Sylvia Scarlett and Gender Politics

George Cukor returned to RKO to direct “Sylvia Scarlett,” as he owed the studio one picture. A commercial and critical failure, when released in January 1936, “Sylvia Scarlett” is nonetheless one of Cukor’s most personal and most original films.

Cukor was intrigued by the book, the story of petty crooks on the run that give up crime to become vagabond actors. With three strong characters–Henry Scarlett (Edmund Gwenn), a hard-luck embezzler forced to flee France; his daughter Sylvia (Hepburn), disguised as a boy to help him; and Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant), a raffish Cockney who joins them–Cukor he had the making of a fresh, offbeat film.

Sylvia was a most suitable part for Hepburn’s boyish quality.  Playing a young chap, both men and women fall in love with her. When a rural artist (Brian Aherne) is attracted to her, he says, “There’s something very queer going on here.” Then a maid finds her attractive and kisses her. In its day, the sexual ambiguities and misunderstandings were daring, but regrettably, audiences didn’t see the humor in the film’s cross-dressing and mistaken identities.

Producer Pandro Berman wanted to cast Errol Flynn, then a dashing Australian with limited Hollywood experience, as the rural artist, but after meeting Flynn for only five minutes, Cukor dismissed him and the role was assigned to Brian Aherne. At the special request of his old friend, actress Elsa Maxwell, Natasha Paley, a bona fide Russian princess, was cast as Aherne’s love interest, even though her English was bad.

But the most significant piece of casting was Cary Grant, featured here in a pivotal role that would change the course of his career. Under contract at Paramount, Grant was typed as a conventional leading man and cast in relatively unimportant parts. It was not until Cukor directed him in “Sylvia Scarlet,” his first important role, that Grant’s flair for comedy emerged.

Grant, who had been a circus stilt-walker in his childhood, was familiar with his character’s raffish personality. As a Cockney trickster, Grant stole the picture and went on to a triumphant career as a romantic wiseguy. Cukor would periodically remind Grant that he got his breakthrough in his movie.

Cukor persuaded John Collier to come to Hollywood and write the screenplay; the final script is credited to Collier, Gladys Unger and Mortimer Affner. The movie tells a curious story, burdened by a jumbled plot and labored dialogue. Cukor’s treatment of the material is in part whimsical, in part allegorical.

Some of the film is really good, and Hepburn is lovely in the first part, which is funny. As the awkward heroine, the way she handles her body, the way she runs, and her haircut were all appropriately boyish. The actress’s painful vulnerability and romantic-sexual longings were as apparent in this film as they were in Little Women. But Hepburn is too affected in the second half, possibly a result of the incoherent script.

The opening scene, after Sylvia’s mother has died and she cuts off her hair to sell it–was put in later. Originally, the story started aboard the ship–when Hepburn is already disguised as a boy. The prologue was tacked on as a sympathy device–poor girl, her mother died, what else could she do The ending was also weak and contrived; its sole purpose to get Hepburn away from Grant and back to the artist. Worse yet, the subplot of Natasha Paley, as Aherne’s older girlfriend who almost drowns, had nothing to do with the rest of the film.

Cukor went on the limb with “Sylvia Scarlett,” and got clobbered, but he refused to indulge in self-pity. Still, the failure “Sylvia Scarlet” made him more cautious. “It slowed me up,” he told Gavin Lambert, “I wasn’t going to be so goddamned daring after that.”

A commercial flop, “Sylvia Scarlett” disappeared from the market for some years, but then it began to acquire an underground reputation to the point of becoming a cult film. The picture never stopped playing at the art theaters. Cukor often joked that it took “a mere 35 years” to come into his own with “Sylvia Scarlett.” He continued to have affection for the picture–nothing delighted him more than the critics’ comment that “Sylvia Scarlett” was ahead of its times.


Released: January 3, 1936
Running time: 94 minutes
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Directed by George Cukor
Screenplay: Gladys Unger, John Collier, and Mortimer Affner, based on the novel by Compton Mackenzie
Camera: Joseph August
Art Director: Roy Webb
Editor: Jane Loring
Costumes: Muriel King (for Hepburn) and Bernard Newman
Music: P.J. Faulkner


Sylvia Scarlett (Cary Grant)
Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant)
Michael Fane (Brian Aherne)
Henry Scarlett (Edmund Gwenn)
Lily (Natalie Paley)
Maudie Tilt (Dennie Moore)
Drunk (Lennox Pawle)