Evergreen (1934) - An Art Deco Extravaganza

A struggling actress of the 1930s impersonates her legendary stage star mother.

Edwardian music hall star, Harriet Green (Jessie Matthews), retires to marry a marquis (Ivor McLaren) in Evergreen (1934). A past relationship haunts her as does the daughter of that union. Giving up everything, including her daughter and impending nuptials, Harriet runs away from London to die in obscurity.

Harriet, the Edwardian star

Fast forward to the 1930s and Harriet, Jr. (Matthews in a dual role) is also interested in stage performance, but is currently in the starving artist mode. The daughter uses a stage name because she wants to be a success on her own merit.

That will change.

A publicity agent/love interest named Thompson (Barry MacKay in a charming performance), and two old friends of Harriet the elder - director Leslie Benn (Sonnie Hale, the real life husband of Matthews) and Lady Shropshire (Betty Balfour) - convince the daughter to impersonate the legend.

"I'm sure if [your mother] knew, she'd be ever so pleased that you're keeping her memory green, and not meaning any puns either," one of the friends says.

They claim to the public that Harriet, the returning star, has simply retained the glow of youth. It's all about the stunt, the hype. The novelty might save Benn's failing show.

The possibility of indictment for fraud, plus old boyfriends of Harriet the elder pop up to endanger the enterprise.

 Evergreen is a story about time

Evergreen is a story about time - savoring time, stopping time, changes over time, similarities over time, the trends of the day, the music of an era, the ultimate dominance of time, fighting time.
Marjorie is upset with her director and publicity agent.

Harriet Jr. will replace Marjorie Moore (Marjorie Brooks) who is a mature actress of a certain age. Marjorie refuses to admit she's a day over 21 so that she can continue her reign in Benn's plays as an ingenue. It's a comic version of Margo Channing in All About Eve. However, instead of  a young replacement for the sake of changing tastes, Harriet is the youth of the past preserved.

In this film, the public is presented as an entity that never wanted to change tastes from the music hall days. However, modernity and competition around the world to be the fastest, the most stylish, the most efficient, forced its hand.
The film reaches respectfully to the past, to Edwardian times. The stage for Harriet the elder is small and intimate, the music is languidly paced, men wear handlebar mustaches (but not in a costume-y way). They even have a scene where someone drinks champagne from a slipper. The film refers to these moments with Harriet, Sr. as "Yesterday."

Later, a title card pops up over a pan of modern day London that reads "Today." Jump cut to a chorus on a huge stage rehearsing a tap dance number to the latest music. It's more impersonal, but it's grand.

The director-producer-choreographer of the show, Benn, comes out and, in a rapid-fire reading of the lines, expresses his complete dissatisfaction with the rehearsal. He's an efficient man who must keep pace with the times. Everything must be whipped into shaped, everything must be modern.

There's even a man who's entire job is to follow Benn around with a stool and time when the director will sit down.

There is a dazzling, art deco extravaganza showcasing the song, "Springtime in Your Heart."

Harriet, Jr. starts in the 1930s, flips a giant hourglass and is transported to the 1920s, the 1910s and the aughts. At each juncture in time, Harriet and chorus showcase a popular dance of the day.

(However, in the 1914 era, a machine simply mass produces young ladies, changing them into vaguely military-like automatons.)

Harriet then smashes the hourglass, holding us suspended in 1904 forever, and ends the song.

Harriet, Jr. feels trapped in the memories of 1904 in her personal life as well. Pretending to be her mother, she must deal with questions about the past. She's well coached by her mother's old friends, but the strain is getting to her. In private, she expresses herself in modern dances, flits about her  streamlined, art deco house in a new negligee like Ginger Rogers.

This film has been compared to many of the extravagant MGM and RKO musicals of the day. You are struck by how huge the sets are, the shear number of extras in any song...

...the gentle curve of the handles on this over-sized door...

...the slim, gorgeous gowns and jaunty little hats that the ladies wear (as you might see in a movie with Jean Harlow - another person who seems forever suspended in the 1930s).

 Behind the scenes

Evergreen is a Rodgers and Hart  musical whose film bares little resemblance to its stage show roots. However, its original star was cast for the film. Often stage stars do not have the chance to preserve their performance on film once a movie adaptation is in the works. Jessie Matthews wisely had a foot planted in both stage and film. She was a popular performer. By the time Evergreen was pitched as a film, there could be no one else but Matthews in the role.

The Gaumont British Picture Corporation, maker of this film, was the largest motion picture company in the UK in the 1930s, according to its official website. At the time, Jessie Matthews was its most famous star with international appeal, according to Sarah Street,  author of Transatlantic Crossings. American studios came a-courting the popular Miss Matthews, but no contract was to her liking across the pond.
According to Steve Chibnall, author of the biography J. Lee Thompson, Fred Astaire was originally set to star in this this film opposite Mathews, but could not due to contractual obligations with RKO Studios.

Look for a small speaking role as a barmaid from Norma Varden. (She plays Lady Beakman in Gentleman Prefer Blondes.)

A respite from the breakneck pace of modernity
Despite its name, Evergreen, is anything but, and that's ok. Ultimately, in being so modern, the film has become less evergreen itself and is instead a lovely time capsule of its era. It does well in big numbers, but one can also enjoy the smaller, more intimate times, like when Thompson and Harriet drink a cup of tea.


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