Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

“Are you a girl dressed as a boy? Or are you a boy dressed as a girl?”

Sylvia Scarlett Poster

Synopsis:
A young French woman (Katharine Hepburn) flees to England with her embezzling father (Edmund Gwenn), disguising herself as a boy to escape notice. During their voyage, they befriend a con-artist (Cary Grant) and begin a life of crime and performance-art together, joined by a ditzy maid (Dennie Moore) who Gwenn soon marries. When Hepburn becomes enamored with a handsome artist (Brian Aherne), she exposes her true identity — but is Aherne really in love with a beautiful Russian (Natalie Paley)?

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of this unusual cult flick (also discussed at length in his first Cult Movies book, which I cite here) by noting that “for years [director] George Cukor would say this box-office flop was the one embarrassing blot on his and Katharine Hepburn’s illustrious careers”, but that “in the mid-sixties it began turning up with increasing frequency on college campuses and in repertory theaters, and a cult for the film took root” — one that is “equally the result of both the unique style of the picture and the unconventional presentation of sex roles”. Interestingly, “critics of thirties never mentioned the sexual implications of the film”; indeed, given that “during this period… subjects like transvestism and bisexuality were taboo”, it’s “remarkable that… no one mentioned the strange things that happen”, such as “Hepburn kissed on the lips by Paley, who thinks she’s a boy and tries to seduce him” (the point at which 3/4ths of the preview audience walked out), or Aherne “invit[ing] ‘Sylvester’ to sleep with him”, and later quipping, “I don’t know what it is that gives me a queer feeling when I look at you”.

While Sylvia Scarlett‘s transgressive sexual politics surely make it a favorite with the LGBTQ crowd, it’s also notable for its transgressive gender politics — i.e., the way in which Sylvia “gains [both] stature… in [her father’s] eyes [as well as] independence” once she cuts off her hair and pretends to be a boy, and how “by dressing in men’s clothes, she is able to free that latent part of herself” — i.e., “being athletic” and “speak[ing] her mind for the first time” — that was “previously kept hidden by convention”. Indeed, “only by pretending to be a male can Sylvia open up the world for herself and bring out her real self”; and “only as a male can Sylvia control her own destiny and make her own rules”. Along those lines, Peary points out that “few pictures are so rooted in theater”, and that “no film is more concerned with ‘acting’ as a method (rather than a profession) for living one’s life”, given that “it’s populated by characters whose lives revolve around disguise and deception”.

In Cult Movies, Peary ends his review by conceding that “Sylvia Scarlett is far from a great film”. He points out that Cukor couldn’t “decide whether he was filming a comedy or a drama”, that it’s “dull at times”, and that there are “too many moments when characters display cruelty that is sadistic and hard to watch”. I would also add that Dennie Moore’s performance as Maudie the maid very quickly gets on one’s nerves, and that the character played by Paley is sorely underdeveloped. Yet SS remains “one of the most interesting films of the thirties” despite its flaws and faults, and is certainly must-see viewing for all film fanatics simply for its enduring cult status.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Katharine Hepburn as Sylvia/Sylvester (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
    Sylvia Scarlett Hepburn
  • A refreshingly fluid presentation of sexuality and gender
    Sylvia Scarlett Sexuality

Must See?
Yes, for its cult status.

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One Response to “Sylvia Scarlett (1935)”

  1. I can’t fight the fact that it has developed cult appeal over the years – but, slight fun with gender-bending aside, I still find it a very unsatisfying film and can’t really consider it must-see. Essentially, this is still Cukor in his affected, fluff period as a director. The film has fine production value and is photographed well (esp. in the early shipboard sequence) but, as with other Cukor films of the period, things are rarely far from being forced. It seems Peary hasn’t recognized what is known as a comic drama – but, at any rate, the emphasis here is on the lighter love story angle. I can’t fault Peary entirely, tho – tone is still a real problem here. It’s unlikely that a better tone would have improved the film’s box office chances at the time anyway – but it may have been a better film if Cukor had encouraged the actors toward real conviction as opposed to cutesy.

    It’s not an unwatchable film – there is the occasional sequence that works better than others – but don’t be surprised if you feel antsy often.

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