Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
Directed by George Cukor
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Edmund Gwenn, Brian Aherne
This is an article that I wrote a couple of years ago now but that I had sitting unpublished in my computer folders. I thought that this blogathon was the perfect opportunity to bring it out even if it was neither my favourite film nor Katharine Hepburn’s.
After re-watching Sylvia Scarlett and re-reading my article, I see that my first impression was very much in line with what I feel now. I was perhaps a little too cynical in my tone in retrospect but unfortunately the film did very little for me. If there is one thing that has evolved, it is my opinion of Brian Aherne. This time around I did not find his performance as annoying and actually find that he grew on me. I might have even picked him over Errol Flynn. 🙂
“To the adventurer, to all who stray from the beaten track, life is an extravaganza in which laughter and luck and love come in odd ways, unexpectedly — but they are none the less sweet for that.”
Sylvia Snow (Hepburn) is a young woman who has been living in Marseille with her parents, a French-born mother and an English-born father. Her mother recently passed away and her father, Henry (Gwenn), finds it hard to make ends meet on his salary as a bookkeeper. Moreover, he has gotten himself in trouble gambling away a significant amount of money that he embezzled from his employer and which he cannot repay. He hopes to escape back to England in order to avoid getting arrested and put in prison but he hasn’t the funds to buy a ticket. Feeling sorry for him, Sylvia gives her father the dowry that had been set aside for him but is shocked when he says that she cannot come with him because the police will be on the lookout for a mother/father duo. She then decides to cut off her long hair and become a boy called “Sylvester Scarlett”, allowing her travel incognito.
Once aboard the board heading towards England, Sylvia feels relieved that they did not get caught while her father acts very uptight and paranoid. This sensation heightens when he sees a strange man staring at them. Believing him to be a detective, Sylvia and Henry follow him and found out that he is a bookie by the name of Jimmy Monkley (Grant). Wanting to get winning tips from him, Henry joins Jimmy in the bar where Henry gets very drunk, spilling information about their departure from France and revealing that he has stolen a valuable spool of lace fabric from him employer which he plans to sell in England. In order not to pay taxes on it when they go through customs, he has wrapped it around his abdomen. Jimmy’s interest is raised when he hears this and as things would go, Henry is stopped by customs officers in the U.K. and makes a big scene. They end up confiscating the lace and fining him, leaving Sylvia and Henry penniless. Luckily for them, they happen upon Jimmy on the next train to London and after they confront him about denouncing Henry, Jimmy surprisingly offers them money to cover the lace. It turns out that Jimmy is a crook and was carrying extremely valuable stolen diamonds in his shoes and in order to deter the customs officials from searching him, he ratted out Henry.
When they arrive in London, the trio decide to start working together as con artists swindling unsuspecting people out of their money and other valuable goods. Along their way, they happen upon a slightly dim-witted maid called Maudie who later joins them in their ventures as well as Michael Fane (Aherne), an artist who fosters a strange attraction to “Sylvester” and asks him to pose for a portrait. Sylvia ends up falling in love with Michael though he has professed his faithfulness to his lover, Lily, even after Sylvia reveals herself to be a girl.
Will Sylvia continue to go disguised as a boy? Will Michael eventually acknowledge her feelings for him? What about the others?
Sylvia Scarlett brought certain notoriety to both Katharine Hepburn and the 1930’s in being one of the most unsuccessful films of that decade. Released only one year after the Hays Code started being strictly enforced, Sylvia Scarlett managed to succeed in getting a stamp of approval from censors. This seems rather awkward since the film was considered to be highly controversial but my guess is that details such as cross-dressing, same-sex kissing, and gender confusion, were not specified in the Production Code guidelines which allowed them to bypass what had been indicated in writing.
Most actors have ups and downs in their careers, enjoying their successes and trying to move past their failures. Some of these thespians will even become forever linked to a role they played or from a film/series of movies whether they like it or not. That is one of the prices of fame. Joan Crawford had Rain. Kevin Costner had Waterworld. Elizabeth Berkeley had Showgirls. For Katharine Hepburn, Sylvia Scarlett is the film she would have most liked seen removed from her filmography. Though this was not the film that ultimately killed Hepburn’s relationship with RKO (that was Bringing Up Baby), it was one that instigated a deep public backlash against her films as well as for subject material that pushed the envelope. Everything about the film was wrong to her aside from a personal appreciation for co-star Cary Grant’s performance. It was her opinion that the adapted screenplay and eventual script were too different from the novel The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett. According to Hepburn, the film took 200 years to shoot, cost an astronomical $1 million to make ($18.175 million today), and had a disastrous preview in San Diego where 2/3 of the audience walked out before the end.
Hepburn realised how bad the film’s predicament was about four weeks into filming which resulted in her and Cukor going to see producer Pandro Berman to request that he destroy the picture, offering to do the next one for free. Berman refused and got extremely irritated, telling both that he never wanted to see either of them again. Sylvia Scarlett failed miserably upon release but would become a cult classic in our modern times, a fact that stupefied Katharine Hepburn, who herself thought that the film made no sense and went so far as to question the mindset of those who brought it “back to life”.
“It was a disaster. And that’s why it’s a success now. The audience now must be a disaster. At least when it was made then, they had the sense not to go. I don’t understand how it could be a cult picture because it’s hopeless.”– Katharine Hepburn
I must give it to Ms. Hepburn that she did not bow down towards anyone or anything out of obligation. Although her Bette Davis-esque “tell it like it is” attitude is slightly shocking (and perhaps a knuckle punch in the ego of those critics and moviegoers alike who value Sylvia Scarlett), at least she has the nerve to call a rotten egg what it is.
My own appreciation of the film is mixed as I neither found the film to be overly engaging nor impossible to watch. If anything, the overall campy feel of both the plot and the performances made it so that it was difficult to take the film very seriously. The acting was exaggerated, resembling a silent film or even a mime’s routing except that this picture had sound. Speaking of which, the actors spoke very loud as if they were trying to propel their voices to the back of a large theatre. All of this reminded me of a scene from Singin’ in the Rain when the in-film movie The Duelling Cavalier is previewed and fails miserably because the studio’s attempts to transition to talking pictures was disastrous. In addition, Cary Grant sported a very cartoonish, thick Cockney accent reminiscent of the one that Dick Van Dyke’s Bert the Chimney Sweeper uses in Mary Poppins. Brian Aherne seemed very aloof in his role and in a dream-like state when he delivered his lines. He may have been a convincing wannabe double for Errol Flynn in those days but I was least convinced by his performance. None of these things seem appropriate in hindsight.
The issue of gender identity was innovative, making it clear that the creators and players of Sylvia Scarlett were ahead of their time in putting these taboo subjects on-screen, at least in the United States. Films like Victor/Victoria and Yentl tested the waters in dramatic form though the theme had been tested on a more comedic level for many decades.
I am not one to dissuade someone from seeing a film unless it is truly unbearable to watch. This is not the case with Sylvia Scarlett though I do challenge the fact that it is considered to be a cult classic today. Quite frankly, I really do not see the point unless, of course, it is recommended for a course in Gender/Women’s Studies. There is nothing timeless that stands out from this film and the only interest it holds is its historical value. Even if you are a film buff, I would not go so far as to say that you “need” to see them. The choice is yours on this one.