Evergreen (1934)

44% – Critics
30% – Audience

Evergreen Storyline

Harriet Green, a beloved and radiant music hall star of the Edwardian era, has a guilty secret: She has a baby daughter, born out of wedlock. Harriet leaves her public and flees to South Africa to raise her daughter quietly. The years pass, and now her daughter, Harriet Hawkes, returns to London as a young show-biz hopeful. Tommy, a wily publicity man, knowing that young Harriet is a dead ringer for her famous mother, convinces a theater producer to star her in a new revue as none other than the original Harriet Green, miraculously untouched by old age. The ruse works too well: Now the public believes Harriet is a well-preserved 60-year-old and Tommy is her son. The deception is more than merely inconvenient, because now Harriet and Tommy have secretly fallen in love.—Dan Navarro

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Evergreen Movie Reviews

“My Lover’s Overhead….”

This film appeared more frequently on Channel 13 in the late 1980s than it does today. I’m glad it has been transferred to DVD, and I hope to find it one day.

The film was based on a musical comedy of the same name that was composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart but produced in London. It starred the rising musical comedy star of the 1930s and early 1940s Jessie Matthews. Married to Sonny Hale (who appears in the film as her producer) the story was about how Matthews takes part in a mild swindle. She is the granddaughter of a turn-of-the-century stage star, a beauty of that day, and Matthews pretends she is the same woman who has retained her youthful looks (but has grayish hair) due to a “fountain of youth” concoction. Hence the title, EVERGREEN. The show had many R.& H. tunes in it, but the best one was “Dancing on the Ceiling” which is still a standard.

In the movie, Jessie Matthews only pretends to be her mother, but the story is relatively the same. The complications involve her increasing romance with her publicist, her having to keep up the fiction of her reawakening an older romance with the aristocrat who romanced her mother, and her having to handle the blackmail of her actual father. It does eventually work out, even for the blackmailer (Hartley Powers).

Given the relative poverty in budgets of British musicals as opposed to Americans ones, this film is on par with the best American musicals of the period. As for Matthews, she went on to other musical film triumphs, including “FIRST A MAN”, a musical about a woman, pretending to be a female impersonator. It was based on a German film, and both were the basis for the Julie Andrews – Robert Preston – James Garner triumph VICTOR/VICTORIA.

An Absolutely Gorgeous Musical!!!

“Ever Green” (the musical play) was a triumph for Jessie Matthews and opened at the Adelphi Theatre on the West End in December, 1930 for a lengthy seven month run. Fortunately Jessie was able to repeat her role in the film version four years later but unfortunately they were not able to get Fred Astaire, who had been appearing on the London stage in “The Gay Divorce and had wisely been snapped up by RKO. Victor Saville, who had been the first director to bring out Jessie’s film potential in “The Good Companions” (1933), had been desperately hoping to hire Astaire to star opposite her. What an amazing dancing team they would have been, but he had to make do with boring Barry MacKay who could neither sing nor dance. Even though Jessie was called the “Dancing Divinity”, her film experience and different directors had left her with an inferiority complex about her looks and her cinema appeal. Two people who joined her on “Evergreen” actually gave Jessie the confidence to believe she could become a star – Glen MacWilliams, a cinematographer who helped to show her how to accentuate her very cute features to advantage and Buddy Bradley, the American choreographer who bought something extra to her dances and made them extremely memorable.

In most of Jessie Matthews films she was always pretending to be someone she is not – similar to the Astaire/ Rogers films. Harriet Green is a beloved music hall entertainer who delights fans with her renditions of “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow Wow” and “I Wouldn’t Leave My Little Wooden Hut for You”, but at the end of her performance she astonishes fans with the news that she is retiring to marry a Nobleman. Her happiness is destroyed when her long thought dead lover appears and demands “hush money”. She disappears – but leaves her little daughter in a maid’s care.

Jump to 1934 and Harriet Green (Jnr) is an out of work chorus girl who catches the eye of Leslie Benn (Sonnie Hale) who knew her mother. His leading lady walks out in a huff and he comes up with the “stunt” of passing Harriet off as her own mother. When she sings one of her mother’s favourite songs, the publicity team go into action. With the help of a gray wig and some glasses she actually pulls it off but it means she has to hide her own considerable talent and it frustrates her. Hale leads a rehearsal of the infectious “Tinkle, Tinkle, Tinkle”. “When You’ve Got a Little Springtime in Your Heart” is given quite a bizarre treatment (one of the many times the song is sung) as a huge hourglass is sent spinning through the years as Harriet leads a riotous charleston, chorus girls are turned into bombs and bullets on a 1914 assembly line, until the hour glass is smashed in 1904 and Harriet sings “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow Wow”.

The Marquis of Staines suddenly makes his appearance and in his befuddled state comes to the conclusion that Tommy (Barry MacKay) is really Harriet’s son. In one of the best lines in the film Tommy says to the audience “I’ve been in love with her for weeks – but I have to go around calling her “Mummy”. Staines proposes to Harriet and Tommy urges her to accept – for publicity. She accepts in anger but the duet “Dear, Dear” which she and Tommy sing shows the coolness melting with a long kiss (it also shows that Barry MacKay was no singer). Staines suggests that Tommy move in with his “mother” to look after her. Harriet does a sublimely beautiful dance to “Dancing on the Ceiling” – apparently Jessie improvised that dance and showed why she was called the “Dancing Divinity”.

By opening night Harriet is determined to make it on her own and not as her own mother – so in a spirited tap dance to “Over My Shoulder” – the jig was up (as they say in America). In court – for defrauding the public, Harriet Green proves she can stand on her own as a beautiful singer and the stage is set for a sparkling finale, with a medley of “Tinkle, Tinkle, Tinkle”, “Over My Shoulder” and “When You’ve Got a Little Springtime in Your Heart”. This is just the most gorgeous musical with Jessie Matthews at her most beautiful best. Also of note is Betty Balfour as the dizzy countess, she was one of the early stars of the British stage and films.

Highly, Highly Recommended.

Over My Shoulder

Evergreen gives us a chance to see Jessie Matthews who starred on stage as well as screen in the United Kingdom in the role that made her a star. So few stars of the 30s and 40s were able to recreate their roles so we are fortunate indeed.

Charles Cochran of the London stage, the British equivalent of Florenz Ziegfeld hired American songwriters Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to write the score for Evergreen. As it is in Hollywood the Gaumont- British only retained a few Rodgers&Hart songs, most importantly Dancing On A Ceiling which was Matthews’s first big hit. Some British musical bits and new songs written by British songwriter Harry Woods were written for this film including Over My Shoulder which also became identified with Jessie Matthews.

Only later on after Matthews prime years did she go to Hollywood for films turning down a lot of offers. I understand that Gaumont-British also tried to get Fred Astaire to co-star with no success. She and Astaire would have been marvelous.

The story has Matthews first appearing on the London stage in the Victorian era and becoming a smash success. But the impending birth of a daughter out of wedlock forces her to retire to South Africa. Going to the Thirties Matthews as her own daughter is seeking employment when publicity agent Barry MacKay convinces producer/star Sonnie Hale to feature the daughter as her ageless mother making a comeback.

Unfortnunate her low life of a sperm donor Hartley Power shows up and threatens to blow the whole thing wide open. This is a Fedora like scheme played a little more lightly.

Matthews sings and dances divinely especially with Sonnie Hale with whom she was involved in real life and who became her second husband.

Rightly so Evergreen is considered the best British musical from that era. I haven’t seen better and it holds up well today.