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Sylvia Scarlett

Sylvia Scarlett(1936)

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teaser Sylvia Scarlett (1936)

"I don't know what it is that gives me a queer feeling when I look atyou."

Brian Aherne admitting his attraction to Katharine Hepburn, disguised asa boy, in Sylvia Scarlett.

Director George Cukor and star Katharine Hepburn were years ahead of theirtime when they brought the cross-dressing comedy-romance SylviaScarlett to the screen in 1935. Though they would pay for theirforward thinking at the box office, the film would later be hailed as adecidedly advanced treatment of sexual politics and one of the biggest cultfavorites of Hollywood's golden years.

For years, Cukor had dreamed of filming Compton MacKenzie's 1918 novel abouta female con artist who dresses as a boy to elude customs inspectors. Hehad proposed the project at MGM, where he was currently under contract, butstudio head Louis B. Mayer had turned him down. Then Cukor's friendHepburn, who had just scored a hit at RKO with Alice Adams (1935) proposedthe film as her next project. The role seemed a natural for her; she hadalready set tongues wagging as one of the first women in the U.S. to weartrousers in public. Not only did she make a very convincing young man withher hair cut short, but Time Magazine's reviewer would quip that"Sylvia Scarlett reveals the interesting fact that Katharine Hepburnis better looking as a boy than as a woman."

To play Hepburn's partner in crime, a Cockney crook named Jimmy Monkley,she suggested Cary Grant, whom she had only recently met through theirmutual friend Howard Hughes. Grant was then under contract to ParamountPictures, where he was languishing in vapid leading man roles that calledfor little more than charm. Under Cukor's guidance, he learned to relax onscreen as never before. Moreover, his role gave him a chance to draw onhis lower-class roots and his early experience in the circus to give aperformance that would showcase his versatility as an actor.

Originally, Cukor wanted British novelist Evelyn Waugh to write thescreenplay. When that didn't work out, he turned to John Collier, a notedauthor of bizarre short stories who had never written a film before.Keeping close to the spirit of MacKenzie's novel, he crafted a ramblingscreenplay that veered between comedy and tragedy freely in a manner thatwould anticipate the youth-oriented road films of the '60s and '70s. Healso explored the sexual ramifications of Hepburn's cross-dressing,including a scene in which an amorous maid (Dennie Moore) tries to seduceher and an otherwise heterosexual artist (Brian Aherne) finds himselffalling for the young "man."

But after taking a chance on the untried author, Cukor panicked and brought in two established screenwriters to tone down some of Collier's more outrageous ideas. Where Collier had startedthe film with Hepburn already pretending to be a boy, they added a sentimental prologue in which, while mourning her mother's death, she cuts off her hair to initiate the masquerade. They also created a new ending, tying together all of the film's plots in the final, rather confusing, 15minutes. Years later, the director would admit that he would have had abetter film had he stuck with Collier's original adaptation.

But all that was in the future. The film was shot on location in LaurelCanyon and along the Pacific coast north of Malibu, where Cukor had alsoshot the seaside scenes for David Copperfield earlier that year.For cast and crew, the location shoot was like an extended holiday, withafternoon tea breaks and long ocean swims. Cukor and Hepburn's personalcooks kept them eating well; they even competed to see who could producethe best meals. And they even enjoyed a surprise visit from Hughes, whowas smitten with Hepburn at the time (though later biographers wouldsuggest that he was also attracted to Grant). The only problem occurredwhen they tried to shoot a suicide scene for Natalie Paley, who playedAherne's rejected mistress. As scripted, Grant was supposed to rush intothe surf to save her, leading to a romance between the characters. Whenthe time came, however, Grant protested that the water was too cold.Frustrated with the delay, Hepburn dove into the water to save the woman,creating a scene that further played up the film's sexualconfusion.

After the delightful shoot, the preview was like a cold blast of reality.The audience hated the film, hooting and jeering at it. Moreover, when theseductive maid kissed Hepburn, three quarters of the audience walked out.Afterwards, producer Pandro S. Berman was furious. Realizing they had aflop on their hands, Cukor and Hepburn begged him to destroy the film,offering to make another picture in its place for free. But he wasn'thaving any of that. He yelled, "I never want to see either of you again,"and stormed out. His threat held true where Cukor was concerned. Thedirector would never work at RKO again. Hepburn still had a contractthere, however, though later films would do little to repair the damagedone by Sylvia Scarlett. Within a few years, she left Hollywood afailure, branded "box office poison" by exhibitors. Although the filmwould eventually win a devoted cult audience, it has yet to show a profiton its $1 million budget.

Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: John Collier, Gladys Unger, Mortimer Offner
Based on the Novel The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlettby Compton MacKenzie
Cinematography: Joseph August
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Sturges Carne
Music: Roy Webb
Principal Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Sylvia Scarlett),Cary Grant (JimmyMonkley), Brian Aherne (Michael Fane), Edmund Gwenn (Henry Scarlett),Natalie Paley (Lily), Dennie Moore (Maudie Titt).
BW-95m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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