Archive for Jessie Matthews

You Just Can’t Get the Distaff

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2021 by dcairns

GIRLS WILL BE BOYS (1934) is thematically much like FIRST A GIRL, but instead of Jessie Matthews disguised as a boy disguised as a girl, we have Dolly Haas dressed as a boy, then as a girl (causing certain parties to think she’s a boy dressed as a girl).

Dolly is delightful. As a boy she’s like a prancing monkey, and her German accent runs wild, drawing out single syllables into low whoops. A strong-willed tyke, she signed with Columbia after this but declined to change her name to Lilli Marlowe, and so that went nowhere. She was chums with Hitchcock — I guess from around this time — and he put her in I CONFESS, but that role doesn’t find a use for her simian high spirits.

The script — co-credited to Curt Siodmak (!) — keeps Dolly in sexy jeopardy, much of it caused by male lead Esmond Knight. It’s always a surprise to see him in a leading role if you know him as a character man in post-war Powell & Pressburger films, heroically covering up his lost eyesight (blinded at sea). But here it makes sense: by the standard of 30s Brit leading men, he’s fairly handsome (no Leslie Banks scarring) and even has a physique.

Speaking of physique — the script’s main method of unmasking Dolly’s disguises is to undress her. While FIRST A GIRL contrived a swimming accident, at least Jessie had a cossie. Dolly, entangled in weeds in the estate’s pond (it’s a country house escapade, vaguely Wodehousian in spirit) is bare buff, save for a chaste weed bikini top.

Director Marcel Varnel hasn’t much of a rep — his IMDb bio says “his films were for the most part undistinguished” — he did go on to make too many George Formby vehicles (picture a clown car with a massive front grill) — two moments deserve special mention. One is a scene change, where a character exits through a heavy door — with a jolt the whole wall is hoisted into the air and at once we’re in a theatre. Later, in boy drag, Dolly must listen to a smutty story after dinner with the old duffers — Varnel tactfully swoops out of the room in a thrill-cam glide, then, after the shortest possible pause, swoops back in on Dolly, having missed the one about the commercial traveller and the lady with the glass eye.

Though there are fewer hints of male-male attraction, and no obviously queer-coded character like Sonnie Hale in FIRST A GIRL, the film feels more transgressive because Dolly is a more convincing boy than Jessie could ever be. So gender certainties are throw into doubt, before being happily resolved — or are they? In fancy dress for a fete, the lovers clinch for some hey-hey in the hay loft, and Esmond’s frilly sleeves rhyme elegantly with Dolly’s bloomers.

Viktor/Viktoria/Victor/Victoria

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2021 by dcairns

Victor Saville’s film FIRST A GIRL is the middle film in the cycle begun by Reinhardt Schünzel’s VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA and concluded, as of this date, by Blake Edwards’ film VICTOR VICTORIA and musical play, Victor/Victoria. Though dealing with male/female impersonation (a woman pretending to be a male impersonator), all iterations of the story seem as much gay as trans.

It’s very interesting that these films, made before our modern attitudes semi-coalesced, should seem so modern and forward-thinking. The Schünzel original was a spoof of the English music hall, with its omnipresent drag artistes, but an affectionate one. The character played by Sonny Hale in Saville’s film, reads as Obviously Gay, even though (a) he’s played by the husband of Jessie Matthews, the female lead, and (b) an unconvincing hetero romance is contrived for him in the third act. The object of his affections is Anna Lee, who gets a sexy shower scene and seems the least ambiguous figure, but even she can’t wholly dismiss the whiff of acidulated queeniness Hale projects so ably.

Jessie Matthews is never not obviously a girl, even when clad in a tux, just as Renate Müller was always a girl in the original (Julie Andrews does suggest a Bowie-like androgyny), and the obvious artifice probably helped everyone feel comfortable, who might otherwise be inclined not to be (the original came out in Germany in 1933, an extraordinary thing). Griffith Jones is a bit dull as lead boy, but he’s handsome at a time when so many British leading men were scarred, stout or snaggle-toothed, and has an ambiguous quality that suits the part. The most daring aspect of the film is the hero who falls for a girl he believes to be a boy. You can see how a German film doing this might be poking fun at the British, but a British film doing it is quite close to playing the notion straight, as it were.

Matthews is a delight, gets several spectacular musical numbers, costumed by Coco Chanel, and while the plotting isn’t perfect — Lee has to step up to the role of villainess, then hurriedly step down — it’s simpler and more efficient than Edwards’ multivalent farce narrative. And it’s huge fun.

FIRST A GIRL stars Millie the Non-Stop Variety Girl; Freddie Rathbone; Bronwyn; Narcy; Wackford Squeers; and Miss Havisham.

Drag Race

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2011 by dcairns

WINGS OF THE MORNING (1937) — shown to a select few as part of Filmhouse’s beloved “Projecting the Archive” programme — was Britain’s first Technicolor film. The great Jack Cardiff, trained in the ways of three-strip at MGM, was camera operator, but Ray Rennahan (an old hand from the two-strip days of DR X) was cinematographer. Harold D Schuster directed, but we don’t care! What concerns us is the gorgeous, soft, muted hues and the bizarro plot turns and genre shifts.

