Sylvia Scarlett


1h 37m 1936
Sylvia Scarlett

Brief Synopsis

A female con artist masquerades as a boy to escape the police.

Film Details

Genre
Comedy
Drama
Adaptation
Classic Hollywood
Release Date
Jan 3, 1936
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett by Compton MacKenzie (New York, 1918).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 37m
Sound
Mono (RCA Victor System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
10 reels

Synopsis

When Henry Scarlett's wife dies, he and his daughter Sylvia leave Marseilles to start a new life in England. To help her debt-ridden father escape from his creditors, Sylvia cuts her hair and dresses as a young man, calling herself Sylvester. Broke, Henry decides to smuggle some French lace through customs but makes the mistake of confessing his crime to Jimmy Monkley, a Cockney confidence man who exposes them to the customs authorities. Monkley tells them later on the train that he turned them in to keep the police from finding the smuggled diamonds in his own shoe. Impressed by Monkley's cleverness and the £100 he gives them as compensation, Henry and Sylvia agree to become partners with him, and in London, the trio attempts several unsuccessful con games. After Monkley tries to trick Maudie Tilt, a rich woman's maid, into stealing her mistress' pearl necklace, Sylvia denounces him and insists that they pursue a more honest path. Dressed in harlequin costumes, the trio and Maudie, with whom Henry falls in love, tour Cornwall as the "Pink Pierrots." In one village, they meet Michael Fane, an aristocratic but bohemian artist, who asks the spunky Sylvia to pose for him. Strongly attracted to Michael, Sylvia steals some women's clothing and shows up at his cottage as herself. Although he is involved with the Russian aristocrat Lily, Michael flirts with the starry-eyed Sylvia, delighted by her unmasking. Later, however, when the seductive Lily arrives, he all but dismisses Sylvia. Heartbroken, Sylvia returns to the caravan, only to discover that her father has committed suicide because Maudie deserted him. Soon after, Lily tries to drown herself but is saved by Monkley, who then runs off with her. Michael and Sylvia chase after Lily and Monkley, convinced that they belong with them. On the train, however, they realize that they actually love each other, and the pursuit ends.

Film Details

Genre
Comedy
Drama
Adaptation
Classic Hollywood
Release Date
Jan 3, 1936
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett by Compton MacKenzie (New York, 1918).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 37m
Sound
Mono (RCA Victor System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
10 reels

Articles

Sylvia Scarlett


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

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

Director George Cukor and star Katharine Hepburn were years ahead of their time when they brought the cross-dressing comedy-romance Sylvia Scarlett to the screen in 1935. Though they would pay for their forward thinking at the box office, the film would later be hailed as a decidedly advanced treatment of sexual politics and one of the biggest cult favorites of Hollywood's golden years.

For years, Cukor had dreamed of filming Compton MacKenzie's 1918 novel about a female con artist who dresses as a boy to elude customs inspectors. He had proposed the project at MGM, where he was currently under contract, but studio head Louis B. Mayer had turned him down. Then Cukor's friend Hepburn, who had just scored a hit at RKO with Alice Adams (1935) proposed the film as her next project. The role seemed a natural for her; 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."

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

Originally, Cukor wanted British novelist Evelyn Waugh to write the screenplay. When that didn't work out, he turned to John Collier, a noted author of bizarre short stories who had never written a film before. Keeping close to the spirit of MacKenzie's novel, he crafted a rambling screenplay that veered between comedy and tragedy freely in a manner that would anticipate the youth-oriented road films of the '60s and '70s. He also explored the sexual ramifications of Hepburn's cross-dressing, including a scene in which an amorous maid (Dennie Moore) tries to seduce her and an otherwise heterosexual artist (Brian Aherne) finds himself falling 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 started the 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, 15 minutes. Years later, the director would admit that he would have had a better film had he stuck with Collier's original adaptation.

