On 3 December 1930 the Adelphi Theatre, London, was opened with the Charles Cochran stage musical "Ever Green" starring Jessie Matthews, co-starring Joyce Barbour, Jean Cadell and Sonnie Hale. Dances and ensembes were choreographed and put together by Buddy Bradley and Billy Pierce , words and music written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. London newspaper 'The Times' graphically and suscinctly described the show in it's review :
" Here in this 'musical show' which is really revue with a narrative linking the episodes together, is displayed attention to triffles which makes for perfection. There is nowhere any fumbling or uncertain aim, and we get the impression that a knowledge of the end to which the show is voluptously moving has been drilled into everybody on stage. The story has a deliciously impudence of it's own. We are to suppose that the lively young woman presented by miss Jessie Matthews is really an old woman of 60 and that the middle-aged woman whom Miss Jean Cadell gives a sublime tactlessness is her daughter. It follows that the evergreen lady is a bright particular star at the casino des Folies, and we get a most amusing glimpse of a rehearsal in which Mr Leon Morton and a numerous chorus are just sufficiently more French than the French. An easy turn of the narrative, and we are at a French provincial circus, with Mr Sonnie Hale and Miss Matthews singing a duet in an interior design by Mr Ernst Stern with a true feeling for circus life. The stage revolves bringing with it the most memorable scene of the evening, a fair in full swing. It's reverberations filled the theatre, and a delightfully sharp sense ofits life and fun was conveyed by the perfectly drilled and carefully deliberated perfection of the groupings.
"From a provincial fair Mr Cochran switches us to spangled halls and a parade of his Young Ladies apparelled in various costly fantasies, and when the curtain goes up again the scene is Spanish and the villagers are dancing the Sardana, a famous Catalonian measure, and the grotesques of tradition are touring the streets. These are the more gorgous of the spectacles, but others less lavishly decorated are pretty and various and amusing....But it is the spectacle that is the chief charm of the entertainment, a spectacle enhanced and diversified by the dancing of Miss Joyce Barbour, the astonishing acrobatics of Carlos and Chita, and the beautifully regimented dancing of Mr Cochrans Young Ladies and the Tiller Girls."
Read more in the Ever Green Theatre Programme
The show had a hugely successful run, and 4 years later the rights to the book "Ever-Green" by Benn W Levy, was snapped up and adapted for the silver screen with Victor Saville at the helm. Fortunately studio officianados at British Gaumont were able to sign Jessie to star in the film but unfortunately Fred Astaire then appearing in London in 'Gay Divorce',whom they had hoped to sign to appear opposite her, had just signed a film contract with RKO so was unable to appear. Despite this setback, British Gaumont and all at the Gainsborough Studios did a terriffic job on the film, which is one of the most popular of Jessies films and still reveared today.
On the Amazon.com web-site a review of the VHS release of "Evergreen" declares:
"This film is perhaps the most remembered of Jessie Matthews legendary musicals. A charming piece of frivolity. Devine dancing, magical music, and charismatic comedy performances by Brtitains best. The film is a tuneful, spectacular cinematic version of the stage musical notable for excellently executed ensembles. Remembered not only for Jessie's singing, dancing and acting, but for husband Hale's uplifting performance and return to the screen of Betty Balfour. Stunning costumery and lavish sets dress a carefully crafted plot which opens with the farewell performance of Harriet Green at the Tivoli Music Hall in 1909. After the show a party is thrown for Harriet at which her engagement to the Marquis of Staines is announced. She is called away to discover the man who had lived with her attempting blackmail: an occurance that makes her flee the country, leaving her daughter to be brought up in the charge of her dresser. Grown up daughter takes on mothers identity for an amazing return to stage. But Tommy, Harriet's pseudo publicity agent and supposed son, finds that he is falling in love with his 'mother'..."
'Evergreen' & Jessie both became an immediate international success. The amusements section of THE SCREEN on Friday Jan 11, 1935, gives a clue why.
"At the risk of damning the Music Hall's new photoplay with faint praise, it is imperative to report at once that "Evergreen" is the most pleasurable musical comedy yet offered us by the ambitious British screen industry. Both in its suave and expert technical arrangement and in its superb Rodgers and Hart songs, this Gaumont-British screen edition of Benn W. Levy's London play is a considerable joy"
The New York Times Sunday Aug 22, 1937, goes one step futher, drawing parallels to the fary-tale like rags to riches story of Jessie.