Technicolor is very much under the supervision of Natalie Kalmus, estranged wife of the bloke who invented it — she was drummed out of Hollywood after her dictatorial demands about how colo(u)r should be deployed ran up against the expertise of photographers and designers who could get great results by ignoring her. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) seems to have been the test case: Kalmus demanded restraint, they cut loose for one scene, found they liked the more vivid look, and booted her off the set. Thereafter Nat K would find herself working exclusively in Britain, getting kicked off sets by Michael Powell. But that hasn’t happened yet in 1937, where it’s forever gentle earth tones, and Natalie Kalmus and her law of restraint holds illimitable dominion over all.

But hey! There’s something to be said for it. The warm pastels compliment the actors’ skin tones, and when a few scenes pop out louder due to unavoidable red London buses and the like, you really feel the vibrancy. This film isn’t good in any recognized sense of the word, but it coasts along on prettiness and peculiarity.

Although this is a 2oth Century Fox production, it’s uniquely British owing to its inadequacies in casting and plotting, but these are so off-the-wall as to instil it with fascination. Only in Britain do we regularly seem to find major top-of-the-line product put together by people who manifestly don’t know the first thing about movies and stories. This one commits an elementary beginner’s mistake by opening twenty years before its main characters are born. For no reason. Never do this: it’s frowned upon in the industry. This protracted prologue presents an unlikely romance between portly landowner Lord Clontaf (pronounced variously by the cast) and a young gypsy “princess” (they like giving themselves extravagant titles, we’re told). He’s Leslie Banks, disastrously — this is one of those films which doesn’t know what to do about his dramatic facial scarring, so as in Powell’s quota quickie THE FIRE STARTERS, they always show him in profile, Like Dick Tracy. But his mouth is distorted by the wound, and so this is much worse than just letting us see him properly: we find ourselves edging round in our seats, leaning across our neighbours, trying to get a better look. What’s wrong with his face? In HOUNDS OF ZAROFF and THE SMALL BACK ROOM and even THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH the face is more or less displayed to full effect, and we don’t mind the scar at all.

The girl is played by Annabella, just before she married Tyrone Power. her accent is thick, charming and unexplained by narrative contrivance. Once the prologue us disposed of her character ages into Dame Irene Vanbrugh, who has a richly English accent, and now we meet a second Annabella, playing the great-granddaughter of the first, having been raised in Spain with the same French accent as before. The Civil War is raging so Annabella escapes the country disguised as a boy — Duchess Maria of Leyva becomes Duke Mario, and then, having wound up back in Ireland where the action started, she carries on in drag for no reason. The insanity of this is questioned by none of her gypsy friends, but it’s basically the source of all the entertainment for the next half hour. For two reasons —

1) Annabella makes a stunning boy. She’s obviously having the time of her life, also. Given that she did marry Tyrone Power, she’s been the subject of rumours, and I’m just going to declare them all true based on this performance alone. And it’s sort of a sweet thought: this wasn’t a lavender marriage where the affection was false. Instead we have two randy bisexuals assuming respectability via holy matrimony, shagging each other senseless and also shagging everything else in sight. If that’s how you roll, it seems a productive arrangement.

I like Annabella well enough as a girl, but she exerts even more attraction in a suit and beret, puffing on a cigar. I’m at a loss to explain it. At this point I would begin to question myself, except I can’t think of anybody else I fancy who wears a suit and smokes cigars, so I don’t really know where to begin.

2) Annabella meets Henry Fonda, playing a Canadian horse trainer. (British films are often coy about shoehorning American stars into the action, so we call them Canadians.) Like Leslie Banks in Part 1, he’s initially far more interested in her horse, but soon he’s sparring aggressively with Duke Mario, spanking him/her, kicking him/her up the arse, and calling him “shrimp.” Hank F probably has less homoerotic fervor about him than any leading man who ever lived, so this sequence doesn’t sparkle with forbidden allure quite as it might with Ty Power in the role (the celluloid would combust!) but that adds to the surreality and giant overhanging question mark about what will happen next. In fact, Fonda learns the truth the hard way by physically tearing Annabella’s shirt off in a bush (long story) — we watch from without as the branches wave and a shrill scream sounds forth. Fonda emerges, visibly shaken, clutching the torn chemise, and stammers “I’m sorry!” Which puts me in mind of this —

Drag artiste Jessie Matthews is revealed in all her girlhood in FIRST A GIRL.

Thereafter, all it takes is for Henry to see Annabella in a beautiful evening gown and he forgets his dislike of the “spoiled brat” and falls madly in love. At which point the movie “introduces” the “world famous tenor” John McCormack (“How can you introduce someone who’s world famous?” asked David Wingrove, on my left) and the movie grinds to a deadly halt as he sings three — THREE!!! — “old favourites.”

Seconds out, round five– having tried its hand at period romance across the class barriers, Spanish Civil War drama (briefly), transvestite romp, and deadly musical, the movie now turns into a racing picture, with Annabella’s great-gran (remember her? She used to be Annabella! DO keep up, will you?) and Hank both entering horses in the Epsom Derby. Cue stunning colour shots of London and humorous Derby Day characters (I’m particularly intrigued by King Honolulu, King of the Derby, a black guy with gold teeth — “I got a HOOORSE!!!”) and a frantically edited finish. If Annabella wins, she’ll be forced to marry snooty Don Diego, but if she loses, her family will be ruined but on the other hand she can marry Hank? How can this be resolved satisfactorily? I know, but I’m not telling.

Fonda also has a very funny dog, called Scruffy, which was my first boyhood dog’s name.

Most images swiped from this excellent article by Murray Pomerance.