Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

RKO Pictures

Director: George Cukor

When entering the theater to view a picture directed by a filmmaker noted for some of the better recent dramas in George Cukor and stars the like of Academy Award winner Katharine Hepburn and a rising Cary Grant one would expect a stirring picture, or at least beautiful cinematic experience. Surprisingly what the ultimate result for RKO Pictures in December of 1935 was Sylvia Scarlett, a critical and box office failure, a film that in a way embarrasses the studio, as well as aids in establishing Katharine Hepburn as “box office poison.”  A feature that seems to have issues with what it wants to be, a comedy, a romance, or a drama, ends up being almost none of the above, leaving one scratching his head about what exactly he saw.

Sylvia Scarlett is a romantic comedy of a young lady that disguises herself as a boy while working with her father and a swindler until meeting a man that makes her want to be womanly once again. Sylvia (Katharine Hepburn) disguises herself as a boy named Sylvester in order to aid her father (Edmund Gwenn) as he escapes France after committing crimes of larceny. In England they team with con artist Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant) first as failed grafters then as a traveling performance act. In meeting artist Michael Fane (Brian Aherne) Sylvia decides to reveal herself as a woman in hope of a romantic relationship, only to discover the other girl in Michaels’s life. In a madcap conclusion Michael and Sylvia work together to rescue Michael’s presumed lover from the hands of Jimmy who had run off with her, only to have Michael and Sylvia realize in reality they are in love with each other leaving behind Jimmy and Michael’s former lover

The picture makes for a plot that is not entirely fleshed out and struggles to stand on what exactly the film is supposed to be. On one hand it is a comedy, as Sylvia (or “Sylvester) has moments of struggling being a man with run ins with both men and women, then is turned around as she attempts to bring her feminine charms back after laying dormant for a period. On a second hand it wants to be a drama as Sylvia at first attempts to help her father, who is very flawed and eventually dies from a drunken, confusing, stormy night, leaving Sylvia to learn how to move on. On another hand it wants to be a romance with Sylvia discovering feelings for Michael, their eventual realization, and conclusion by running away together. Never quite latching onto one frame of mind with any of the characters, one can be confused as to the relationship of Sylvia and Jimmy, especially after discovering the truth that she is not Sylvester. You are left with a handful of characters you never get attached to and have no idea how to feel about, with maybe the exception of the very end as Sylvia and Michael tip toe around their feeling for each other. Overall the plot structure, or perhaps the script, is flawed and fails to be an entertaining picture to view.

It is an odd feeling to see a film of George Cukor’s be so drab and plain, but in Sylvia Scarlett he brings a feature that is very simply shot and assembled. In a picture that is already flawed with writing issues, a subject Cukor was probably not aware of at the time he commenced shooting, the film needed more life to make the finished product livelier than it would ultimately be. Cukor with works such as Dinner at Eight, Little Women, and David Copperfield to his credit had made himself known to making good film adaptations, and Sylvia Scarlett was set to be no different, unfortunately that would not be the case.

With winning the Academy Award for Morning Glory Katharine Hepburn had willed herself into being the star she always thought she should be. Soon after came a number of box office failures. Alice Adams was a film she had great conviction for and turned into a great move for her earlier in 1935, once again garnering a nomination for best actress, but to follow it up with Sylvia Scarlett proved enough to critics that Hepburn was not a star, in fact help push the idea that she was box office poison. Her performance in Sylvia Scarlett seems off. She never quite gives the performance that makes one care for her, or understand what it is that makes her tick. It makes for a mix performance, that though at points she brings great energy Hepburn just does not sell the character to those watching. Already known for her difficult attitude while working on set, Hepburn was on a downward spiral that she would dig herself out of in the next few years.

The saving grace of the picture is that of Cary Grant. Supposedly discovered by May West (an over-exaggeration of hers) just years earlier, Grant finds a new level in himself with the role of the Jimmy. A looser style of character gave Grant the ability to be freer actor in the film. An English born actor, he provided an overly done cockney accent that is perhaps not based on any real region of the England, and reminds contemporary views of Dick Van Dyke’s accent from Mary Poppins. Despite the lack of success on the picture itself, Cary Grant finds a new outlet in his acting style that would help him become a more approachable actor, open for comedic performances, and even finds his way to future teaming with Hepburn in three other pictures later in his career.

Brian Aherne plays the artist that wins the heart of Sylvia, leading her to reveal he true femininity. Being a British born actor, Aherne had only in recent years moved to Hollywood and work in American motion pictures. He can be charming at points, but the writing still provided little opportunity for him to really expand upon in the film.

Fellow British actor Edmund Gwenn plays Sylvia’s deeply flawed father. His strange character structure provides his performance to be comedy in the picture, before turning into a tragedy as he falls to his death one night worrying for his lover who left him. Dennie Moore plays his youthful wife who teams with the rag-tag pack as a performance troop. Her performance is highlighted with the squeally New Yorker accent that can be ear wrenching. She comes off as an annoying character that you wish the film could do without, and simply disappears leaving you with little care as to why. Moore’s career proved not to be as strong as Gwenn’s in the long run, Gwenn being a fine character actor, and Moore returning to her roots on stage in New York in the 1940s.

From the moment the filmed previewed Sylvia Scarlett was a bomb of the motion picture. Critics hated it, unable to attach the film to one plot, even with the added beginning scene of Sylvia and her father deciding to leave France together hoped to give better structure. Audiences stayed away from the theaters to avoid another Hepburn film as they did in her pervious flops. It would be a downright box office failure, making only a small fraction of what it cost to produce, a loss for RKO. Both Cukor and Hepburn were said to apologize for the immediate failure of the picture to the producer Pandro S. Berman, but he and RKO just wanted to move on. Cukor would follow up with more highly publicized adaptations , including Romeo and Juliet and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in coming years, while Hepburn would lie in a short career depression before rising back to being a star, including the comedic hit with Cary Grant Bringing Up Baby in 1938.

Sylvia Scarlett would be notoriously known for being one of Hollywood’s biggest bombs on the mid 1930s, not for loss of revenue, but for lack of success from the firepower that was provided. Poor writing, lack of great direction, and questionable acting resulted into a picture that just becomes hardly entertaining and difficult to watch unless one is a cinema history fan. In later years the film lies as a reminder of where Hepburn fell to after her first rise to the top, as well as a new stepping stone for the star that was to become Cary Grant.

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