US Release Date: 01-03-1936
Directed by: George Cukor
- Katharine Hepburn, as
- Sylvia Scarlett
- Cary Grant, as
- Jimmy Monkley
- Brian Aherne, as
- Michael Fane
- Edmund Gwenn, as
- Henry Scarlett
- Dennie Moore, as
- Maudie Tilt
- Natalie Paley as
- Lily Levetsky
Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett.
Sylvia Scarlett is one of the most unusual movies to come out of Hollywood during the 1930's. Directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant (in the first of four movies they would make together). The action takes place in France and England; appropriately enough it plays more like a foreign film than a Hollywood movie.
Hepburn is the titular Sylvia. Her dearly departed mother was French and her father is English. A crooked deal causes father and daughter to flee France for England, only, to better evade the French police, Sylvia masquerades as Sylvester. Like most movies where a character passes for the opposite sex the audience must suspend belief and accept that everyone in the movie believes the deception. Hepburn never looks like a boy in the face, she was far too striking and feminine in her facial features. She does, however, manage to move like a boy. She takes full advantage of her boyish body and athletic prowess, running, jumping and climbing up things like a boy would. At times you almost think of her as a boy, but never completely.
Grant plays against type here. He hadn't yet made his mark as romantic leading man and master of the screwball comedy. He plays Jimmy Monkley, a small time jewel thief with a cockney accent, that Sylvia and her father meet on the boat for England. In a roundabout way he joins their company and the three of them proceed to have adventures in England together, working small cons and eventually buying a caravan and traveling as musicians. In style and mood it has touches of Josef von Sternberg and Ingmar Bergman.
There are several “gay” moments. “Sylvester” gets kissed on the mouth by a woman. At one point a male artist that Sylvia meets tells her she gives him a “queer feeling” and then asks if he can paint “his” portrait. Later when he sees Sylvia in a dress he asks, “Boy, what are you up to?” Then a woman asks Sylvia if she, “…was a girl dressed as a boy, or a boy dressed up like a girl?”
Edmund Gwenn, best known for playing Kris Kringle in the original Miracle on 34th Street, plays Sylvia's father. He is about as far from Santa Claus as you can get, being a swindling alcoholic who eventually loses his mind over a woman.
Sylvia Scarlett bombed at the box office in 1936. Over time, not surprisingly, it has grown in stature and become something of a cult classic. It is completely unlike the other three movies Hepburn and Grant would make together and while it's not a masterpiece it is definitely worth seeing.
Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Sylvia Scarlett
Although famous for her well-publicized relationship with Spencer Tracy, some have suggested, while others have bluntly stated, that Katharine Hepburn was a lesbian. I have no clue as to what the truth of her sexuality was but one thing is for sure, her film roles sometimes encouraged such speculation. In Woman of the Year (1942) with Spencer Tracy, she dressed as a man in one scene while he took on feminine mannerisms. In Sylvia Scarlett she spends a large portion of screen time in men’s clothing and sports a man’s haircut.
The film’s biggest error is that there truly is no reason for her to dress as a man. Her disguise is first explained so as to somehow help her and her father to leave France but even if that were true, why keep the charade up when in England? It is not as if she were trying to maintain her job as a hotel butler or study Talmud.
The plot is paper thin. In England, Sylvester falls in love with a man and reveals to him that she is actually Sylvia. She also learns from him that some people wear disguises that are less elaborate than hers. As these are con artists, the entire point of the film is perception and trust.
When we first meet Cary Grant as Jimmy, we think he is one thing but turns out to be something else. Costumes play a large part of the film. Not only does Sylvia dress as a man but they all wear costumes for their traveling show. My favorite scene is when Hepburn puts on a dress she stole that, coincidentally, fits her perfectly, accentuating her feminine curves. She looks quite attractive in this scene with her short haircut decades ahead of its time. When a woman calls her lovely, Hepburn responds, “Do you really, really think so?” in her distinct voice. Note that in this scene, Michael is wearing a bathrobe, which is essentially a dress.
Another scene that struck me was when she runs into the ocean to save a drowning woman and gets smacked by a wave. 45 years later she would dive into a lake to save Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981). Hepburn grew up and lived next to a lake her whole life. She swam in it well into old age. As Patrick wrote, she was quite athletic. It helps in her performance when pretending to be a boy. Note how her mannerisms differ when she has a dress on.
Sylvia Scarlett is a rather unique film but not actually in a good way. The plot, what there is of one, merely rambles pointlessly from one location to the next. It is just a girl who dresses as a boy, meets a man she likes, reveals her true sex, the end. The one thing that may stay with you is just how comfortable Hepburn seemed in male clothing, be it due to her acting prowess or her personal preference.
Edmund Gwenn, Katharine Hepburn, and Cary Grant in Sylvia Scarlett.
Sylvia Scarlett was ahead of its time, but even from a modern perspective it's not a very good movie. The problem lies with the script, which is all over the place, but as Eric noted, with very little plot. Although many websites list it as a comedy, with some noting it as a romantic comedy, there's not much to laugh at here and even less romance. Even Hepburn and director George Cukor disliked the finished product. According to Hollywood legend, after viewing the finished film, the two of them begged producer Pandro S. Berman to destroy it and even offered to make another one for him for free.
The screenplay was written by short story writer John Collier, who had never written a film before, and reportedly this first draft closely followed the plot of the 1918 novel upon which it is based. Cukor was leery of the script and brought in two script doctors to fix it up. These new writers added the prologue where we see Sylvia cut off her hair and flee France with her father, where before the film began with Sylvia already dressed as a man. Their other contribution was adding the more traditional Hollywood happy ending. Although Cukor later admitted that he wished he had filmed the original script as is, I'm not sure it would have helped.
Both of my brothers praised Hepburn's mannerisms while dressed as a man, but I never found her convincing. As Patrick wrote though, as with every movie Hollywood has ever made about cross-dressing, you just have to accept that no one in the movie can tell that Sylvester is really a woman. Of course the unanswered question is the one Eric posed. Why does she continue to dress as a man after they arrive in England? The film shies away from even proposing an answer. Hepburn's sexuality in real life is irrelevant, but if Sylvia's had been allowed to be in flux it might have made more sense. If the kiss the maid gives her had confused her, it might have gone some ways to explaining her reasoning, but given that test audiences walked out during that quick peck as it was filmed, you can only imagine how they would have responded if it had seemed as if she enjoyed it.
Although the film bombed, it has been credited with boosting Grant's career. Patrick wrote that he plays against type and that's partly true. He's a bit of a villain here, but many have written that this is the first time Grant's charm got a chance to flower on screen. He may be a rogue, but he's a charming one and the highlight of this movie, despite a horribly unconvincing cockney accent. The problem is once again the script, which doesn't seem to know what to do with him. Obviously, Sylvia should have ended up with his character. The two of them needed to ride off into the sunset together, she keeping him honorable and he not minding that she liked to dress in men's clothing.
The movie does seem to want to say something about gender roles, but its message is never very clear. I agree with Patrick that it is worth seeing at least once, because while it is a failure, at least it's an interesting one.
Photos © Copyright RKO Radio Pictures (1936)