"IF things were different, an excellent plot for a Jessie Matthews musical would be her own true life's story--the narrative of a young girl who danced her way from the slums of London into the equivalent of a gilded palace--a Cinderella tale with many novelties... "
In reality the experience of working on the film "Evergreen" was anything but a fary-tale for Jessie, even though she was exceptionally good, and the film was a masterpiece as is explaine by 'Time Out Film Guide' ...
"Matthews, the stallholder's daughter from Berwick Street, paid heavily for the acclaim she won as Britain's leading musical star. Despite Saville's sympathetic direction, she suffered horrifying nervous rashes and temporary mental breakdown during the making of this, her most famous film. She nevertheless gives a dazzling performance in the dual role of a famous music hall star and the daughter, an unemployed chorus-girl, who impersonates her in a desperate bid for fame and fortune. If Saville fails to explore the sexual undertones of the story, the exciting post-Metropolis sets designed by Alfred Junge provide an impressive showcase for Jessie's elfin beauty and superb dancing (to a Rodgers and Hart score)."
It was not all plain sailing for the promotion of the film either. Behind the scenes one element of the film caused an amount of controversy as the music company 'Past Perfect' discusses.
"We have Jessie's 'Dancing On The Ceiling' from the 1934 film 'Evergreen'. This Rodgers and Hart song (originally written as 'He Dances On My Ceiling') had been given by the composers to Florenz Ziegfeld for his 1930 Broadway musical 'Simple Simon', but the impresario rejected it on the grounds that it was "too complicated". So they came up with 'Ten Cents A Dance' instead. Rodgers and Hart offered the number to C B Cochran for his musical show 'Ever Green'; Cochran wisely accepted and Jessie and Sonnie Hale introduced the number at the newly opened Adelphi Theatre. The production was very expensive and lavish and was the first in London to use a revolving stage and had an upside down chandelier as the setting. The BBC banned the song from being broadcast at this time because it mentioned the word 'bed' twice, but Jessie always claimed the ban was directed at her in view of the notorious divorce case between Evelyn Laye and Sonnie Hale where Jessie was cited as co-respondent. By 1934 when 'Evergreen'was filmed, Jessie had become a huge star as a result of appearing opposite John Gielgud in the 1933 film of J B Priestley's 'The Good Companions'. The long and spectacular 'Dancing On The Ceiling' routine, choreographed by Jessie and Buddy Bradley, started with Jessie playing the first notes on a piano then dancing with tremendous high kicks through the rooms of an Art Deco house. 'Evergreen', produced by Michael Balcon and directed by Victor Saville, was probably Jessie's best film. When asked to describe her appeal, Victor Saville said simply "She had a heart. It photographed".
Going to see "Evergreen" was a special experience. Every aspect was skillfully crafted including the cinema hordings and foyet decoration as is illustrated here at the 'Bromley Grand' Theatre, 1934.
"Evergreen" was so successful at New York's Radio City Music Hall that it was there, when showing this film, that Jessie was labeled "The Dancing Divinity".The film's success is not just attributed to Jessie but to the wise changes made to the play in its adaptation by Emlyn Williams, scenario by Marjory Gaffey, and choice of songs. Only "Dancing On The Ceiling" and "Dear, Dear" were kept from the original 15 songs in the show. The other songs chosen for the film were "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me A Bow Wow", "I Wouldn't Give My Little Wooden Cup For You", "When You've Got A Little Springtime In Your Hart", "Tinkle Tinkle Tinkle", "I'm Only Giving Into Myself", "Over My Shoulder" and "By Your Example Dear".The Lyrics and Music were written by Harry M Woods, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and directed by Louis Levy, conducted by Bretty Byrd, and played by the Gaumont British Studio Orchestra. The beautiful costumes worn were designed by Berleo and the scenes were lit and photographed by Glen Mac Williams. Theatres represented in "Evergreen" were the Tivoli, and the Adelphi, London.
For more information please visit BFI's Screen Online 'Evergreen' page
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