Shop girl Elizabeth (Jessie Matthews) wants to be a performer. The only performing work her new friend Victor (Sonnie Hale), a frustrated classical actor, can get is as a female impersonator in music hall. When Elizabeth stands in for Victor one night, they finally find success, but only because everyone thinks Elizabeth is a man offstage. How long can she keep up the deception?
This is a very pleasant surprise: a British musical comedy with well-staged song and dance numbers, a properly comic script and a collection of fine performers orbiting around its talented and charismatic star, Jessie Matthews.
In Matthews’ heyday posters proclaimed her ‘the screen’s most versatile star’, and they weren’t kidding. Modern audiences may at first be flummoxed by the plumminess of her accent and her old-school soprano trilling, but there is no denying her breezy charm, her almost acrobatic dancing or her mastery of different forms of comedy, from witty repartee to the broadest of slapstick.
The question remains, of course: is Matthews versatile enough to pass for male, as the story requires? Well, not exactly. With her wide eyes, button nose and short, slick-backed hair, she looks more like a ventriloquist’s doll than an actual boy. But that’s not the point. Films with premises this flimsy require a special kind of suspension of disbelief, so bundling her into a variety of well-tailored trouser suits (at the same time as her stage outfits are becoming ever more revealing) will just about fit the bill.
The film’s early scenes set in London have zany magic, where bells chime with the melodies of popular songs. It is here that director Victor Saville is at his best, conjuring up a kind of art deco formalism in scene after scene. While Saville’s visual panache remains undimmed in the rest of the film, he doesn’t seem quite so inventive, mainly contenting himself with recording the (admittedly gorgeous) proceedings in front of him.
A curious feature of this film is that the songs are almost all ‘diagetic’ — presented as part of an explicit performance. Even the apparent exceptions stick to this rule: Victor improvises lines to a song being performed in a club; on her own, Elizabeth sings along to a record. This is a feature FIRST A GIRL has in common with Bob Fosse’s film of Cabaret, but anyone hoping that it also shares CABARET’s delight in its characters’ polymorphous perversity will be disappointed. In fact, FIRST A GIRL shows little interest in investigating the unusual situation it has set up except in the interests of broad comedy. The film mines some good visual gags from Elizabeth’s escapades with smoking and drinking, but it is clear that she regards the male privilege on offer as a kind of imposition: a profitable way of getting to perform, no more. As she exclaims: “I can’t be a man all my life!”
Despite a general indifference to the erotic possibilities of drag, the film displays some bracing British vulgarity unknown to its American counterparts (such as RKO’s Astaire and Rogers series). Matthews’ introduction in the film even comes via her backside, as it sways to the music. Late in the film, there is a misunderstanding between Victor and Elizabeth’s newly converted suitor Robert (Griffith Jones) when the former blithely chatters about mentoring Elizabeth — he claims to be all things to her, including father, mother, sister and brother — and the latter interprets his words as a crude boast about initiating her sexually (viewed from this perspective, it is a wonder that the conversation ever passed the censor).
Despite the fact that Matthews and Hale’s offscreen relationship would have been common knowledge to filmgoers of the time (they had married in 1931, under somewhat scandalous circumstances), there is never any hint of impropriety between their two characters. Unbidden, Victor even turns his chair to the wall whenever Elizabeth has to undress. Indeed, occupying the same sort of sexual no-man’s-land as Hollywood’s Edward Everett Horton, it is Hale’s fussily pretentious Victor who comes closest to upsetting the heterosexual applecart: when we finally get to see him perform in drag, he seems to be in his element, and the remark he signs off with has some of the perverse reverberations of SOME LIKE IT HOT’s famous punchline.