Sylvia Scarlett is probably remembered best today by three groups of people: fans of Cary Grant, fans of Katharine Hepburn and Queer Theory students trawling for examples of the drag king in narrative cinema (welcome to those searching for their thesis!). All three will not leave disappointed, but that’s not the story from the box office when it was first released. This was some time before 1938 when Hepburn was voted “box office poison” by exhibitors but it surely influenced the ballot. Reportedly, Cukor and Hepburn both offered their services for free to RKO but the response was muted, to say the least: “Don’t bother.”
However, while Hepburn’s star is falling, Cary Grant’s is rising. Fans will be surprised to see him take much lower billing than Hepburn, despite their relatively balanced screen time. Grant himself considered it a breakout role: “It permitted me to play a character I knew. Thanks to George Cukor. He let me play it the way I thought it should be played because he didn’t know who the character was.” That said, Grant’s accent strays dangerously close to the Dick Van Dyke’s Mary Poppins‘ accent (on a sidenote: I’ve always appreciated Van Dyke’s accent in Poppins: it adds to the overall fantastical oddness of the film, and it never bothered me as a child as I didn’t guess that Cockney was what he had his sights on). Still, Grant clearly relishes the opportunity to try a variety of roles: he’s got the look of a leading man, but Grant’s appeal has always resided in his ability to undermine this, either with sardonic humour (North by Northwest), middle-class dyspepsia (Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House) or being too wiseass to be likeable (His Girl Friday). In Sylvia Scarlett, he plays a con artist, who, like all good film con artists, plays with the audience’s moral compass through their ingenuity and deftness. He’s equally at home tap dancing, playing the high-minded philanthropist, putting on a Pierrot show or smuggling diamonds. It’s clear that Grant has got his teeth into a role that exploits his range and is loving every minute. It’s as though Grant’s introducing himself to the world stage when he says of his character: “Little friend of all the world, nobody’s enemy but me own.”
It’s a peculiar film for those who have watched Grant in other films. For the largest time in the film, we’re expecting him to sweep forward and become the upright but sardonic hero he’s so closely associated with. Not that Grant was ever especially typecast, but it’s interesting to see him play a true vagabond, rather than a reluctant hero. There’s always an edge to his heroism missing in other leading men of his age; he’s always forced into action rather than eager to take it up. But in this film, the moment never comes and its exciting to see the perception of his later cinematic conception so undermined. “You think like a pig,” Hepburn chides him. “But it’s a pig’s world,” he replies.
It’s an exciting film to watch, not least because of its inherent oddness. It’s not hard to see why it flopped on release. Even within the context of the narrative jags sometimes taken by screwball comedies, it’s a real curiosity. The tone never settles entirely. It’s a buffet of styles, not wholly dissimilar to the Marx Brothers early work. Films like Duck Soup and Sylvia Scarlett remind us of Golden Age cinema’s appeal to the masses as they encompass a sort of vaudeville or Seaside Special attempt to please all. Sylvia Scarlett flips tone from scene to scene, between melodramatic romance, high tragic reflection on the miseries of existence, musical comedy and slapstick knockabout.
It’s not successful in blending these movements: (SPOILERS FOR NEXT THREE SENTENCES)Sylvia’s father’s death as he pursues his lost love is strangely gruesome, as we see his corpse floating after drowning. He’s been a figure of fun throughout the film and there’s hi-jinx on the May-December marriage of the couple, but the grisly end is a shock and a deadener to the overall tone. But, just as Cary Grant’s role as leading man is inchoate here, so too are the defined and discrete genres. There’s something vibrant about the lack of consistency. Watching a trailer for a modern romantic comedy, we know exactly what the narrative arc will be and modern audiences are more than comfortable with this reassurance. But if we look at their analogues in the likes of Preston Sturges, the outcome is never predetermined. Films like The Great McGinty have a spite and cruelty that’s missing nowadays, smothered in pursuit of “What the audience wants,” however false an idea that is.
As mentioned, there’s a significant portion of the film given to Hepburn’s gender-swapping. Not only is this odd and risque (you can veritably hear the scribblings of Gender Studies students as the actors deliver lines like, “I know what it is that gives me a queer feeling when I look at you.”), it’s also odd for a gender swapping film. There’s no true compulsion for Sylvia to transform into Sylvester: apparently she will be less traceable as man (although one would have thought this lying low would have extended to not becoming involved in con artistry). The whole issue is dealt with as quickly and artificially as Hepburn’s fake braids in the first scene (apparently added on the studio’s insistence). There’s no big reveal – Hepburn simply drifts in to show her love the truth mid-way through the film. However, there is a pleasing message that is submerged in this dalliance with gender-swapping. Throughout the film we are treated to a series of close ups and full frames of Hepburn in her different forms. Cukor is attempting to frame her above and beyond her status as star of the picture. Indeed, in the moments before (SPOILERS) Brian Aherne’s Michael Fane reveals his love for Hepburn, we see him drawing her picture on the prison walls. He is the first person who has been able to ‘see’ her properly and the message is that hoariest of romantic comedy clichés (though sentimentalists, myself included, will never tires of it as a trope): he loves her just the way she is.
By no means a classic, the film is still a worthwhile watch for those who are seeking something unconventional and spirited. Sylvia Scarlett is much like it’s protagonist: a creature without clear bearing but compelling in whatever form it shifts itself into.