“He’s sorry.”

Necessary background: in FIRST A GIRL, Jessie Matthews has disguised herself as a young fellow in order to get a break in show-business. This is where the leading man discovers her secret, and… he’s sorry?

It’s either a direct homosexual allusion, a joke on effete British leading men, or both.

Directed by Victor Saville, FIRST A GIRL is a remake of the German VIKTOR, VIKTORIA, which formed the basis for Blake Edwards’ VICTOR, VICTORIA, which is also pretty bold about gender and sexuality themes — only forty years later.

Jessie M deserves a chapter of her own in any Encyclopaedia of British Rumpo — her fondness for seriously diaphanous costumes ran afoul of the American censors, and her dancing impressed Fred Astaire. she had offers from Hollywood but stayed in England to get married (to that chap in Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE) and have a kid. By the time she was disillusioned with that, America was no longer calling. She was a working-class cockney girl who trained herself to talk incredibly posh, and somehow it goes with her cheeky chipmunk smile. Her husband, by contrast, was a posh lad who trained himself to speak cockney, leading to music hall success.

Like Barbara Windsor, Jessie always pissed in the dressing room sink. You don’t want to use the toilet — who knows who’s been in there?

Her leading man is Griffith Jones, best known (to me, anyhow) as the villainous Narcy (Narcissus) in Cavalcanti’s THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE, just about the best British noir ever. According to my friend Lawrie, Jones had a slight bitter streak: “Of course, they don’t want sincere acting nowadays,” he would grumble, when “in his cups”.

Victor Saville, who directed Jessie in a number of successful British musicals, did go to Hollywood, where he directed Rita Hayworth in TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT (memorable scene: a young man dances to a Hitler speech on the radio), Errol Flynn and Dean Stockwell in KIM, before tanking spectacularly with THE SILVER CHALICE, which sent him back to England and a long retirement.

NB: though Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL is often listed as Britain’s first talkie, Victor Saville’s KITTY, which is half-silent and half-talking (BLACKMAIL’s first reel is also mute) was apparently first. I wonder what it’s like?

10 Responses to ““He’s sorry.””

  1. What a wonderfully odd moment. Hepicks her up from out of the water, lays her down on the shore, looks her body up and down and then — dis approvingly — says “I’m sorry.”

    Apparently he was expecting a boy.

    Jessie takes it rather well, however.

  2. “I’m sorry, but since you haven’t got a penis I’m off!”

    Though is it that he is saying sorry that he was roughhousing with her under the impression she was a fellow fella, and now that he has found out the truth there is a difficulty in moving to a male/female decorous relationship and forgetting about the way they behaved together before?

    In some ways though isn’t this many a man’s dream? A girl who can be ‘one of the guys’ that he can relax with and not a frightening “whole different sex!”, and yet still has all of the fun lady parts?

    Wasn’t Blackmail made in a completely silent version as well as the part silent/part sound famous version? I read somewhere a while ago, though I can’t remember where, a review that praised the fully silent version as being a better and more fluidly shot film than the sound one so I’d love to see it, if only for completeness sake.

    I get a feeling that we may be seeing a run of these risque banana pictures!

  3. 1) He’s actually rescued her from drowning, so he’s got nothing of that kind to be sorry about. I guess he’s sorry he’s uncovered her disguise, since it feels like a violation, and he doesn’t know how to feel about her now. But it definitely suggests other possibilities, and that’s how SHE sees it!

    2) The film certainly plays with many different ideas of gender roles. Jessie is a hit playing a man playing a woman, for instance. “I’m a dude, playing a dude, pretending to be another dude!”

    3) Yes, Blackmail was shot silent, and Hitchcock claims that remaking it as (almost) all-talking was his idea, and carried out without British Gaumont’s knowledge, because they just wanted a few scenes redone. Unlikely.

    4) I can think of one more banana shot that I simply MUST post.

  4. So that was Narcy in that clip? I’ve seen They Made Me A Fugitive a number of times, I barely recognize him. David, have you seen A Cottage On Dartmoor? Though made in the late Twenties, it’s also considered by some to be very noirish. The Kino DVD also has this extra about the history of silent film in England, breezy but still informative.

  5. I have a copy of A Cottage, but haven’t watched it yet. Asquith seems to have been pretty exciting around the late silent era, he sure made up for it later on though. But Underground (1928) looks fairly stunning. After that early burst of activity, Asquith seems to have confined the vigour to his offscreen activities, picking up truck drivers in roadside cafes…

    The Cinema Europe doc by Kevin Brownlow is enjoyably scathing on much British silent cinema, but uncovers a few gems. I’d like to see the kino one though.

  6. You should check out six martinis and the seventh art, a blog of “ocular treats” (Wolcott’s words) put together by a woman named shahn. She did an entry on Cottage that showcases a few really striking images from the film, and got to see the film on the big screen at the last Silent Film Festival in San Francisco. It was on the basis of her entry that I ended up purchasing the Kino DVD, along with a Lang’s Destiny (looks stunning), another entry of hers.

  7. Well, Destiny is unmissable, for sure.

    That’s a lovely blog there — I’ll add it to my blogroll once I’m sober!

  8. ‘Kitty’ is a well-made film and worth seeing. It’s a faithful adaptation of Warwick Deeping’s sentimental novel about a shell-shocked soldier and Kitty, his plucky little wife. The soldier’s mum disapproves of Kitty, and tries to freeze her out. Dorothy Cumming gives a superb performance as the mother.
    I saw it at the BFI where I was offered a choice between sound and silent versions. I chose the talkie, but only the last reel or so is sound. Suddenly the film jerks into sound, and becomes less convincing.

  9. That sounds great. A lot of these “part-talkies” were made, and it’s always disconcerting when the shift comes. Wyler’s The Love Trap is half and half, and though the second half is decent enough, it’s got that early-talkie stiffness, and Laura LaPlante, so fresh and natural in the first half, suddenly becomes a bit stilted.

    I wish it was easier to see more British silents. The BFI ought to do more via their DVD arm. It’s nice we’ve got Piccaddilly and A Cottage on Darkness, but that’s far from sufficient!

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