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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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Holiday

Ring a Ding Ding

Holiday (1938)

     Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn always make a nice duo on screen and Holiday is no exception. Although the flick takes place around New Year’s Eve, the title of the film refers more to what Grant’s character aspires to do: take a holiday. The trouble is, Grant’s Johnny has proposed to a woman belonging to a wealthy family. He was unaware of her financial standing at the outset and fails to tell her he plans soon to give up working and spend some time living his life. However, fiancée Julia, played by Doris Nolan, plans to make her hardworking beau into a wealthy employee at her father’s company, which sounds less than ideal to Johnny.

     That is the jist of Johnny’s predicament as gradually laid out through the course of the film. I would say Hepburn’s Linda, sister to Julia, complicates matters, but she really doesn’t. The free-spirited older sibling is so fond of Johnny she wants nothing more than to have him as a brother-in-law. It is obvious from the start that Linda and Johnny are better suited for one another with their goofy personalities. Hepburn being a bigger actress than Nolan also makes it a dead giveaway. What I found surprising, however, is that the relationship between the two stars does not necessarily indicate they will end up together. There are no longing or twitterpated glances between the two nor sexually tense moments. Not until late in the picture when at the official ringing in of the new year Grant starts to lean toward Hepburn for a kiss do we get any indication he might be into her. Even after that instance, however, Grant continues to try to make things work with his intended. In the end they do end up together, of course, but I was certainly left doubting that until the final minutes of the picture.

     Holiday is a truly fun movie. Grant shows off his acrobatic talents, and he and Hepburn illustrate how well they mesh by bouncing comical line after line off each other. Lew Ayres also shows up as a loveable drunk brother. He was a different sort of drunk than I am used to seeing on film. Despite his handicap, he was loving to Linda and fond of Johnny. His drinking did not create problems nor was it the butt of jokes. Lastly, Edward Everett Horton plays a long-time friend of Johnny’s in possibly he least nervous role I have ever witnessed. Horton also had many a witty line and offered the humbler, non-wealthy side of the equation, which also happened to fit in perfectly with Linda.  Holiday is surely a fun pick any time of the year, so do not let the title place it on the back burner for next Xmas.

What to Watch: Xmas Day

Most of us will enjoy time away from work and other distractions on Xmas day and will hopefully find ourselves relaxing in the vicinity of a fire, family and TV. Turner Classic Movies has a number of good films playing Dec. 25, not all of which are Christmas themed, but are essential picks nonetheless.

Bell, Book and Candle (1959)

Those for whom the promise of Santa and gifts are too much to stay asleep, Bell, Book and Candle will be airing at 4 a.m. ET. The Kim NovakJimmy Stewart picture is middle of the road entertainment-wise but is pretty goofy. Novak’s witch puts a love spell on Stewart’s character on Christmas Eve and the complications of a romance based on sorcery complicate the relationship. The movie offers some interesting concepts of laws surrounding witchcraft and is a cute romance, but the best part might be the name of the cat: Pyewacket (which apparently stems from a term referring to “a friendly spirit” associated with a witch). Add that to my list of future pet names!

Little Women (1933)

For those who decline to sleep in on the holiday, the 1933 Little Women will air at 6 a.m. ET. I think I have probably only seen this version of the classic novel and the contemporary Winona Ryder version and obviously prefer the former. The story, which also has some winter/Xmas ties, is a great family plot about sisterhood, love, adventure and regret. Katharine Hepburn is really fantastic as Jo, and the movie is definitely worth seeing if you have not caught this version. One of her earlier films, Hepburn really had the personality of an all-American tomboy-type girl that the character requires.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

For those waiting for the rest of the family to roll out of bed, an 8 a.m. ET showing of The Shop Around the Corner might be the perfect fit. It’s what I believe to be the original version of a story used repeatedly throughout Hollywood’s history (including most recently as You’ve Got Mail). Set in Budapest around Xmastime, two shop employees become instant enemies who do not realize that their romantic pen pals happen to be each other. It’s a great story that was reincarnated as the Judy Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime and one that leaves me with thorough romantic feelings for the lead male, which in the original was Jimmy Stewart (what’s with that guy and Xmas movies?). definitely a good one to get into the loving spirit of the holiday.

Ben-Hur (1959)

When 1 p.m. ET rolls around and the gifts are open and the meal in the oven, it might be time for a long sit on the couch for Ben Hur. I will admit that I fell asleep for probably half of this movie but woke up to catch the chariot race, and frankly, I’m fine with that. The story was not my cup of tea, but the Best Picture winner is one probably every classic film fan should endeavor to endure at least once, even if dozing is involved. I will not go into the long, complex plot, but suffice it to say there are biblical references and Charlton Heston.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

When the kids have gone to bed and you have had enough of family, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  is set to warm your heart at 10:30 p.m. ET. I am not sure why this incredibly hard to watch picture is being presented on a holiday typically associated with positive feelings, but the Elizabeth Taylor triumph is a great picture. Opposite husband Richard Burton, Taylor showed for the first time her true mettle as an actress and her willingness to take on roles outside of the shapely sex objects with which she had come to be associated. I caught it recently, so check out the review for more.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

And if you are still up at 1 a.m. ET, Elizabeth Taylor returns in possibly her sexiest role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I am a big fan of movies based on Tennessee Williams’ plays, and this is no exception. His stories all have a similar formula that involves some deep, dark secret surrounding a main character that is gradually revealed to the audience and usually has some sexual implication. In this flick, Taylor and Paul Newman are a young married couple but Newman’s character refuses to sleep with the severely seductive woman because of this “secret”. There is also plenty of family drama that makes one want to rip her hair out from frustration, but it’s really a powerful picture and a must-see.