But all that was in the future. The film was shot on location in Laurel Canyon and along the Pacific coast north of Malibu, where Cukor had also shot the seaside scenes for David Copperfield earlier that year. For cast and crew, the location shoot was like an extended holiday, with afternoon tea breaks and long ocean swims. Cukor and Hepburn's personal cooks kept them eating well; they even competed to see who could produce the best meals. And they even enjoyed a surprise visit from Hughes, who was smitten with Hepburn at the time (though later biographers would suggest that he was also attracted to Grant). The only problem occurred when they tried to shoot a suicide scene for Natalie Paley, who played Aherne's rejected mistress. As scripted, Grant was supposed to rush into the surf to save her, leading to a romance between the characters. When the 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 sexual confusion.

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 the seductive maid kissed Hepburn, three quarters of the audience walked out. Afterwards, producer Pandro S. Berman was furious. Realizing they had a flop 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't having 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. The director would never work at RKO again. Hepburn still had a contract there, however, though later films would do little to repair the damage done by Sylvia Scarlett. Within a few years, she left Hollywood a failure, branded "box office poison" by exhibitors. Although the film would eventually win a devoted cult audience, it has yet to show a profit on 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 Scarlett by Compton MacKenzie
Cinematography: Joseph August
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Sturges Carne
Music: Roy Webb
Principal Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Sylvia Scarlett),Cary Grant (Jimmy Monkley), Brian Aherne (Michael Fane), Edmund Gwenn (Henry Scarlett), Natalie Paley (Lily), Dennie Moore (Maudie Titt).
BW-95m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller
Sylvia Scarlett

Sylvia Scarlett

"I don't know what it is that gives me a queer feeling when I look at you." Brian Aherne admitting his attraction to Katharine Hepburn, disguised as a boy, in Sylvia Scarlett. Director George Cukor and star Katharine Hepburn were years ahead of their time when they brought the cross-dressing comedy-romance Sylvia Scarlett to the screen in 1935. Though they would pay for their forward thinking at the box office, the film would later be hailed as a decidedly advanced treatment of sexual politics and one of the biggest cult favorites of Hollywood's golden years. For years, Cukor had dreamed of filming Compton MacKenzie's 1918 novel about a female con artist who dresses as a boy to elude customs inspectors. He had proposed the project at MGM, where he was currently under contract, but studio head Louis B. Mayer had turned him down. Then Cukor's friend Hepburn, who had just scored a hit at RKO with Alice Adams (1935) proposed the film as her next project. The role seemed a natural for her; 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." To play Hepburn's partner in crime, a Cockney crook named Jimmy Monkley, she suggested Cary Grant, whom she had only recently met through their mutual friend Howard Hughes. Grant was then under contract to Paramount Pictures, where he was languishing in vapid leading man roles that called for little more than charm. Under Cukor's guidance, he learned to relax on screen as never before. Moreover, his role gave him a chance to draw on his lower-class roots and his early experience in the circus to give a performance that would showcase his versatility as an actor. Originally, Cukor wanted British novelist Evelyn Waugh to write the screenplay. When that didn't work out, he turned to John Collier, a noted author of bizarre short stories who had never written a film before. Keeping close to the spirit of MacKenzie's novel, he crafted a rambling screenplay that veered between comedy and tragedy freely in a manner that would anticipate the youth-oriented road films of the '60s and '70s. He also explored the sexual ramifications of Hepburn's cross-dressing, including a scene in which an amorous maid (Dennie Moore) tries to seduce her and an otherwise heterosexual artist (Brian Aherne) finds himself falling 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 started the 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, 15 minutes. Years later, the director would admit that he would have had a better film had he stuck with Collier's original adaptation. But all that was in the future. The film was shot on location in Laurel Canyon and along the Pacific coast north of Malibu, where Cukor had also shot the seaside scenes for David Copperfield earlier that year. For cast and crew, the location shoot was like an extended holiday, with afternoon tea breaks and long ocean swims. Cukor and Hepburn's personal cooks kept them eating well; they even competed to see who could produce the best meals. And they even enjoyed a surprise visit from Hughes, who was smitten with Hepburn at the time (though later biographers would suggest that he was also attracted to Grant). The only problem occurred when they tried to shoot a suicide scene for Natalie Paley, who played Aherne's rejected mistress. As scripted, Grant was supposed to rush into the surf to save her, leading to a romance between the characters. When the 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 sexual confusion. 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 the seductive maid kissed Hepburn, three quarters of the audience walked out. Afterwards, producer Pandro S. Berman was furious. Realizing they had a flop 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't having 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. The director would never work at RKO again. Hepburn still had a contract there, however, though later films would do little to repair the damage done by Sylvia Scarlett. Within a few years, she left Hollywood a failure, branded "box office poison" by exhibitors. Although the film would eventually win a devoted cult audience, it has yet to show a profit on 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 Scarlett by Compton MacKenzie Cinematography: Joseph August Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Sturges Carne Music: Roy Webb Principal Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Sylvia Scarlett),Cary Grant (Jimmy Monkley), Brian Aherne (Michael Fane), Edmund Gwenn (Henry Scarlett), Natalie Paley (Lily), Dennie Moore (Maudie Titt). BW-95m. Closed captioning. by Frank Miller

