Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sylvia Scarlett (1935)


This post is sponsored by DVD Netflix.

"I'll be a boy and rough and hard. I won't care what I do."

Bookkeeper Henry Snow (Edmund Gwenn) is in a terrible jam. To pay off his gambling debts he's been dipping into the company finances. When his coworkers catch wind of Henry's transgressions, he's desperate to escape Marseilles for London in an effort to avoid jail time. It seems risky to take his daughter Syliva (Katharine Hepburn) with him. What if they're caught? Sylvia, who refuses to be left behind, cuts off her long braids, dresses like a man and adopts the name Sylvester Scarlett. While on the boat to England, Sylvester and Henry meet con artist Jimmy 'Monk' Monkley (Cary Grant). Monk has a way about him with his cockney accent and ability to charm anyone out of their hard earned cash. The trio join forces to con well-to-do Londoners. While Monk and Henry are perfectly content to live as criminals, Sylvester wants to earn income the old-fashioned way, through honest work. They meet Maudie (Dennie Moore), the maid to a wealthy family and when Sylvester spoils the plot to steal the household jewels, the four to head to the seashore. It's here that Sylvester meets Michael Fane (Brian Aherne) a curly haired artist who makes Sylvester wish she was Sylvia again. When Michael's girlfriend Lily (Natalie Paley) shows up, Sylvia must decide whether to continue as Sylvester or to transition back to Sylvia to win Michael's affections.

Directed by George Cukor, Sylvia Scarlett (1935) was produced by Pando S. Berman for RKO. The story is based on Compton Mackenzie's novel The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett published in 1918. That story is the sequel to Sinister Street, published in 1914 and offers the origin story of the Michael Fane character. In 1919, Mackenzie followed up Sylvia Scarlett with the novel Sylvia and Michael. Sylvia Scarlett was adapted to the screen by author John Collier and screenwriters Gladys Unger and Mortimer Offner. According to the AFI:

After Collier had completed his draft, Cukor brought in Gladys Unger and Mortimer Offner to tone down the sexual implications of the story and to write a ten-minute prologue and a fifteen-minute ending that would make Sylvia a more sympathetic and comprehensible character.

Sylvia Scarlett was the first of four films pairing Hepburn and Grant. Both actors are well-suited to their parts. Hepburn is perfect as Sylvester/Sylvia and Grant, who was on loan from Paramount, was in his element as the playful con artist. The film was also an auspicious debut for actress Dennie Moore who doesn't get on screen credit but plays a substantial role as Maudie the flighty maid who dreams of being a singer.

The film was not well received both by critics and by audiences. It was a box office failure and lost a significant amount of money. Hepburn later became branded as "box office poison" until her comeback with The Philadelphia Story (1940) which also stars Cary Grant. Sylvia Scarlett was a pet project for both Hepburn and Cukor. They tried but failed to make amends with producer Berman who was disappointed with the final result.



Sylvia Scarlett suffers from a convoluted plot that doesn't hold the viewer's interest or attention. However, I still really enjoyed the film and found that I was willing to deal with the messy storyline to get at all of the subversive goodness. I've always been drawn to stories that explore gender dynamics, sexual politics and identity and in this regard Sylvia Scarlett delivers. Contemporary audiences will be more apt to appreciate the film's exploration of gender identity. It's truly ahead of its time. We're also more likely to cast a discerning eye on the gendered representations of women as weak and emotional and men as tough and carefree and how the film both relies on those stereotypes and attempts to break them down. I'm not one for remakes but Sylvia Scarlett seems like a prime candidate for a 21st century makeover.




Disclaimer: As a DVD Nation director, I earn rewards from DVD Netflix. You can rent Sylvia Scarlett on DVD.com.

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