The Dancing Divinity

Sonnie Hale and Jessie Matthews in "Dancing On The Ceiling,"  Ever Green  (1930)

Sonnie Hale and Jessie Matthews in "Dancing On The Ceiling," Ever Green (1930)

 What a setpiece! What a song! When Producer Florenz Ziegfeld deemed the song “He Dances on My Ceiling” as “too complicated,” composer Richard Rodgers cut it from Ziegfeld’s upcoming 1930s Broadway musical Simple Simon. The song re-surfaced later that same year as “Dancing on the Ceiling” in Rodgers and Hart’s hit London stage musical Ever Green. 

Ever Green was West-End star Jessie Matthews’s biggest stage success, running for 254 performances. The musical play was a London sensation, and the lavish production’s showstopper was "Dancing on the Ceiling." The play’s stars danced around a chandelier standing up from the floor to simulate dancing on the ceiling on London's first revolving stage. Later the play was adapted into the successful 1934 film also starring Matthews. (In the review of this movie, The New York Times mistakenly titled the song by its first line “The World Is Lyrical.”) 

 “Dancing on the Ceiling” is so good on screen that it can hold its own with the best Hollywood Golden Age musical numbers, that is, Fred Astaire’s movie dances. Fred Astaire, on stage in London during the shoot, was first choice to be Matthews’s dancer on the Ever Green ceiling. However, RKO said no to his taking the movie role opposite Matthews. Through the following years, Gaumont British Picture Company would also veto all attempts to bring Matthews to Hollywood to dance with Astaire. In Hollywood Astaire would be paired as famously with leading ladies as well as dance solo—with coat racks, photographs, canes, chairs, and his shadow, and most memorably on a Hollywood movie ceiling. 

But he was never paired with Matthews. On the other side of the Atlantic, Matthews would star in more than 30 British film and TV productions and become known as Britain’s “Dancing Divinity.” 

Astaire’s casting notwithstanding, when the Gaumont British Picture Company looked to shoot Evergreen in 1934, they assembled by choice and by chance, the British musical film “A Team.”  Sir Michael Balcon (Daniel Day Lewis’s grandfather) was the Producer. Director Victor Saville would direct films in both England and Hollywood. Noted playwright Emlyn Williams adapted the screenplay, meshing the title into a single word and further complicating the plot based on singer Lottie Collins, who had an illegitimate daughter who also grew up to be a famous actress. Several stage songs were substituted with new songs written by Harry M. Woods. In casting changes, Jessie Matthews had danced on the ceiling with her husband Sonnie Hale on stage; while Hale plays Leslie Benn in the film, Barry MacKay was cast as Matthews’ dancing partner. 

The best British musical film, Evergreen is a dancing knock-out. American Ex-Pat Buddy Bradley was the choreographer and driving force of the film’s production. Evergreen’s first production number is an extravagant Wellsian time machine dance homage on a futuristic set that echoes Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The closing production number, “Over My Shoulder,” written for the movie, flashes transatlantic Busby Berkeley choreography. Unleashed between these numbers, Matthews’s frenzied strip tap dance sequence ignites the screen. Victor Saville’s musical film is galvanized by Matthews’s star performance. Years later, when asked about Matthews’s unique movie presence the director explained, “She had a heart. It photographed.” 

Twirling to tease the audience singing the introduction to Evergreen’s signature Rodgers and Hart song, Matthews flirts with playing the grand piano after Barry MacKay climbs the stairs. She poses on the window seat–Erté made flesh and blood—and dances around the dining room table—her chiffon dress moving with her as fluidly as her steps. She glides into her dance downstairs; while he dances upstairs in time with her…for her. But, make no mistake, “Dancing on the Ceiling” is all Jessie Matthews. 

Matthews effortlessly weaves athletic high kicks into lithe ballet-like movement. You start to wonder if she will rise above the floor and take flight. Her dancing gracefully carries her through the white-and-chrome Art Deco flat and leads her to climb, then to dance on/with the staircase. Upstairs on the landing, she suggestively first considers opening his bedroom door, turns to postpone this inevitable meeting, and floats instead through her door to her bed to dance into their dreams and movie musical history.