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Matthews, Jessie (1907-1981)

Actor, Dancer

Main image of Matthews, Jessie (1907-1981)

Jessie Matthews was a gamine, graceful dancer, with a sweet, pure-toned singing voice, and waif-like sex appeal, who embodied 1930s style.

One of 11 children of a Soho costermonger, Matthews enjoyed dancing from an early age, and elocution lessons created her distinctive "plummy" accent. In a chorus line at 16, she also had fleeting dancing roles in silent films.

In London, 1930, she was in Ever Green, featuring hit song "Dancing on the Ceiling", costarring with Sonnie Hale (then husband of Evelyn Laye) which led to a scandalous divorce action, Matthews cited as the "other woman".

Her breakthrough film performance was as Susie Dean, dancing with airy grace and fluidity, in The Good Companions (1933), for Victor Saville, her most sympathetic director. The dual-role film version of Evergreen (d. Saville, 1934) opened at Radio City Music Hall, New York, and she was labelled "The Dancing Divinity", although attempts to costar her and Fred Astaire in a film never materialised.

Next came the gender-swapping musical comedy First A Girl (d. Saville, 1935), produced, like all of her major 1930s films, by Gaumont-British, which surrounded her with the best available talent: Americans, choreographer Buddy Bradley, cinematographer Glen MacWilliams and songwriter Harry Woods; art director Alfred Junge; and musical director Louis Levy.

Other, weaker films were directed by Hale, and Climbing High (1938) was directed by Carol Reed, with whom she had a brief affair, and her career at the top was over by the end of the decade.

Often temperamental and unstable, she suffered from problems originating in her difficult upbringing, with many personal tragedies and nervous breakdowns, including generally loveless marriages which ended in divorce. Hale (1931-44) was her second of three husbands.

Her only US film role was a cameo in the all-star fundraiser Forever and a Day (US, d. René Clair, 1943), and her song in tom thumb (d. George Pal, 1958) was dubbed. However, she became a celebrity again in the long-running radio soap Mrs Dale's Diary, and continued to work in regional theatre in the UK and abroad, including a triumphant one-woman show in Los Angeles in 1979, and was perfectly cast as Aunt Bessie in TV's Edward and Mrs. Simpson (Thames, 1978).

For most of the 1930s, Matthews was the most popular female film star in England: the image of her in Sailing Along (d. Hale, 1938), in a white evening gown, with a gentleman's black top hat and walking cane, performing "Souvenir of Love" in Lime Grove's art deco luxury sets, indelibly incarnates 1930s style. She was awarded the OBE in 1970.

Autobiography: Over My Shoulder (1974). Biography: Jessie Matthews by Michael Thornton (1974).

Roger Phillip Mellor, Encyclopedia of British Cinema

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Evergreen (1934)Evergreen (1934)

Jessie Matthews plays two roles in this Rodgers and Hart musical comedy

Thumbnail image of First A Girl (1935)First A Girl (1935)

Musical comedy in which a woman dresses as a man dressing as a woman

Thumbnail image of Friday the Thirteenth (1933)Friday the Thirteenth (1933)

Drama about the lives of various people involved in a bus crash

Thumbnail image of Gangway (1937)Gangway (1937)

Jessie Matthews musical about a reporter involved with a gang of crooks

Thumbnail image of Good Companions, The (1933)Good Companions, The (1933)

Adaptation of J.B. Priestley's popular play about a performing troupe

Thumbnail image of Sailing Along (1938)Sailing Along (1938)

Jessie Matthews musical about a barge girl who becomes a star

Thumbnail image of Waltzes From Vienna (1933)Waltzes From Vienna (1933)

Hitchcock musical comedy (!) about the Viennese waltz king Johann Strauss II

Thumbnail image of Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978)Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978)

Lavish Thames dramatisation of the romance that rocked Britain

Related collections

Thumbnail image of MusicalsMusicals

Song and dance on the big screen

Thumbnail image of Performance in 1930s filmPerformance in 1930s film

How the coming of sound affected British screen acting

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