Friday, September 21, 2018

THE GENDER BENDING THE RULES BLOGATHON: First a Girl (1935)


Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In and Chris of Angelman's Place are hosting, on September 21st to the 23rd, the GENDER BENDING THE RULES BLOGATHON.


Spend your weekend checking out the contributions HERE or HERE.

From the backroom of a sophisticated fashion house to a second-class music hall to the elite stages of Europe, our aspiring performer Elizabeth, played by the vibrantly winning Jessie Matthews goes on a physical and emotional journey achieving her dream of stardom.

Jessie Matthews

Elizabeth is a theatre-mad girl working for a fashion design house. Tasked with delivering an outfit to a demanding client, royalty no less, Elizabeth seems to think she has time to borrow the outfit and sneak into theatrical offices to audition. She's kicked out of the building, she's past due at the Princess's, and then gets stuck in a downpour; ruining the outfit. 

Luckily, she keeps running into Victor, played with great panache and humour by Sonnie Hale. The character is, in his mind, a great Shakespearean actor. However, the only money he earns from the theatre is by working as a female impersonator in the music halls. Victor has a cold which precludes his accepting an offer to perform his act that evening. Here is Elizabeth's chance to trod the boards. She will be "Bill" and appear as "Mr. Victoria"; a girl pretending to be a man pretending to be a girl. Victor will be there to help her every step of the way. The lure of the footlights is all.

Several mishaps occur during the performance, but they don't deter top-flight producer McLintock played by Alfred Drayton from seeing a diamond in the rough. He was convinced "Mr. Victoria" was a girl! What an act! McLintock is willing to back the routine with money and bookings on the continent.

Jessie Matthews, Sonnie Hale

Elizabeth: "I'm not going. I can't do it."
Victor: "Do what?"
Elizabeth: "I can't be a man all my life."
Victor: "But you'll have time off. And you can knit and knit to your heart's content."

Success is a wonderful and heady experience for the pair. At a Paris nightclub, they become acquainted with Princess Helen (who never received her outfit from the fashion house) and her current fiance Robert played by Griffith Jones. Victor is enamoured of the Princess and, much to Victor's dismay, "Bill" flashes Robert a less than "he-man smile".

Anna Lee, Griffith Jones

Robert is put out because he missed the first part of the act and found himself attracted to "Victoria". He doesn't like "young men who make good girls" and snubs Bill at first. Later when they share drinks and cigars and attempt their own Mills Brothers impersonation, Robert amends his opinion to "the kid is all right."

On the other hand, the Princess is suspicious of this "Bill" character and she and Robert devise a plan to see who is correct. A trip to Nice that Elizabeth has been so looking forward to as a sort of holiday from her male persona will be interrupted by complicated machinations to discover her true identity. Despite the fact that the aristocrats are unsuccessful in their scheme the world is starting to move in on the deception.

Jessie Matthews

Victor: "Tomorrow, the Riviera."
Elizabeth: "Two whole weeks in skirts! Oh!"

Robert is the first to uncover the truth when he comes upon Elizabeth swimming. He proves himself to be a good egg by keeping the newfound knowledge from the Princess. Princess Helen admits to having no compunction about revealing the truth to the world, should there be any truth to reveal. 

The romantic complications pile up quickly. Elizabeth believes Robert must have told the Princess her secret and boldly goes to Helen declaring her intention to steal Robert. The Princess has too much of an ego to consider Elizabeth a serious rival. Victor then makes his honest feelings of love known to Princess Helen and she is surprisingly enchanted.

After much snooping, a nosy reporter finally sees Bill as he/she really is and swears out a fraud complaint with the local gendarme. This all leads to confusion in the dressing room and Victor, instead of Elizabeth, performing a popular "Mr. Victoria" number to a delighted audience. The jig is up.

Our couples are then neatly sorted out with Robert proposing to a sobbing Elizabeth. He expresses his affection with this loving rebuke: "Be a man, you sissy. Is this the stuff female impersonators are made of?"

Princess Helen throws in her lot with Victor as her next fiance and plans to back him in a production of Hamlet. However, Victor has had so much fun going back to "Mr. Victoria" that he chooses a different career path: "Hamlet? I shall be the world's greatest Cleopatra!"


First a Girl is a grand showcase for players Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale (married: 1931-1944). Anna Lee is the epitome of entitled elegance as Princess Helen. Griffith Jones runs hot and cold as Robert, but that could be due to the make-up folks going a little heavy with his lipstick which highlights a perpetually dour expression.

Ralph Reader was the uncredited choreographer of the elaborate and entertaining production numbers for Jessie, Sonnie, and singer Donald Stewart. The songs by Maurice Sigler, Al Goodhart and Al Hoffman are spritely popular airs that fit the spirit of the movie and performances.

Victor Saville directed the movie, the fourth of five with his leading lady. Saville began his film career as an administrator before trying his hand at producing, writing and directing, Saville's worked in both Britain (Dark Journey, Storm in a Teacup) and Hollywood (The Green Years, If Winter Comes, Kim) is impressive. Marjorie Gaffney (Evergreen) wrote the well-paced and slyly humourous screenplay.


Ms. Gaffney's script was based on the 1933 German film Viktor und Viktoria written and directed by actor (Notorious, Berlin Express) Reinhold Schunzel. Our characters played by Renata Muller, Hermann Thimig and Anton Walbrook go through the same travails as their British counterparts and set the tone which continues through the remakes.