Quotes

Little friend of all the world, nobody's enemy but me own.
- Jimmy Monkley
Yeah, I can tell that by the look of you.
- Sylvia Scarlett
Well, we're all fools sometimes. Only you choose such awkward times.
- Sylvia Scarlett
Oh, what's 'appened to me ideas?
- Jimmy Monkley
They're *all* bad.
- Sylvia Scarlett
What's that?
- Jimmy Monkley
These eggs.
- Sylvia Scarlett
You've got the mind of a pig.
- Sylvia Scarlett
It's a pig's world.
- Jimmy Monkley

Trivia

Notes

According to Hollywood Reporter production charts and Motion Picture Herald's "In the Cutting Room," Mrs. Patrick Campbell was a cast member. Modern sources, however, state that "Mrs. Pat," a noted British actress, was hired for $2,500 to play a small part but was not used in the production. Hollywood Reporter production charts also add Connie Emerald to the cast, but her participation in the final film has not been confirmed. Natalie Paley was, according to the Variety review, a "real" Russian princess, and in RKO production files, she is always listed as "Princess Paley." Contemporary reviewers noted the unusual mixture of period and contemporary costuming and decoration in the picture. Although the film received poor notices and did badly at the box office, the performance of Cary Grant, who was on loan from Paramount, was widely applauded in reviews for its assured comic lightness, a quality his previous film roles had not allowed him to demonstrate. The Time review claimed that Hepburn looked better "as a boy than as a woman." According to RKO production files, exteriors for the film were shot in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. Modern sources state that the California coast north of Malibu was also used as a location.
       Modern sources add the following information about the production: Cukor originally had wanted Evelyn Waugh to write the screenplay but hired British novelist John Collier instead. After Collier had completed his draft, Cukor brought in Gladys Unger and Mortimer Offner to tone down the sexual implications of the story and to write a ten-minute prologue and a fifteen-minute ending that would make Sylvia a more sympathetic and comprehensible character. Grant's salary was $15,000 and Hepburn's was $50,000. Hepburn negotiated for a large percentage of the film's profits. The film had not recouped its production costs of one million dollars as of 1984, however. Sylvia Scarlett, which had been a pet project of Cukor and Hepburn, had such a devastating reception at a preview screening that both Cukor and Hepburn offered to make a movie for producer Berman free of charge if he would shelve it. In a modern interview, Hepburn claimed that Berman expressed a half-joking wish never to see either one of them again. The film marked the beginning of Hepburn's "box office poison" cycle, which blossomed with two other 1936 RKO pictures Mary of Scotland and A Woman Rebels. According to modern sources, Mel Berns did makeup on the production.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1935

Released in United States March 1987

Released in United States on Video March 27, 1991

Released in United States 1935

Released in United States March 1987 (Shown at AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival (UCLA Movie Marathon: A Tribute to Cary Grant) March 11-26, 1987.)

Released in United States on Video March 27, 1991