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  First a Girl Just One Of The Guys
Year: 1935
Director: Victor Saville
Stars: Jessie Matthews, Sonnie Hale, Anna Lee, Griffith Jones, Alfred Drayton, Constance Godridge, Eddie Gray, Martita Hunt, Donald Stewart
Genre: Musical, Comedy, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Elizabeth (Jessie Matthews) is a shopgirl who dreams of dancing and singing, entertaining on the London stage, but so far her ambitions have come to naught as she is still on the lowest rung of the ladder, stuck in an endless cycle of auditions going nowhere. She has to watch such occasions as the fashion show at her place of work from the gallery with the other girls, noting the members of society who attend, including the socialite she dubs "Miss Wiggle-Waggle", Princess Mironoff (Anna Lee) and almost hits when her shoe flies off as she messes around dancing. By and by her boss instructs Elizabeth to deliver boxes of clothes to the Princess, and this gives her an idea: since she cannot get into an audition dressed as herself, how about she changes into the frock she's carrying?

The idea that clothes maketh the woman was prominent in First a Girl, a light remake of the recent German hit Viktor und Viktoria, which would be better known today for its remake in the nineteen-eighties, the comedy Blake Edwards made for his wife Julie Andrews to sing in, Victor Victoria. They all have their charms, but some prefer the Matthews incarnation for its breezy touch and Hollywood-rivalling musical numbers, though it could have done with a couple more, but it showed off one of the biggest stars of the British cinema of the thirties to something like her best. It wasn't popular with the cognoscenti, presumably they were sticklers for the original, but the public loved it, and made it one of her most successful efforts.

Here Jessie appeared alongside her then husband Sonnie Hale, who played a female impersonator (a very popular act in the musical halls of the land) called Victor who wishes to give the world his Hamlet, or Shylock, or Richard II, any Shakespeare at all really, but has to make ends meet under his alias Victoria. He and Elizabeth meet cute at the audition, both having been knocked back, and after a slight misunderstanding and a sudden sore throat on his part they settle on an unlikely deal: she will pose as Victoria to save his place on the bill and ensure he gets paid, but though the show is fraught with mishap Elizabeth goes down very well. Chance has it that a producer is watching in the wings, and signs her for some big performances, with Victor as her manager.

Now, a certain suspension of disbelief was necessary as you might imagine; Jessie didn't look the least bit masculine, and though she was more cute than beautiful androgyny didn't enter into her persona. Couple that with the costumes she wears demonstrating her girlish figure, including one spangly outfit that displays her cleavage, you'd have to think the audience were either very far from the stage or completely hammered not to realise this drag act was merely your common or garden variety performance, yet in its way this was part of the fun. That artificial quality was a bonus to the comedy and the romance, for though Elizabeth and Victor's relationship stays platonic, the Princess makes sure that she gets to know them both now they're famous.

And she has a fiancée Robert (actual Shakespearean thesp Griffith Jones) who is very taken with Victoria, and embarrassed to find out she's a man, which she isn't (following this?). However, she continues to captivate him and he and the Princess contrive to invite the pair to the South of France for a holiday, where Robert means to find out the truth by seeing Elizabeth in a state of undress. Again, this should have been pretty saucy, but the overall mood was of an innocent frolic rather than the decadence it could have opted for and Matthews' dancing, obviously trying to rival the Hollywood megahits of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, offered appealing breaks in the narrative, though her singing with its cut glass vowels - cultivated to rise above her poor, working class roots to some extent - sounds like something from another planet now, never mind another era. Needless to say, it all ends happily, and with a setpiece involving a giant birdcage used not once but twice with different staging, the winking homosexual implications as airy, even witty, as the rest of the fluff.

[Network has released this on a DVD double bill with Friday the Thirteenth, just look for the Jessie Matthews Revue Volume 1. A gallery is the sole extra.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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