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Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

It's not quite two months since I last wrote about 'old' Cary Grant, and here we go again. Especially since he is paired here with one of my all-time favourite actresses Katharine Hepburn. They made four films together, three of which are classic screwball comedies: "Holiday" (1938), "Bringing up Baby" (1938), and "Phildadelphia Story" (1940). However their first joint venture is not only little-known, but often either dismissed as a silly trifle or barely remembered as germane to their filmographies. Made during the period when Hepburn was regarded as 'box-office poison' and Grant had not quite morphed into the epitome of the sophisticated leading man, this film is actually not only essential viewing for their respective fans, but a great deal of fun as well.

The film opens in France where small-time embezzler Edmund Gwenn (eventually to become everyone's favourite Santa Claus) is on the run from the police with daughter Hepburn in tow. To prevent the cops searching for a man travelling with a young girl on the cross-channel ferry, Sylvia chops off her hair and becomes young Sylvester, spending the first half of the movie in cross-dressing drag. On the ship they meet Cockney con-man Grant, who shops the lace-smuggling Gwenn to the Customs authorities to distract from his own underhand activities. Chastened and broke, Gwenn and his young 'son' Sylvester are at their lowest ebb, before Grant saves the day with some cash and plans for future joint scams. These include trying to pass off the fluent French-speaking Sylvester as a young and abandoned waif, milking the crowd for their spare change, to looking up an old girlfriend Maudie, a maid in the home of a cruising rich couple.

There the vulgar young woman (Dennie Moore, surprisingly uncredited in a pivotal role) is encouraged to dress up in her mistress's best togs and jewels which Grant plans to purloin, but she also catches the eye of amorous Gwenn (who also uses the occasion to dress up in her master's velvet court togs and prance about). Hepburn still playing a gormless teenager, gets roaringly drunk but manages to shame Grant into returning the swag. From here, the storyline gets even more bizarre as the four decide to go off to become a seaside entertaintment group, the Pink Pierrots (!), travelling the countryside in a caravan and performing their very old-fashioned act in small holiday resorts. In their Harlequin and Columbine costumes, the quartet seem to be enjoying themselves hugely, and one must remember that Grant first went to the States as part of a knockabout comedy vaudeville turn. Here, he plays the piano and sings in a way a million miles away from his usual screen persona -- and very charming he and his colleagues are too as they set out to entertain us all.

At one seaside gathering artist Brian Aherne, watching with his rich young friends, heckles the act and is shamed into apologising by the feckless Sylvester. Aherne is enchanted by the pretty young lad and wants him to pose for him, while Hepburn discovers the first stirrings of love, despite the artist's obvious affair with Russian emigre Natalie Paley (real Russian royalty and also uncredited). So she steals a dress and bonnet from a seaside changing-room (actually a cave!) and reveals herself to Aherne as the young woman she really is. Grant and Moore are also taken aback by her transformation, especially as the latter had jokingly attempted to make out with the would-be youth.  And so the story goes on to its ultimate and not so obvious conclusion, which sees Hepburn paired off with the elusive Aherne and Grant doing his best to put the flighty Paley in her place.  Having already told us of his attitude to women in general -- basically love them and leave them -- it is rather refreshing that he and Hepburn are not paired off after Gwenn's and Moore's disappearance from the action.

Directed by George Cukor, it is not surprising to learn that this film was another of Hepburn's 'flops' and the leaps in logic of its storyline did not find many takers amongst the moviegoers of the day. However as a period piece and as a stepping stone in the development of its two leads, the movie is an undemanding and unexpected pleasure. We are more used to men dressing as women a la "Some Like it Hot" than women passing themselves off as men a la "Victor/Victoria" but drag turns from both sexes have a long and honourable history in film. Katharine Hepburn here is enchanting as both a young girl and a young man and that's just fine with me. As for Cary Grant, I've yet to see a film where he is anything less than priceless, and "Sylvia Scarlett" deserves its shining place in developing his longterm career. 

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