Sylvia Scarlett: Gender, Androgyny and Cross-Dressing

In 1935, after completing David Copperfield, Cukor returned to RKO (from MGM) to direct “Sylvia Scarlett,” as he owed the studio one picture.
A commercial and critical failure when released, in January l936, “Sylvia Scarlett” is nonetheless one of Cukor’s most personal and original films.
It is also a turning point in Cary Grant’s career, which was fledgling up until then, playing mostly second or third bananas to Paramount’s leading men and women.
In its day, the text’s sexual ambiguities and misunderstandings were daring, but audiences didn’t see the humor in the film’s cross-dressing and mistaken identities.

Cukor was intrigued by 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 thought he had the making of an offbeat film.

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. As 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,” using the word decades before it entered our discourse about homosexuality. Then a maid finds her attractive and kisses her.

Neither did producer Pandro S. Berman, who disliked the “freak picture,” as he labeled it, 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 casting. From the onset of his career, Cukor held strong opinions about the script quality and casting the right actors for the right roles. Berman wanted Errol Flynn, then an unknown dashing Australian, as the rural artist, but after meeting Flynn for only 5 minutes, Cukor dismissed him and the role went to Brian Aherne. (In a year, Flynn would become a major star).

At the special request of Cukor’s old friend, actress Elsa Maxwell, Natasha Paley, a bona fide Russian princess, was cast as Aherne’s lover, 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 Cukor a favor for herself, should the director come across a high-comedy Marie Dressler part.

But the most significant piece of casting was Cary Grant, who was featured here in a pivotal role that would change the course of his career. Under contract at Paramount, Grant was then typecast as a conventional leading man and appeared in mostly routine or unimportant parts. It was not until Cukor directed him in Sylvia Scarlet, his first important role, that Grant’s flair for comedy became apparent.

“George taught Cary how to be funny,” Hepburn told me in a personal interview. “George brought out the Archie Leach in him. George saw that Cary was not really a trained actor, that he was wooden, and he helped him discover the comedian in him. Cary was forever grateful.”

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

In an AFI seminar in 1977, Cukor recalled: “Cary Grant was at first a very wooden man, but then he suddenly discovered ‘I’m a comedian.’ And he found good directors helping him a great deal. He had a wonderful part in “Sylvia Scarlett.” I saw the ground under his feet, where he felt an audience like him for the first time, he felt he was in command.”

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 Offner, was a curiously patchy work, burdened by a jumbled plot and labored dialogue.

Cukor’s treatment was in part whimsical, in part allegorical. Some of the film was really good, like the sequence when they join up with the traveling players. But certain scenes were difficult to do. It always worried Cukor when a scene didn’t play: “A good scene falls into place and carries itself and everything else with it.”

Hepburn was lovely in the movie’s first part, which was funny. As the awkward heroine, the way she handles her body, 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. However, Hepburn was affected in the film’s second section, probably due to the weak script.

When they finished shooting, Cukor thought that they had “something really fine.” All was well 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 was joking, “and rest on my laurels.” “Wouldn’t it be funny if the picture would flop,” he added, certain this was out of the question.

Nonetheless, during the preview 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, during which people walked up and down the aisles—never a good sign. Hepburn went to the ladies room at one point, where to her dismay a woman was laying 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,” Hepburn begged their producer, “and we’ll do another picture for you for nothing!” But Berman looked at Cukor and Hepburn 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 “Sylvia Scarlett,” 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 never finishing to read the book, which she herself was guilty of. “We’ve worked on other books we’ve never finished,” Cukor teased peburn, referring to his 1933 “Little Women,” which was a huge success.

The Variety review, which described the film as “half-whimsical, almost allegorical, the last half almost a dream-wordish,” was characteristic of the negative critical reaction. “The transition of a group of petty crooks into a troupe of vagabond actors traveling in a two-motor-coach caravan is especially harsh upon the story’s credibility.”

Cukor went out on a limb with “Sylvia Scarlett,” and got clobbered. But, characteristically, he refused to indulge in self-pity. Cukor was always 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 over spilled milk. Both he and Hepburn, as he later put it, had “many kicks in the ass” since then. Cukor’s attitude was typical of his nature: “Get on with something else.”

Even so, the failure of “Sylvia Scarlet” made him more cautious. “It slowed me up,” Cukor later said, “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 the failure didn’t damage his career in any significant way. Moreover, there were compensations to the commercial failure. Cukor’s direction 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 was to get Hepburn away from Grant and back to the artist. Worse yet, the subplot of Natasha Paley, as Aherne’s older woman who almost drowns, had nothing to do with the rest of the film.

A commercial flop, “Sylvia Scarlett” disappeared for some years. Then, in the 1950s, the movie began to acquire an underground reputation, and even became a minor cult film. The picture never stopped playing at art theaters and revival houses.

Cukor would use “Sylvia Scarlett” as a litmus test, to see whether his friends were in their right minds. If they liked it, “they’re a little batty.'” Indeed, years later, on the set of “Born Yesterday,” the estimable Judy Holliday noted that she really 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 how it took “a mere 35 years” to appreciate the film. Privately, Cukor continued to have affection for the picture. In fact, nothing delighted him more than critics telling him that “Sylvia Scarlett” was ahead of its times. It was a great compliment for a contract director.