Monday, June 27, 2011

Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

This post is part of the Queer Film Blogathon over at Garbo Laughs. Check it out!

Since I was a kid I've always loved stories of women disguising themselves as men. Books like The Song of the Lioness quartet and films like Victor/Victoria and Mulan are awesome in my book. I still find the premise intriguing for whatever reason, perhaps because I also dig stories about mistaken identities and explorations of gender roles. The concepts of people existing between the two officially-defined sexes or "seeing how the other half lives", as it were, are always interesting. Which leads me to Sylvia Scarlett, a strange film (especially for 1935) with a good premise and fantastic lead actors that loses itself somewhere along the way.

Beginning in France, the titular character (Katherine Hepburn) and her gambler father (Edmund Gwenn) find themselves smuggling lace across the Channel shortly after her mother's death. Sylvia disguises herself as a man ("Sylvester") because she believes she'll be of more use that way (her father is very disparaging of her in general). Along the way they partner up with a cocky con man (Cary Grant) and soon the three are out to scam the good people of London. Unfortunately Sylvia, now quite enjoying her life as a man but uncertain about being so underhanded to get cash, keeps messing up their schemes. To make money the gang soon teams up with a brash housemaid and form a traveling song-and-dance show. At their first performance Sylvia meets a handsome artist (Brian Aherne) and longs to live as a woman again, though she doesn't quite know how.

Katherine Hepburn- a woman who could do absolutely anything- always had a somewhat androgynous look to her anyway, with her chiseled cheekbones and slim build. She rocks it as Sylvester, looking fine in a nice suit and swept back side-part hairstyle. Her body language says it all, as the character is fidgety and slightly uncomfortable posing as either a woman or a man, not wanting to betray herself and not fully sure where she stands. She loves being outspoken and bold as a man, but wants to be seen as a woman by the man she loves. Unfortunately for the audience, the romantic plot that crops up two-thirds of the way is really stupid, and I abhorred seeing Hepburn as a bashful, insipid girl taking a verbal beating from a condescending artist she only just met. A strong, fascinating character is twisted into a one-dimensional bore the second she falls in love, and it's a sad sight to see, but luckily it's only a few scenes.

The story itself is scattered but fun for the most part- I loved the scenes of the trio's attempted cons and weird musical side-plot. Cary Grant is fantastic as Jimmy Monkley, an untrustworthy asshole who can't help but charm, though his Cockney (I think?) accent is come-and-go. Dennie Moore is extremely fun as Maudie the maid, with her brazen voice and cute laugh. The film's tone is all over the place, switching from light-hearted crime comedy to dramatic identity crisis to ditzy romance. A main character even dies, maybe by committing suicide, and another character attempts it. Completely out of the blue!

Because I enjoyed certain parts (especially the earlier sections) and think Hepburn is perfect all of the time, I could never wholly dismiss Sylvia Scarlett. This movie is a bit of a mess, but it's so ridiculous and offbeat that it makes itself endearing. Plus it totally makes me want to go on a European adventure disguised as a dude, just for the fun of it. Inspiring!


Pair This Movie With: Of course there are the classic lady-disguising-herself-as-a-man movies like Twelfth Night, She's the Man, and Just One of the Guys. Or for more Grant/Hepburn fun there's Bringing Up Baby or The Philadelphia Story (I haven't seen Holiday).

PS I know this is somewhat known/controversial for featuring a girl-on-girl kiss, but just a heads up for all you wishful thinkers: it's quick and pretty chaste.


  1. You forgot to mention the part where Cary Grant's character makes it very clear that he's attracted to Sylvester when he's still not aware that she's a girl! Very bold for a film of that time. However Sylvia Scarlett was a huge disappointment for me; it's got a great cast, a brilliant director, and such a promising plot, but somehow it's terrible. I agree with you about cringing whenever Katharine Hepburn turns into a lovesick schoolgirl. Those scenes are such a waste of her talents and much below her level as an actress. Great review, and thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon!

  2. Oh cool, I just posted a review of this film over at my blog. Girl with the White Parasol

    I'm pretty much in full agreement with you and I too, think that Hepburn rocks the androgynous look. And man, did it get disappointing when she turns into a twitterpated idiot in the second half.

  3. Have to second and third the previous comments: Hepburn looks smashing as a boy (but she always looks smashing, anyway). It's a horrible disappointment when she goes all soft and simpering after Brian Aherne. Why is his character there at all? Cary Grant is a far more magnetic presence (Kate should have ended up w/him). Enjoyed your post!

  4. Hepburn was great in this one, just as in any other movies. But I didn't like this film too much. It wasn't as fun as other yesteryear comedies.