A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor, 1935)

Bear with me while I try to remember the plot of Sylvia Scarlett because I'm not entirely sure that I didn't fall asleep and dream it: When the wife of an Englishman living in France dies, he decides to return to England with his daughter. But because he is suspected of having embezzled money from the company for which he is an accountant, he and his daughter decide that she will disguise herself as a boy because the authorities will be looking for a man traveling with a girl. So on the boat crossing the Channel, they meet a cheerful Cockney con-man, to whom the other Englishman confesses that he's smuggling a bolt of fine lace through customs. But when they arrive in England, the Cockney points them out to the officials and the Englishman and his daughter-disguised-as-a-boy are detained and fined and the lace is confiscated. Then on the train to London, they coincidentally find themselves in the same compartment as the Cockney, who not only repays the fine but even gives the Englishman a little extra money, while also revealing that he's a smuggler with diamonds concealed in the heel of his shoe, who turned them in to divert attention from himself. All is square, except that now the Cockney proposes that they team up and run a few cons together. They're not very good at it, so when the Cockney reads an article saying that a rich couple are taking an extended holiday out of the country, he decides that they should rob the deserted house. The plan is thwarted by the maid the couple has left behind, so they persuade her to go on the road with them as traveling entertainers. They hire a wagon and go to Cornwall and give a show that attracts the attention of a rich young artist and his Russian girlfriend. The artist tells the son/daughter that he wants to paint him/her, but he/she swipes a dress and a hat that were left behind on the beach by a woman who has gone swimming and shows up at his studio as a woman, but the Russian girlfriend is outraged to find her there. Meanwhile, the Englishman has taken to drink and fallen in love with the maid and one night wanders out drunkenly in the fog and falls to his death from a cliff. After his funeral, the daughter and the Cockney return to their wagon (the maid has somehow disappeared for good), but they hear a cry for help from the Russian, who has apparently attempted suicide because the artist doesn't love her anymore, so the daughter plunges into the ocean and rescues her, returning her to the artist. Then the Cockney and the Russian decide to run away together, so the daughter and the artist pursue them, winding up on a train and somehow realizing that they're in love with each other. Now, to the point: Why in hell did anyone ever think this made enough sense to film? Or that the completed film would please critics and attract audiences? (It didn't.) And why is this not on the usual lists of the worst films ever made? Because the truth is, it's not unwatchable, and sometimes, if you're in the mood for the utterly bizarre, it's sort of fun to watch, mainly because the Cockney is played by Cary Grant and the son-daughter by Katharine Hepburn, in their first on-screen teaming.* And perhaps because Edmund Gwenn as the Englishman is as charming as ever. And also perhaps because George Cukor is one of the few directors of the period who could leaven this lump of Edwardian nonsense: It's based on a novel by Compton Mackenzie, a now-forgotten writer with a taste for whimsy and a tolerance for sexual ambiguity. The screenplay was mostly written by John Collier, another writer with a decidedly eccentric view of the world, with the help of Gladys Unger and Mortimer Offner. Naturally, the Production Code weighs heavily on the ambiguous sexuality of the film, though we are never really quite sure whether the artist (Brian Aherne) is more attracted to Sylvia than to Sylvester. (Hepburn is quite beautiful as either.) But mostly the film gives us a chance to see Grant before Archibald Leach, the product of a troubled working-class family, became "Cary Grant," the embodiment of sophistication: There's a darkly threatening sexuality to his character, Jimmy Monkley, that's compelling -- and makes us wonder why Hepburn's Sylvia should prefer Aherne's much softer Michael Fane. Sylvia Scarlett has a cult following today that it doesn't entirely deserve, but it remains a fascinatingly mad mess.

*They went on to make two more films for George Cukor, Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), but their most memorable work together was for Howard Hawks on Bringing Up Baby (1938).

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