Ever since my introduction to classic film via the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, Katharine Hepburn has remained my favorite actress. Hepburn is famous not only for her unique personality but a long career, in which she appeared in many different roles and film genres. She is also well known for her love affair and eight film collaborations with Spencer Tracy. But perhaps because of Bringing Up Baby, I have always preferred her films with Cary Grant.
Sylvia Scarlett is an unconventional film about a girl who passes herself off as a young man. When Sylvia’s father Henry Scarlett (Edmund Gwenn) gets into trouble with his illegal activities, the two of them flee France for England. Henry feels his daughter’s sex will be a hindrance to his getaway. So Sylvia (Katharine Hepburn) cuts her hair and becomes Sylvester. On their way to England they meet con man and trickster Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant). Soon the three are running scams together. Sylvester is determined to turn their threesome honest and is eventually successful.
Along with Cockney maid Maudie, they form a travelling acting company. One night they meet Michael Fane (BrIan Aherne), an artist who invites them back to his house for a party. Even though Fane already has a tempestuous foreign girlfriend, Sylvester falls hard for him. This has her rethinking her disguise as a male. So she reveals herself to Fane as a woman. Fane admits to being drawn to Sylvia when she was still a man and compliments her newfound femininity. However, when his girlfriend Lily reappears, he quickly forgets Sylvia’s presence.
Sylvia resigns herself to her lot in life. When her father dies after an argument with Maudie, and Sylvia rescues a drowning Lily, she and Jimmy must decide what comes next.
Grant and Hepburn made a total of four films together over a period of about five years. But their very first collaboration together is also their oddest. Hepburn already had an Oscar and four years of film work behind her when she took the gender bending role of the title character in Sylvia Scarlett in 1936. In spite of her Academy Award and prior experience, Sylvia Scarlett was the beginning of a long string of oddly casted and mediocre films which eventually earned Hepburn the label of Box Office Poison. This is a title she wouldn’t shed until her eventual triumphant return in her fourth and final picture with Cary Grant, The Philadelphia Story.
Hepburn and lifelong friend and collaborating director George Cukor (with whom she made a total of ten films) were the driving force behind Sylvia Scarlett. They managed to convince Pandro S. Berman (who produced six of Hepburn’s films) to produce this film based on a 1918 novel published by Compton McKenzie. At this time Grant also had four years experience and over twenty picture titles under his belt. However he had not yet solidified his famous persona. Grant was already in the middle of a box office slump of his own. However, Berman and Hepburn saw something in his performances which convinced them of his talent.
With the benefit of hindsight, and their names now being almost legend, you would think a film in which Hepburn, Grant, Cukor and Berman were involved would have been successful, if not a hit. Not to mention the addition of Brian Aherne and Edmund Gwenn in supporting roles should have at least guaranteed a high quality film.
However, that was not the case and Sylvia Scarlett flopped big at at its’ initial screening. It was not well received. Hepburn and Cukor promised Berman to make their next film for free if he would shelve it.
There are many obvious reasons for this failure. These include a schizophrenic script and a meandering plot which seems to have no purpose. Definitely one of the biggest reasons is the gender/sexual ambiguity featured in Sylvia Scarlett, which is decades ahead of its’ time. The moral police that was the Hays Code, which dictated what was acceptable and unacceptable content for the screen, had been in force for two years at this point. So it is a wonder that Sylvia Scarlett even got made. Even today, some of the themes and content of Sylvia Scarlett might be offensive to some viewers. But in the 1930’s a woman parading as a man and the situational complexities that entails was an unacceptable shock to the public. Their outrage was reflected at the box office. The film lost over $350,000, which in those days was no small sum.
Another big reason for Sylvia Scarlett’s failure could be that audiences had certain expectations of a Grant and/or Hepburn picture. Although, neither one of them had the fully formed public persona by which we know them today, neither had either one ever stepped so completely outside of the boundaries of their usual oeuvre before. Yet, despite their odd roles in an unusual film, they were perhaps never more perfectly cast, though the public of that time may not have known it.
As any Hepburn enthusiast can tell you today, she was right at home playing the gender bending role of Sylvia/Sylvester. Hepburn had grown up idolizing her older brother. As a child she mimicked him, dressing and acting as a boy. Even as a grown woman, she always preferred pants to dresses.
