Sylvia Scarlett (1935, George Cukor)

Not the most lighthearted comedy in the world, beginning with the death of Katharine Hepburn’s mother, following with the death of her drunken crook father. Hepburn (already in her third film with Cukor) lives in France with her father Edmund Gwenn (the so-called bodyguard in Foreign Correspondent who keeps trying to kill Joel McCrea, also Santa in Miracle on 34th Street). They escape to England with her disguised as a boy for cover from dad’s embezzling crimes.

They meet con man Cary Grant (in his 20th film in four years) on the boat, and he teams up with the couple – which was our first complaint with the movie. When we meet Grant, he’s smuggling diamonds inside his shoes, which has got to be more lucrative than running con games in public parks with a busted drunk and his “son.” Grant (with a fun cockney accent) introduces them to an acquaintance named Maudie, a maid at a house where Grant hopes to steal some jewelery. Hepburn (very funny in her hat and suit) foils the heist, her dad ends up marrying Maudie, and the four go on the road as a vaudeville act.

Family portrait:

Kate falls for an artist (mustachioed Brian Aherne, title characters in Captain Fury and The Great Garrick) who’s being chased by some rich-looking Russian girl named Lily. The artist finds himself falling for Kate as well, much to his own confusion. Dad falls off a cliff while drunkenly searching for his cheating wife, and the same morning Lily tries to drown herself, rescued by Kate. After a brief sidetrack in jail, Kate and the artist escape on a train, running into Cary and Lily. My Katy thought it unfair that Kate didn’t get Cary Grant at the end, but he didn’t deserve her.

The artist and the princess:

The movie flopped so hard that Cukor was fired from RKO Pictures over it. It’s said that audiences thought Hepburn was awful as a boy, that they walked out in droves after Maudie tries to make out with her, but nobody ventures that crowds found the plot stupidly implausible – especially after the vaudeville bit. It’s all in good fun, I know. If Some Like It Hot was daring for messing with gender roles in 1959, I imagine it was completely unheard-of in films 25 years earlier. I thought that aspect and lots of the character and acting were much more successful than the overall story – it’s a good movie strapped onto a mediocre plot.

Grant’s noirish introduction:


The role seemed a natural for [Hepburn]; she had already set tongues wagging as one of the first women in the U.S. to wear trousers in public. Not only did she make a very convincing young man with her hair cut short, but Time Magazine’s reviewer would quip that “Sylvia Scarlett reveals the interesting fact that Katharine Hepburn is better looking as a boy than as a woman.”