Elizabeth (Jessie Matthews) is a talented dancer, but she hasn’t yet made her mark on the entertainment world. Instead, she works as a dressmaker while hoping to someday find success on the stage.
Outside of a theater one day, she meets Victor (Sonnie Hale), a female impersonator. They become friends, and Victor just may give Elizabeth her big break. He’s lost his voice, and he needs someone to perform in his place.
Elizabeth poses as “Victor,” and she’s a smash. But her success is complicated by the fact that she’s a woman, pretending to be a man impersonating a woman!
Victor Saville directs 1935’s First a Girl, a British musical/comedy. This film is based on the German Viktor Und Viktoria (1933). The film was remade again in 1957 (Viktor and Viktoria), 1982 (Victor Victoria), and 1995 (Victor/Victoria).
I discovered Jessie Matthews last year when I watched Sailing Along, one of my favorite new-to-me films of the year. After watching that film, I was eager to hunt down the rest of her filmography. I decided to pace myself instead, watching one every once in a blue moon, since her films aren’t the easiest to find on legal streaming sites and I’ve been trying not to go too crazy with DVD-buying.
Like Sailing Along, First a Girl is available on Netflix — and those are the only Jessie films I’ve found for streaming. I saved it for a dreary, snowy Saturday earlier this month, when I was in the mood for a musical.
Jessie is every bit and wonderful here as she was in Sailing Along. I’m so glad to have discovered her — what a talent! She has so much charisma and is the perfect leading lady for a musical.
In this film, her co-star is her real-life husband (Sonnie Hale), and they’re very fun to watch as a pair. Hale’s character serves as a mentor/manager to Jessie rather than a love interest, and the dynamic between them is great.
The film’s music is also delightful. There’s a song about a silkworm played during a fashion show at the dressmaker’s shop in the beginning, for example. The dance numbers are equally delightful, and very nicely staged. Some of them are reminiscent of Busby Berkeley’s work, though not quite as lavish.
As if the music and performances weren’t reason enough to tune in, First a Girl has tons of funny moments — Elizabeth’s reaction to being in the men’s dressing room for the first time, Elizabeth’s first performance as “Victoria,” and so many more. (Those are just two early examples.) There’s a mix of situational humor and slapstick, and the laughs land perfectly thanks to Jessie’s spectacular performance and those of the rest of the cast.
I can see why this story has been remade so many times. It’s a fun and unique take on the finding-success-on-the-stage story that’s so often told in musicals, and as long as the leading lady is cast successfully, there’s no way you can go wrong with it!
First a Girl is well worth a watch for fans of the musical genre or those who enjoy discovering lesser-known, brilliant talents such as Jessie Matthews. I highly recommend this one, and it’s an instant favorite for me. The score: 5/5!