Sylvia Scarlett (1936): Starring Katharine Hepburn as Boy and Cary Grant before he became Star

George Cukor returned to RKO to direct Sylvia Scarlett, as he owed the studio one more 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, which was 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 held that he had the making of a fresh, offbeat film.

Sylvia was a most suitable part for Katharine Hepburn’s boyish quality, one that Cukor immediately detected.  Always risk-taking, Hepburn relished playing a young chap, to whom both men and women feel attracted. 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. (The word queer did not have the same meaning–and gay connotation–that it would acquire in later decades)

In its day, the sexual ambiguities and gender misunderstandings were considered to be too daring, but regrettably, audiences didn’t see the humor in the film’s cross-dressing and tale of mistaken identities.

Initially, producer Pandro Berman wanted to cast Errol Flynn, then a dashing Australian with limited Hollywood experience, as the rural artist.  However, after meeting Flynn for only five minutes, Cukor dismissed him as “unqualified” and the subtle role was assigned to a more sensitive actor like 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. It’s a favor that Cukor later regretted.

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.  The women in his 1930s films (Mae West, Joan Bennett) would get top billing and he was often listed third or fourth in those films.  It was not until Cukor directed him in “Sylvia Scarlet,” his first important role, that Grant’s flair for comedy truly emerged.

Grant, who had been a circus stilt-walker  in his childhood and acrobat in his boyhood, 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 wise-guy.  Cukor would periodically remind Grant that he got his breakthrough in his movie.

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

Nonetheless, the final film is uneven, though some scenes are really good. Hepburn was lovelier and more compelling in the first part, which is both strange and funny. As the awkward heroine, the mode in which she handles her body, the way she runs, and her haircut were all appropriately boyish. (The actress’ chiseled face easily lent itself to such treatment). The actress’s painful vulnerability and romantic-sexual longings were as apparent in this film as they were in Cukor’s 1933 movie, Little Women. But Cukor thought that Hepburn was 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 in order to provide a more “plausible” reasoning. 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, but….

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, and her awkward accent made it worse.

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 later told interviewer Gavin Lambert, “I wasn’t going to be so goddamned daring after that.”

Made on a budget of $641,000, the film earned less than half a million dollars at the box-office, and RKO declared it a financial failure.

A commercial flop, “Sylvia Scarlett” disappeared from the market for some decades, but then it began to acquire an underground reputation to the point of becoming a minor 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.

Credits

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

Cast

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

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