Grant, despite his later veneer of worldly sophistication, grew up in a dysfunctional working class home in Bristol, England. He later ran away from home to join a traveling performance troupe. Though he worked hard to develop his transatlantic accent and gentlemanly manners, he had much more in common with Jimmy Monkley than his later screen persona. I was delighted to see Monkley playing the piano, dancing and singing as part of the film’s acting troupe. It helps me to imagine a young Grant doing the same in his real life.
In spite of its’ many flaws and uncomfortable scenes, I consider Sylvia Scarlett an underrated film. Though it will never be my favorite of the Grant and Hepburn collaborations, it still has much to offer. I think it is unfair to compare it to their other films together, because it is just so unique. It would be like comparing apples and oranges simply because the four pictures share the same actors.
I don’t particularly want to focus on the shock value or cultural challenges of gender identity that Sylvia Scarlett highlights. For me, it is intriguing for the actors who inhabit the characters.
In my opinion Brian Aherne as the bohemian artist Michael Fane is forgettable. While I do think this British actor is generally underrated, I’m not a fan of his performance here. Or maybe I’m not a fan of the character. Fane seems insincere in his appreciation of Sylvia/Sylvester. I don’t like how lightly he plays with her emotions while making up his mind about her.
As I already mentioned, Grant is right at home in the character of con man Jimmy Monkley. It is a delight to see him in a role which is unsophisticated. He is also playing a darker character with no true moral compass. This is one of the few times Grant had the chance to play someone like this. Audiences generally refused to accept him in anything which didn’t match his urbane public image. He is physically and morally dirty, crafty and cruel, but not altogether unlikeable.
Edmund Gwenn as Sylvia/Sylvester’s selfish, gambling drunkard of a father also plays partially against type. For those more familiar with his roles in films like Pride and Prejudice or as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, his portrayal of Henry Scarlett is quite a surprise.
He is so credible as the self-absorbed, weak father that I found myself really hating him. If not for his selfish weakness Sylvia/Sylvester would have been better off. When he confesses at the beginning of the film of his gambling loss which has led to embezzlement and theft, I was sorry for Sylvia. But then when she decides to stick with him in spite of his flawed character and he refuses because it would inconvenience him, I abhorred him. Henry is worried Sylvia will be a hindrance to him. Yet she is the one who ends up having to babysit him and clean up his messes.
Hepburn is famous for her firm opinions and portrayals of strong women on screen. Sometimes I forget that she occasionally played other types of women. There is a reason she is one of the most celebrated and nominated actresses ever. Very few actresses, if any, could portray awkward vulnerability in a character, as well as Hepburn does.
When I think of her, I picture that stubborn tilt of her chin, the flashing glint in her eyes that portends a verbal battle in films like Stage Door, The Philadelphia Story, The Lion in Winter and many of her films with Spencer Tracy including Adam’s Rib. But I forget how many more of her pictures make me ache with pain over her tender heart and generous vulnerability like she does not only in Sylvia Scarlett but also Alice Adams, Summertime and The Rain Maker. It’s so painful as to make it difficult to watch her performances in these films.
And yes, Hepburn is utterly believable to me as the boy Sylvester. Though her fine boned features might betray her femininity, her cropped hair, her male swagger and boyish figure in a suit are convincing enough to help her pass for a teenage boy. But when she begins to yearn to be loved for herself, that is when she really shines. Her transition back into a young woman in love for the first time is incredibly awkward and a bit over done. Yet it breaks my heart at the same time. Her uncertainty, low self-esteem and self loathing is almost more than I can bear. Still she doesn’t allow this to affect her underlying kindness, generosity and sacrificial love.
Sylvia Scarlett is an anomaly in the filmographies of its’ actors, director and producer. But that is precisely what makes it such a fascinating film. Because it is populated with such famous faces and screen personas a viewer gets the opportunity to experience the unexpected. Some may appreciate Sylvia Scarlett for its’ gender bending shock value. I love that it shows Grant and Hepburn in character roles which so closely match their past real life experiences. It’s a small glimpse into the depth of their talents made all the more special for its’ rarity in a couple of long and storied careers.
This has been my contribution to the Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn Blogathon hosted by The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.