Historical records matching Jessie Matthews, OBE
About Jessie Matthews, OBE
Jessie Matthews: 'evergreen' star of the 20s & 30s, dies
<Daily Telegraph, August 21, 1981>
JESSIE MATTHEWS, who has died aged 74, was a star of the first magnitude both in films and on the musical comedy stage before the Second World War shattered her career.
Late in life she found an entirely new public when she took over the radio role of Mrs Dale, the doctor's wife in the long-running BBC serial, "Mrs Dale's Diary."
What for most actresses would have been a peak of success was for her a strange reversal of fortune. For in her day she was a legendary figure, second only to Gracie Fields in popularity.
She was born in Soho, the daughter of a stallholder who had 16 children, and began work selling apples from a barrow and dancing to a barrel organ. Her eldest sister encouraged her to take dancing lessons and she began a professional career as a child dancer when she was 12.
In 1923, when she was 16, she joined C.B. Cochran as one of the master showman's celebrated "Young Ladies". She took part of a chicken in "The Music Box Revue".
The next year she joined the chorus of the Andre Charlot revue at the Prince of Wales and her big chance came in 1925 when she went on tour as understudy to Gertrude Lawrence and took over the lead in Toronto. Her performance of two songs, "My Heart Stood Still" and "Dancing on the Ceiling", made her first hit.
Within a afew years she had established herself as the foremost star of musical comedy. She was earning £200 a week as a dancer when she was 21 and appeared in Noel Coward's revue "This Year of Grace".
In 1929 she scored a sensational success in "Wake Up and Dream" in which she sang with Sonnie Hale the famous song "Let's Do it, Let's Fall in Love".
In 1930 she reached her zenith in "Evergreen", the story which was written specially to exploit her piquant charms and the humour of Sonnie Hale.
Hale was then married to another great star, Evelyn Laye, who cited Jessie Matthews in divorce proceedings. Jessie fainted in court when her love letters were read out. The judge said Hale was a cad and her letters showed her to be of odious mind.
Many years later she wrote in her autobiography that the divorce case was an emotional blow from which she still carried scars.
But outwardly she was at the peak of success. She married Hale and their marriage was a popular success, although their only child died a few hours after birth.
She had entered films in 1923 in the silent "The Beloved Vagabond", but in the 1930s became a leading star in the film of "Evergreen" and in J.B. Priestley's "The Good Companions".
Her other films included "It's Love Again", "Sailing Along", "Life Is Nothing Without Music", "First a Girl", and "Gangway."
After five years of films she reappeared on the stage in 1939 touring in "I Can Take It". She went to America in 1941 for a year but failed to establish herself there.
As she said years later: "suddenly it all stopped and when things started again after the war, they looked round for a younger version of Jessie Matthews."
Her marriage to Sonnie Hale ended in 1944 but she teamed up with him again in a vain attempt to repeat former successes. By 1960 she was playing Fairy Snowflake in the Bristol Old Vic's pantomime "Dick Whittington."
She took over the Mrs Dale role in 1963 and made more than 1,500 episodes before the serial was ended in 1969. The role brought her other offers and in 1964 she returned to cabaret after 32 years at the Society Restaurant and appeared on television in the Kathy Kirby Show. Her autobiography "Over My Shoulder" appeared in 1974.
All her career she had been plagued by nervous breakdowns but she struggled gamely on in a performing career that lasted 61 years.
In 1936, while making "Head Over Heels", she was told that she should not finish the film after a hospital operation, and there was a risk that she would never walk again. She completed the film, and many others, but she was often in agony while dancing.
All her three marriages were dissolved. After a hip replacement operation in 1976 she was again warned that she would be lucky to walk again.
But within three months and at 69 she danced and sang in "Another Opening, Another Show" on BBC2 and went to present her own one-woman show at the Shaftesbury Theatre. When she took the show to America it won her the United States Drama Critics' Award for 1979-80.
Her last public performance was in December, 1980, when she appeared in a National Theatre gala night to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Equity and sang the Barbra Streisand number "Evergreen". The following month she went into hospital at Pinner. She was appointed an O.B.E. in 1970.