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Sylvia Scarlett

Dullsville

Sylvia Scarlett (1936)

     There can be no denying that Katharine Hepburn has a unique face and rather tom-boyish mannerisms, but I would not necessarily have guessed she could play a boy so well. Kate Hepburn was three years into her film career when she made Sylvia Scarlett her eighth film. She was certainly young enough to pull off the look of a boy who has yet to grow whiskers, and thin enough to diminish any womanly curves. Despite how well Hepburn looked the part, the role itself and the surrounding story fail to live up to that standard.

     The film begins with an excessively hasty rush into the focus of the story: a girl who dresses as a boy. After some rather melodramatic lines from both Hepburn and Edmund Gwenn as her father, we learn that Sylvia’s mother has just died and her father, Henry, will likely be sent to jail because the lace company he works for is about to notice  he “borrowed” money lost to gambling. Taking some cash left to Sylvia by the mother and 50 quid-worth of lace, the two move to escape Paris for London. The trouble with the plan, however, is that police will be suspicious of a man travelling with his daughter. So without any puzzlement, Sylvia shears her hair and we next see her dressed as a man boarding a boat.

     I must pause in the midst of this synopsis to voice some initial disappointments. The script was written to very quickly get us to the point that Sylvia becomes a boy, but in doing so, it eliminated any natural, common-sense progression. The trouble Henry faces presents no real conflict as the characters very quickly decide a solution. Unless Sylvia has always secretly longed to dress as a boy, I can see no young woman jumping to her conclusion so quickly.

     Continuing with the story, the father-son duo meet Cary Grant‘s Jimmy Monkly on the boat. Sylvia, now Sylvester, thinks he’s a swine straight off, but after some drinking, Henry reveals to Jimmy the lace he has stashed in his waistcoat to avoid paying a duty when they reach customs. Once at customs, Jimmy turns Henry in to gain the good graces of the custom agents and avoid having his own bags searched. Reunited on a train, the Scarletts voice their anger to Jimmy, who pays them the fine, value of the lace and then some. The trio next become con artists together, but when the money fails to flow, they pick up a maid friend of Jimmy’s and the foursome set out as traveling entertainers. The maid, Lily (Natalie Paley), apparently has married the older Henry, but some pranks played by an artist and his Russian girlfriend lead Henry to believe his wife is cheating on him.

     The artist, Michael Fane (Brian Aherne), is intrigued by Sylvester, who finds her female side falling for the man. When Michael invites Sylvester to sit for him as a painting subject, the boy shows up the next day having stolen a dress from some beach beauties. Michael finds it hilarious that Sylvester is indeed Sylvia, yet professes she is wonderful and romances her a bit. Jimmy also spotted Sylvester’s new outfit and gives the girl some grief but is utterly unsurprised. Next, Michael breaks Sylvia’s heart by sticking with the Russian babe, while Jimmy seems to suggest he wouldn’t mind giving the girl a go. The film concludes queerly with the men swapping partners and Sylvia landing her artist sweetheart.

     I have mentioned before that if I am unable to sum up a film in a concise paragraph or two, it is far too complex. Sylvia Scarlett is not so much complicated as just swamped with random events that do not act to convey any connected message. One would assume at the film’s start that Hepburn and Grant will be the love interests and that Sylvia’s secret gender will hold the conflict and humor. Grant’s Jimmy never presents himself as a viable love interest, however. Even Aherne’s Michael is not the most appealing guy. He is quite the jerk when he passes over Sylvia for the Russian. Despite other positive performance aspects, Hepburn also fails to convey to the audience the romantic feelings she apparently has.

     I find it hard to determine whether Sylvia Scarlett is a comedy or drama. Although there are a few chuckles early on and the end of the film twists into an almost slapstick movie, the rest of the picture is laced with serious, rather dreary matters. Many gender-bending films have been made, and it seems two general approaches are usually taken: the comedic challenges of hiding one’s true identity, or the dramatic struggles one endures to live as another person. Sylvia Scarlett takes neither. Outside of occasional awkward undressing moments with Grant, Hepburn otherwise plays a boy naturally. Her wide saunter and rough-housing behavior make it easy to believe she is a boy, yet we have no indication that Sylvia was a tomboy during her Paris days.

     Perhaps the greatest hole in the story is why Sylvia continues to live as a boy once she reaches London. The motivation to begin the masquerade was for safe passage between France and England, but once there, it seems pointless. Conceivably, Jimmy’s involvement in the lives of the Scarletts could have been a motivating factor, but considering how easily Sylvia jumped into a dress later in the film (seemingly months or years later), I cannot buy that argument.

  • Sylvia Scarlett is set for 10:45 a.m. ET May 12 on TCM.
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