Sylvia Scarlett (1936): Risque (Gender-Bender) Movie–Part Two

Sylvia Scarlett: Part Two
Grade: B (***1/2* out of *****)
Nightmarish Preview
When they finished shooting, Cukor believed that they had “something really fine”–until the infamous preview at Huntington Park. After an early supper with Natasha Paley, Cukor and Hepburn were convinced that Sylvia Scarlett would be a great success. “I can quit the business now,” Cukor joked, “and rest on my laurels.” “Wouldn’t it be funny if the picture would flop,” he added, certain this was out of the question.
Please read my biography of Cukor:
But during the screening, Hepburn realized that something was wrong: No one was laughing, even though it was supposed to be a comedy. Half of the audience walked out, and those who remained began to talk. “It was an absolute agony,” Hepburn recalled, “the audience had no idea what the film was about. I thought they were going to lynch me.”  
The preview was a nightmare, with people walking up and down the aisles. Hepburn went to the ladies room at one point, where to her dismay a woman lying on a sofa. “What’s the matter,” asked Hepburn, “was the picture so bad? Did it finish you off?” The woman just rolled her eyes up, never answering her questions. Later, as they were leaving, Hepburn banged her head while getting into her car. “Thank God,” she said, “I’ve knocked myself out.” Hepburn remembered the evening as “a total disaster, a most ghastly thing.”  
After the preview, they all went back to Cukor’s house. “Pandro, scrape this one,” said Hepburn, “and we’ll do another picture for you for nothing!” But Berman looked at them coldly and said: “I never want to do a picture with either of you again.”
Usually, Cukor could count on kind words from his friends, even about his weakest films. But when Fanny Brice saw the film, she responded with characteristic bluntness. She gave Cukor and Hepburn a discouraging look and said, “What the hell were you two thinking about making that picture.”  
Hepburn later admitted that during the scene when she was reciting a poem, she began to lose confidence in the material, and wondered if Cukor had lost his. She thought the picture ended too abruptly, and again accused Cukor of not finishing the book, which she herself was guilty of. “We’ve worked on other books we’ve never finished,” Cukor teased, referring to Little Women.
Going on a Limb
Cukor went on the limb with Sylvia Scarlett, and got clobbered, but he refused to indulge in self-pity. He was fond of Fanny Brice’s dictum: “If ya stay in the game long enough, the deal comes round to you.” Failure was not a pleasant experience, but Cukor believed it was better to forge new paths than to sit back and cry. Both he and Hepburn, as he later put it, had “many kicks in the ass” since then. Cukor’s attitude was typical: “get on with something else.” Still, the failure Sylvia Scarlet made him more cautious. “It slowed me up,” he told Lambert, “I wasn’t going to be so goddamned daring after that.” 
At the time though, Cukor didn’t have any inkling of disaster. It wasn’t pleasant to have a flop, but it really didn’t injure him. His direction even got some good reviews. Cukor later realized that it wasn’t the daring part of Sylvia Scarlett that failed; it was when they tried to play it safe! 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.   
Litmus Test, or Ahead of its Time
A commercial flop, Sylvia Scarlett disappeared for some years, but then began to acquire an underground reputation, becoming a minor cult film. The picture never stopped playing at the art theaters. But Cukor would use Sylvia Scarlett as a litmus test, to see whether people were in their right minds. If they liked it, he would think to himself, “they’re a little batty.'” Indeed, years later, when Judy Holliday noted she loved the picture, Cukor said: “Now, I know about you, your mind is not too good.” 
Once the initial shock was over, Cukor’s attitude about the movie softened. He often joked that it took “a mere 35 years” to come into his own with Sylvia Scarlett. Privately, Cukor continued to have affection for the picture–nothing delighted him more than the critics’ comment that Sylvia Scarlett was ahead of its times. It was a great compliment for a studio contract director.
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)
Directed by George Cukor
Screenplay by Gladys Unger, John Collier, Mortimer Offner, based on “The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett,” 1918 novel by Compton MacKenzie
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Edited by Jane Loring
Music by Roy Webb
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release date December 25, 1935
Running time: 90 minutes
Budget $641,000
Box office $497,000