These earlier films would inspire Blake Edwards in 1982 to give us Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews, Robert Preston, and James Garner. Seven Oscar nominations and one win would go its way. In 1995 Victor/Victoria went to Broadway where Julie Andrews famously declined her Best Actress in a Musical Tony nomination due to the snub of all others associated with the show.

Jessie Matthews, Sonnie Hale, Griffith Jones

The world over everyone wants to be known for their true selves, yet societal conventions often stand in the way. In this story, an elaborate charade allows Elizabeth to fulfil her dreams, but she must deny her true self.










19 comments:

  1. Bravo, Caftan Woman, I am so excited to see this film. I had no idea that so much of the material in this inspired Blake and Julie's Victor/Victoria...I knew about the previous German version but not this film. Jessie Matthews is indeed winning, and I can't wait to see this performance.

    Thanks for participating in our blogathon with such a perfect choice!
    -Chris

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    1. Thank you, my host. I had a lot of fun with this and looking forward to the rest of the blogathon.

      Jessie is absolutely charming in all of her roles and a delight here. It was a smart move to use this story for our star.

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  2. Sounds intriguing enough to keep an eye out for. I'm also looking for Viktor und Viktria. Thanks for joining the blogathon.

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    1. Movie remakes are an history history of eras. I hope TCM looks into showing both of those older movies.

      My pleasure for joining the blogathon. Thanks for hosting.

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  3. I had not realized that "Victor'Victoria" was such an old story. It would be very interesting to see this earlier version, so thanks for calling our attention to it. I believe Matthews was a very big star in England at one time, but I've only seen her in one or two films over the years.

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    1. Jessie is a very talented star but her opportunities in Hollywood all came to nothing due to timing and contracts and such. I can't help but wonder how she might have fared opposite Astaire as was planned for Damsel in Distress.

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  4. I have never seen this version, but it sounds like quite the showcase for its cast. I first became familiar with Anna Lee when she was a regular in the ABC daytime drama GENERAL HOSPITAL. Prior to that, of course, she had a long and very successful career in films and television.

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    1. I loved Anna Lee as Lila Quartermaine on General Hospital. It is grand that we are able to share so many aspects of her career through these movies. I imagine many people will be most familiar with her in How Green Was My Valley and will get quite a kick out of her character here in First a Girl. She's more "Tracy Q." than "Lila."

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  5. Great review. Jessie Matthews was quite a talent - singer and dancer. I’m surprised Hollywood didn’t snap her up. Everything’s in rhythm with my heart’ - just beautiful. Lovely sheet music cover.

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    1. Thanks. Hollywood's interest (they know a good thing when they see it) somehow never panned out. On one hand, it's a shame, but on the other hand we get to learn that Hollywood wasn't the only place where fun musicals were created.

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  6. Good morning, Paddy. I can finally leave a comment! Yay! :-)

    Your excellent review has made me want to seek this one out as soon as I possibly can. I have never heard of this film before today. I have seen Victor/Victoria, and it is interesting to read how far back in film history that this story goes. Being a big fan of Anton Walbrook, I am desperate to see the 1933 version that he appeared in.


    Thanks for such an informative and interesting post. A great read on this Saturday morning.

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    1. It worked!! Whew!

      Great to see you here, Maddy. In the last few months we finally got around to sharing Victor/Victoria with our daughter. The laughs in that version are as strong as ever.

      One of my sister's is a major Anton fan as well. Perhaps I shall try to find the original for a gift, and she'll let me borrow it.

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  7. Hi, I am new here so please forgive me if my recommendation is in the wrong place. However I had to jump in because there is a must see movie missing on this list. Yes, it is quite old but can be seen on line. It is one of Ernst Lubitsch films when he still lived in Germany. It is called “I Don’t Want To Be A Man” and is from 1918. It has English subtitles, but a young German actress by the name of Ossi Oswalda, who went on to make a few more movies for Lubitsch, and died penniless, is just delightful. Please try to watch this film, you will be delighted.

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    1. I believe one of our other Blogathon participants, Critica Retro, will be covering that 1918 title...check our roster in the coming days:
      https://angelman.blogspot.com/2018/09/presenting-gender-bending-rules.html

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    2. I Don't Want to be a Man is certainly going on my "must-see" list. Thanks.

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  8. Paddy Lee, I enjoyed your really good write-up on FIRST A GIRL. I have never heard of this movie, much less have seen it. Although, I first saw VICTOR VICTORIA when it was first released and I'm aware of the German movie VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA. Of the actors and actresses, I'm only familiar with the wonderful Anna Lee. Thank you for the education.

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    1. I'm so pleased you found the article interesting. Like you, I saw Victor/Victoria upon its first release and at that time I had no idea of its history.

      If you get the chance to see any of Jessie Matthews' movies I am sure you will find her a talented and appealing star. This particular movie certainly gives Anna Lee a chance to shine.

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  9. very time I come here, I learn something new. Even if the classics were made long ago, we always have something new to discover - like First a Girl.
    Victor Saville was Michael Balcon's partner in the mid 1920s. Balcon, on hi own way, was a mogul and Daniel Day-Lewis's grandfather.
    Awesome review, as always.
    Thanks for the kind comment!

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    1. I hadn't made that Michael Balcon connection. British cinema history is so very interesting. Thanks for enlightening me always in so many ways.

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