Jessie MatthewsJessie Matthews was the brightest star of 1930s British Cinema: she made a number of engaging musicals - including an excellent version of J.B.Priestley's The Good Companions - which showed off her considerable singing and dancing skills. Though her films appear rather dated now, her mischievous personality still shines through.

The National Film Theatre has been celebrating the centenary of her birth with a season of her films, including First A Girl (1933), a remake of the German comedy musical Viktor und Viktoria (1933). The story involves an out of work actress who is persuaded to appear as a male performer who performs in drag (female dress) - a female impersonator who really is female, though audiences, not knowing this, don't realize why the impersonation is so good. As she has to appear off-stage as a man she attracts the attention of another man who can't understand why he is attracted to her: inevitably, complications ensue.

Viktor und ViktoriaThe German original, which is rarely seen, is charming and witty, and remarkable for the use of rhymed dialogue spoken to a musical accompaniment. Renate Müller played the cross-dressing singer: her admirer was Adolf Wohlbrück (better known in the UK as Anton Walbrook, in films such as Dangerous Moonlight). He suspects that she is a woman (though he can't be quite sure) and plays along with the gag: at this time female impersonation was just another performance technique and no association with homosexuality is implied here: it's all just frothy fun. (There was a German remake in 1957.)

First A GirlFirst A Girl is a fairly direct remake. Sonnie Hale (centre in the picture) is a female impersonator on the music-halls who persuades the Matthews character to stand in for him when he loses his voice. Her success leads to her making a career pretending to be a man (offstage) impersonating a woman (on-stage). Griffith Jones is rather wooden as the young man who becomes attracted to Matthews and tries to prove that she is in fact a woman - cue much embarrassment for her when she and the two men have to share a hotel bedroom (though all quite low-key by modern standards). It's difficult to believe that the very feminine Matthews could ever be mistaken for a man, despite the dress suit and short hair, but the film handles the comedy well and includes some lively musical numbers (though, as usual, British chorus girls are too genteel by half). It was shown in a very good and sharp print, showcasing the original's glossy photography.

Victor/VictoriaCoincidentally, a week or so earlier the TCM satellite channel showed the 1982 remake under the name Victor/Victoria, directed by Blake Edwards with Julie Andrews as the cross-dressing heroine, James Garner as her confused admirer, and Robert Preston on fine over-the-top form as her overtly gay promoter - the more tolerant period of this film allowing for the link between homosexuality and cross-dressing to be explored where the previous films ignored it.

The well-written script adds complexity to the plot, including a jealous girl-friend for the Garner character, and a private detective - hired by another character - who tries to uncover the truth about Andrews and is subjected to a series of Clouseau-like misfortunes. Edwards has a better grip on the pacing and building of slapstick sequences than any other modern director, and the film is hilarious while still commenting on sexual ambiguity and straight reaction to it.

This said, I am always puzzled by the inclusion half-way through of a scene in which Garner's character spies on Andrews's and discovers the truth, which rather undermines his confusion in the second half, particularly in scene where he finally kisses her. However the whole film is a well-mounted and constructed farce fully deserving its Oscar for the music and nine other nominations.

Posted by Roger Wilmut   4th March 2007, 0914 AM

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