The Wonderful Weird WTF-Ness of Sylvia Scarlett

Sylvia Scarlett (1935, George Cukor) is such a weird movie. There. That is my critical assessment.

Sylvia Scarlett has a strange charm, a weird dark magic, and it’s one of those films I actually want to live in. I want to crawl into the celluloid and hang out with those people. I want to be in that caravan and put on a Pierrot costume, and drive around in the fresh salty air, having meals under the starry sky. Dressed up as a boy. Being laughed at by the locals. Watching my father lose his mind. Well, maybe not that part of it.

It stars Katharine Hepburn, in a pretty bad performance (she admitted to that as well) and Cary Grant, in a very good performance. This was before their famous pairing in Bringing Up Baby, and pre-The Awful Truth, which made Cary Grant a giant and important star. He had been around Hollywood for a bit, hired as a scratching-post for Mae West’s lady parts a couple of times, hired as an eye-candy boy-toy, and also a couple of pre-Code films where we start to see the Cary Grant persona emerge (Hot Saturday and a few others). As we know, Cary Grant was, actually, English, and did, actually, speak with a Cockney accent, but he had gotten rid of that and acquired the “Cary Grant Voice” which was all his own creation. Here, in Sylvia Scarlett, Cukor cast him as Jimmy Monkley, a Cockney con-man, complete with music hall songs, Cockney rhyming slang, and accent. A sort of amazing transformation occurred, and everyone realized it while it was happening. Cary Grant was not an unknown, but certainly nothing he had done up until that point had given us a glimpse that he was going to be the biggest movie star Hollywood had ever known. And you can’t tell in Sylvia Scarlett, either, although it was, in many ways, the most important role in Cary Grant’s resume (then or after). It was the breakthrough. It made The Awful Truth possible, and The Awful Truth made all else possible.

Cukor said, many years later:

“Sylvia Scarlett” was the first time Cary felt the ground under his feet as an actor. He suddenly seemed liberated.

And Grant himself said:

“Sylvia Scarlett” was my breakthrough. It permitted me to play a character I knew. Thanks to George Cukor. He let me play it the way I thought it should be played because he didn’t know who the character was.

Sylvia Scarlett is exhilarating, seen in that context of Grant’s career. It is to watch someone become actualized as an actor. It’s to watch someone discover his own power, and discover that being himself was all he had to do onscreen.

“All”. As though that’s an easy thing. Don’t listen to anyone who scoffs about a performance, “He was just playing himself.” That person does not understand acting on the most elementary level, and doesn’t understand what it is, or how it works. It’s amazing how many critics use it as a negative. You spend your life watching movies, writing about movies, and you haven’t done your homework to actually understand the nuts and bolts of acting? Balls! When someone says, “He was just playing himself”, he/she usually means it as an insult, a dismissal, when actually what they are copping to (without knowing it) is that the actor in question is able to reliably and consistently bring himself to the screen, and before you can do all of the other stuff (emotions, gestures, behavior, accents), you have to be able to do THAT. And many actors cannot do THAT at all.

This whole “he was just playing himself” nonsense is one of my pet peeves, and it’s dismayingly common. John Wayne gets painted with that brush all the time, and it’s a travesty. Seen beside Wayne’s power and authenticity as a persona (and that power/authenticity lasted him for 40 years in his career), putting on fake accents and limping and “transforming” pale in comparison. Those things are “skills”, and necessary skills to be sure, but to dismiss a great actor like Wayne because that wasn’t his bag is to completely misunderstand what acting IS. Cary Grant also gets the “he was just playing himself” criticism – you know, his hair was always the same in his films, etc., his voice was the same, blah blah.

But, as Mitchell Fain said so perfectly in my interview with him:

I mean, to this day, people say, “Oh so-and-so’s the new Cary Grant.” Cary Grant was acting in 1930. We’re talking 70 years ago. Almost 80 years ago, and we’re still referring to people as the “new Cary Grant”. Well, guess what, there’s no such thing. If 80 years later, you’re still trying to find someone to be the next so-and-so, there is nobody. It’s only him.

That is the potential staying power of someone who can convincingly “play himself” onscreen.

