Exuberant, coyly girlish, immensely popular star of British musicals of the 1930s, arguably the one real international superstar created in England during the Depression years. Matthews's elegant dancing earned her such tags--conjured by the publicity department--as "The British Ginger Rogers" and, more memorably, "The Dancing Divinity".
With her endearing "funny face" prettiness, lovely large dark eyes, toothy smile, gawky but oddly graceful gangliness and charming coo of a singing voice, Matthews typically played pert gamines and waifs caught up in mistaken identity complications and backstage musical comedy shenanigans. A big success on the London stage during the late 1920s, she clinched her film stardom in the open-air freshness of "The Good Companions" (1932), directed by Victor Saville. Probably her best-remembered film is the delightful musical "Evergreen" (1934), also helmed by Saville, in which she played both mother and daughter and performed to songs ranging from "Dancing on the Ceiling" to "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow-Wow". The beguiling, effervescent Matthews also did well by "First a Girl" (1935), a mild remake of the German gender-bending farce "Viktor und Viktoria" (1933) which later inspired Blake Edwards's "Victor/Victoria" (1982). One of her lesser films, though, was "Waltzes from Vienna" (1933), with young director Alfred Hitchcock completely lost at sea and bored helming an operetta.
Unlike some of England's popular film stars whose background was the music hall tradition and whose appeal was somewhat limited to the U.K., Matthews found that her vivacious flair for comedy and delightful dancing, showcased in films much more lavish than many other English efforts of the day, traveled extremely well. At several times Hollywood beckoned (once proposing to team her with Fred Astaire), but nothing ever came of the attempts. Matthews' second husband was stage comedian and director Sonnie Hale, who played goofy comedy roles in several of her starring vehicles, but whose direction of three of them (including the lesser if enjoyable "Head Over Heels" 1937) left a bit to be desired.
After her stardom declined at the end of the decade Matthews returned to extensive stage work (from "Wild Rose" in 1944 to "Water Babies" in 1973, and even doing a spot of directing). Her many radio appearances included the long-running 1960s radio program "Mrs. Dale's Diary", and her tours in a wide variety of plays were international in scope. Late in life, Matthews also gave a number of concerts in America and on the London stage where her career got started, her light soprano retaining a great deal of its nostalgic charm. Matthews also made a handful film appearances from the 1940s on, perhaps most memorably by bringing a warm glow to the modest role of the tiny protagonist's mother in the beloved fantasy, "tom thumb" (1958).