Escaping to England from a French embezzlement charge, widower Henry Scarlett is accompanied by daughter Sylvia who, to avoid detection, "disguises" herself as a boy, "Sylvester." They are ...
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Escaping to England from a French embezzlement charge, widower Henry Scarlett is accompanied by daughter Sylvia who, to avoid detection, "disguises" herself as a boy, "Sylvester." They are joined by amiable con man Jimmy Monkley, then, after a brief career in crime, meet Maudie Tilt, a giddy, sexy Cockney housemaid who joins them in the new venture of entertaining at resort towns from a caravan. Through all this, amazingly no one recognizes that Sylvia is not a boy...until she meets handsome artist Michael Fane, and drama intrudes on the comedy. Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
SYLVIA SCARLETT (RKO Radio, 1935/released early January 1936), directed by George Cukor, and starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Brian Aherne, is a movie that was somewhat ahead of its time. In the early 1970s during the so-called "nostalgia boom" era, I kept hearing about this being the worst Katharine Hepburn movie ever made. Because of that reputation, I became curious. Could it really be that bad? In a TV documentary about classic movies I saw many years ago, Hepburn was interviewed and said the majority of the theater patrons walked out long before the movie was over. Today it has gained a reputation as a "camp classic." Well, I finally got to watch this curious item for the first time on public television's WNET, Channel 13, in New York City in 1977 as part of the Katharine Hepburn Film Festival, which aired every Saturday night. After watching it, I kept wondering if this was supposed to be a comedy or drama. I guess a combination of both.
As for the plot, which opens in Paris, Henry Scarlett (Edmund Gwenn) commits larceny and takes off aboard ship with his daughter, Sylvia (Hepburn). To put the authorities off the track, she decides to cut her long hair and accompany him disguised as Scarlett's son, "Sylvester." They later meet up with a fast-talking swindler named Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant) and travel with him around England like gypsies, making some easy money by cheating the public. Later, Sylvia, still disguised as Sylvester, encounters Michael Fane (Brian Aherne), an artist, and becomes interested in him, to later abandon her disguise to win him over.
Of the entire cast, Cary Grant comes off best in a very offbeat role, cockney accent and all, thus stealing every scene he's in. He even gets the closing shot sitting in a train compartment laughing himself silly after looking out the window and seeing Sylvia running off with Michael. Also in the cast are Natalie Paley as Lily, a Russian adventuress who tries to nab Henry Scarlett for herself, causing tragedy for him; and Dennie Moore as a daffy servant girl.
In spite of its reputation, SYLVIA SCARLETT is more interesting to see today because of the premise of a woman masquerading as a man/boy which pre-dates the more recent, VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982) with Julie Andrews. But let's not forget the 1933 MGM drama, QUEEN Christina in which Greta Garbo's character is mistaken for a young lad by an ambassador from Spain (John Gilbert), but at least that masquerade didn't go on for the entire movie. Unfortunately, Hepburn's version is an idea that might have looked good on paper, but not on screen. She does make a convincing boy, so to speak, in spite of her height, but I wonder how she felt about it years after it was made. A box office bomb at the time of its release, Hepburn and Grant did get to work together in screen again in three more comedies, BRINGING UP BABY (RKO, 1938), HOLIDAY (Columbia, 1938) and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (MGM, 1940). SYLVIA SCARLETT, which formerly played on American Movie Classics prior to 2000, can be seen on Turner Classic Movies, or as a video rental. (**1/2)
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