters attempt French accents. Cabaret singer Jessie meets two roommates: a sweet, sincere radio engineer and an oily actor. She falls hard for the oily actor, and makes him part of her act despite zero talent. A Hollywood siren lures him away on the very night he was to announce his engagement to Jessie. Upset, she runs offstage mid-performance and is banned for three months by the League, which is some kind of union and / or entertainment police. The engineer sells his boss on making her a singing emcee, and her musical commercials make her a star (her medley of ads is cute). She’s set to marry the engineer, but guess who comes back, offering American stardom? And guess who pisses Jessie off with his insecurity? She storms off again in mid-performance — this time on live radio — and is officially banned from professional singing by the League (Don’t ask me how it works. It’s just there). The movie stumbles to a happy ending.
IT’S LOVE AGAIN (1936): I rank this one with “First, A Girl”. Lots of snappy banter and throwaways (a meek butler says he was in love once, but nothing came of it because he “wasn’t sufficiently firm”), some nifty art deco sets, and a superior script: Two desperate gossip columnists — Robert Young and a comic sidekick — scoop the competition by inventing Mrs. Smythe-Smythe, glamorous Indian socialite and tiger hunter. Song and dance girl Jessie, too unknown to get a break, becomes Smythe-Smythe at a nightclub; she plans to drop the charade when she’s sufficiently famous to get cast in a show. She and Young hook up, but their combined efforts to keep Smythe-Smythe going run into comic obstacles. The songs are mostly Jessie solo, with one biggie near the end. Note: No Indian makeup effects or accent on Jessie. She just wears a veil.
GANGWAY (1937): This one was frustrating. It’s lavish — even a newspaper office is insanely glamorous, with Assistant Film Critic Jessie having her own big Art Deco office. The cast includes Nat Pendleton as “one of the friendlier public enemies” and weirdly hilarious Alister Sim as a hapless private eye. And the story is full of promise. Jessie dreams of chasing dangerous stories like the two-fisted reporters in American gangster movies. She’s assigned to get a job as maid to a temperamental film star, and root out something juicy from her scandalous past. Meanwhile, a handsome Scotland Yard man is pursuing the mysterious lady jewel thief Sparkle. He suspects the film star, and then Jessie. They all sail for America, where Jessie is mistaken for Sparkle by gangsters who needed her for a planned heist. The frustration is, the hero and heroine are considerably more stupid than necessary for this kind of story; they’re foolish and irresponsible. Other characters aren’t appreciably more sensible; after going to great pains to import a brilliant jewel thief, the baddies’ plan is to just have her dance as a distraction during a crude snatch-and-run. Nice fragments here and there, including the Brit’s comic view of Yank gangsters at work and play.
Two more to go, both from 1938.