The Little Foxes

Wowza!

The Little Foxes (1941)

     To say The Little Foxes is a triumph for Bette Davis is an understatement. The story of conniving southern siblings seeking to further their riches to the detriment of their workers and customers was seemingly designed for the evil qualities Davis brings to her role. Davis begins the picture looking absolutely stunning in very complimentary Orry-Kelly gowns and favorable makeup but somehow as the film progresses, what I first viewed as a gorgeous face turns into a horror-inducing facade. Late in the film she sits slouching in an armchair as her husband succumbs before her with an unmoving expression of surprise and evil that I might never shake.

Regina sits as a statue as her husband stumbles to his death.

     The Little Foxes also marks the screen debut of Teresa Wright. The 22 year old had stage experience but really shows her talent by giving an Oscar-nominated performance as the sheltered daughter who becomes wise to her family’s infamy and develops a spine by film’s end. I have always found Wright to play consistently nice-girl roles, and this spot is no different, yet she really comes off as a master. The star also set a precedent by being nominated for an Oscar for her first three performances, winning one for her second, Mrs. Miniver. In total, The Little Foxes was nominated for nine Academy Awards but won none of them. Davis was given a Best Actress nod and another Supporting Actress nomination went to Patricia Collinge, who plays the air-headed sister-in-law to Davis’ Regina. Collinge is absolutely magnificent and at times reminded me of Katharine Hepburn‘s performance in Long Day’s Journey into Night.

     Given the overabundance of fine performances, The Little Foxes has a lasting impact on the viewer. What begins as a normal southern family tale slowly transforms into a grotesque story of greed and manipulation. It is certainly among Davis’ finest work and a must see for any film fan.

  • The Little Foxes is set for 8:45 a.m. ET Feb. 2 on TCM.

Around the World in 80 Days

Gasser

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days is one of the lesser acclaimed Best Picture winners and understandably so. The 3+ hour movie offers an epic adventure marked by little excitement and characters that are difficult to love or identify with. David Niven‘s Phileas Fogg, who takes up a wager that he cannot circumvent the earth in 80 days, is uptight and cold. Despite this he manages to attract Shirley MacLaine‘s Indian Princess Aouda, who Fogg and companions rescue from a ceremonial burning alive. The only endearing character is Passepartout, played by an actor known only as Cantinflas. The Spanish gentleman’s gentleman, womanizer and gymnast gives the film is comical edge and heart.

Returning to MacLaine, I am reminded of how many older films used white, American actors in roles of a different ethnicity. I at first did not recognize MacLaine being so young and with tanned skin. She really does not look Indian, but it must have been more important/convenient to have an American actress play the role. This sort of casting I found most off putting in the 1944 Dragon Seed, which features an all-star American cast for a film set in China. Katharine Hepburn, Agnes Moorehead, Hurd Hatfield, and Walter Huston are made up to look Japanese and their presence perhaps points to a severe lack of valued, Asian actors in Hollywood at the time. Although a few Chinese actors are included in 1937’s The Good Earth, Paul Muni was cast as the lead character. That film, along with The Story of Louis Pasteur, have me avoiding all Muni roles now. I have also seen Abner Biberman cast — and painted — multiple times as characters of a different ethnic background. In his first role in 1939’s Gunga Din, Biberman plays and Indian character; in (again) Dragon Seed as a Japanese soldier; in 1945’s Back to Bataan as a Japanese Captain. I guess the guy just had that look.  The examples from my memory, however, all occurred in 1945 and earlier, so why could Hollywood still not locate a naturally exotic-looking character for Around the World in 80 Days? Did MacLaine really have the sort of star power to be a necessary contribution to the film?

Around the World in 80 Days is marked by a fabulous cast of famous side characters. A pudgy Peter Lorre shows up for a scene, Marlene Deitrich rattles off a few lines and Frank Sinatra gets photographed from behind for numerous shots before showing his face. The movie could really be enjoyed more as a game to spot the famous cameo than as a work of cinematic art. But at least I can check it off my list.

Cinematic Shorts: High Society

Wowza!

High Society (1956)

     I have always considered myself a fan of musicals, but in recent years I have discovered I am a bit choosy on that front. For instance, I cannot stand The Sound of Music or South Pacific and was fairly bored with The King and I. If Kathryn Grayson is singing in a picture, forget it. I really enjoyed Show Boat, but I literally fast-forwarded through her songs.

     High Society, however, was the perfect combination of elements for me. Not only does it feature some of my favorite singer-actors, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, but offers Cole Porter songs (my favorite songwriter) and the glorious Grace Kelly in her final role before becoming Princess Grace and in her only on-screen singing spot. Add in Louis Armstrong as himself, and this had no choice but to be a favorite.

     The story is a musical version of The Philadelphia Story that transplants the action to Newport News, New Jersey. The dialogue is identical in many cases, yet the roles seem to fit the respective actors perfectly. I understand that many people will side with Philadelphia Story when presented with this adaptation, but I saw High Society first, so I am biased. I definitely enjoy the original that transformed Katharine Hepburn from box office poison to gold, but why not go for the version with songs?

"Well did you eva?"

  • High Society is set for 6 p.m. ET Nov. 21 on TCM
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