Gay Pride 2024: Queer Cinema: The Essentials–Sylvia Scarlett (1936), Cukor’s Gender-Bender Risque Movie (Part One) (LGBTQ), Katharine Hepburn as Boy, Cary Grant Before becoming Star

My Forthcoming Book: Queer Cinema: The Essentials, 1924-Present

Sylvia Scarlett (1936)

After David Copperfield, made at MGM with great success, Cukor returned to RKO to direct Sylvia Scarlett, as he owed the studio one more picture.

Grade: B (***1/2* out of *****)

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, who 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. 

Hepburn’s Boyish Quality
Looking at the film today, one can see the eccentricities that must have attracted Cukor. 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.        
Neither did producer Pandro S. Berman, who disliked what he labeled the “freak picture” from the beginning. “I hated it as a book,” he recalled, “but George and Kate were crazy about it, and they ganged up on me. I’d never seen them so enthusiastic about a project.”
Cukor and Berman also disagreed about some of the casting. From the onset of his career, Cukor held strong opinions about two issues: the quality of scripts and the casting of the right actors. Berman wanted Errol Flynn, then an unknown dashing Australian, 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 quite bad. Paley had fallen on hard times, and Maxwell was concerned about her financial welfare. Maxwell also took the liberty of asking for a role for herself–should the director come across a high-comedy a la Marie Dressler part.
Casting Cary Grant
But perhaps the most significant piece–really a coup–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. He made two films with Mae West, which did nothing for his career but reaffirms his status as B-level actor.
It was not until Cukor directed Grant in Sylvia Scarlet, his first important role, that Grant’s flair for comedy emerged. “George taught Cary how to be funny,” Hepburn told me in an interview for my bio of Cukor, “he brought out the Archie Leach in him. George saw that Cary was not yet as really trained actor, that he was wooden (frozen facial expression) but he helped him discover that he was essentially a comedian.”            
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.
My biography of Cukor (1993)
Cukor persuaded John Collier, a writer whose short stories he liked, to come to Hollywood and write the screenplay. But the final script, credited to Collier, Gladys Unger and Mortimer Affner, was a curious story, burdened by a jumbled plot and labored dialogue.
Whimsical and Allegorical
Cukor’s treatment of the material was in part whimsical, in part allegorical. Some of the film was really good, like the earlier sequence when they join up with the traveling players or the rural pagan feast. But certain scenes were difficult to do. It always worried Cukor when a scene didn’t play itself: “A good scene falls into place and carries itself and everything else with it.” 

Gay Directors: By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press.

Hepburn was lovely in the first part of the movie, which was lighter and funnier. 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, which Cukor had directed three years earlier. But Hepburn was affected and mannered in the film’s second section, mostly as a result of the flawed script.   
Cast: 
Katharine Hepburn (Sylvia Scarlett)
Cary Grant (Jimmy Monkley)
Brian Aherne (Michael Fane)
Edmund Gwenn (Henry Scarlett)
Natalie Paley (Lily)
Dennie Moore (Mandie Tilt)
Lennox Paule (The Drunk)
Credits
RKO. 
Producer: Pandro S. Berman. 
Screenplay: John Collier, Gladys Unger and Mortimer Offner, based on Compton MacKenzie’s novel. 
Photography (B&W): Joseph August. 
Editor: Jane Loring.
Premiere: January 1936. 
Running time: 90 Minutes.
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