Beautifully, Cary Grant himself answered the “just playing himself” criticism, in words insightful and true:

To play yourself — your true self — is the hardest thing in the world. Watch people at a party. They’re playing themselves … but nine out of ten times the image they adopt for themselves is the wrong one.

Amen, Archie.

However, it is important to remember that an actor cannot “play himself” in a vacuum. Like everything else in the whimsical and sometimes cruel career of acting, you really need the Role to set you free and highlight you. You need a role that will show people who you are, what you can do. It’s always interesting to see Cary Grant in those Mae West movies. There are certain signatures there: the stiff ramrod walk, the tall sleek gorgeousness, but any beautiful man could have played those roles. There’s one glimpse of the Movie Star in Waiting in She Done Him Wrong, with his sudden burst of primal naughtiness in the final moment when he leans in to kiss Mae West, growling, “You bad girl …” It’s sexy as hell.

None of those roles could have made Cary Grant the star he needed to be, however. They didn’t highlight him enough. They understood his beauty and that we would like to look at him (ogle him, really). But they didn’t understand Cary Grant’s essential weirdness, and it was that weirdness that would put him on the map. He’s gorgeous, but he’s hilarious. He’s elegant, but brilliant at pratfalls and physical comedy. He’s romantic and tender, but also cranky and vicious. He could do it all. Hollywood, naturally, loves beautiful people, it is their stock-in-trade, but often the Beauties are pigeon-holed, trapped in a certain kind of role. Today, the Beauties have to put on warts and fake noses to get attention for their acting (and more often than not win Oscars for their “bravery”). But for Cary Grant, what needed to happen was to find a director to set Cary Grant free, to not box him in to his beauty, but to treat his beauty as incidental, a fact of life, peripheral to his real strengths.

George Cukor, who knew how to film beauty better than most, was that man.

Hepburn said later:

That was really the beginning for Cary. George Cukor had seen him and thought he was wonderful. George told me, ‘We’re going to have this unknown fella, but he’s absolutely great.’ Cary was grateful to George for that.

Sylvia Scarlett, as I said, is a bizarre experience, with a dumb script, and atmosphere so thick and gorgeous you could cut it with a knife. Cary Grant is not the romantic lead here, although his presence and charisma is so strong that you yearn for him to take his rightful spot. He should be the one kissing Kate Hepburn, not the constantly-laughing yet rather wonderful Brian Aherne, with his curly pipe, plush bathrobe, and decadent German girlfriend.

But it’s not Cary Grant’s turn yet. He’s the third lead in Sylvia Scarlett, he can’t “get the girl”. He plays a boisterous amoral con-man, who behaves reprehensibly at times, but he’s so likable we forgive him and want Katharine Hepburn’s character (Sylvia/Sylvester) to hook up with him. Grant’s final moment in the film, staring out a train window into the dark country landscape, fills our hearts with fondness for him, for his sudden altruistic gesture. Oh, the big lug has a heart after all! Although Grant would make about 7 more films until The Awful Truth, the birth of the true leading man is here, in Jimmy Monkley. The film wants us to look elsewhere, wants us to consider Brian Aherne, wants us to care about things other than Jimmy Monkley, but Grant is so charismatic the film suffers when he is not onscreen. It’s thrilling.

Hepburn wrote in her autobiography:

He was the only reason to see Sylvia Scarlett. It was a terrible picture but he was wonderful in it. He was very secure in his work. And God, he was fun. He had a tremendous vitality. He was heavier and huskier then. I liked the way he looked when he had that chunky, slightly pudgy face.

A star is (nearly) born.

But the weirdness of Sylvia Scarlett must be stressed. It can’t decide what it is, or what it wants to be. It’s a star-crossed love story. It’s a crime movie. It’s a family drama. It’s a silly slapstick romp. Katharine Hepburn plays it like it is a Greek tragedy performed by an amateur theatre troupe (which, considering the way Sylvia Scarlett progresses, may not be the poor choice it appears on the face of it). Sometimes all of these elements are present in the same scene. Everyone’s acting style is off the map. Nobody appears to be in the same film, and yet that’s one of the reasons why it works: Everyone is insane here, everyone is “acting” like they are someone else, so of course everyone seems like a phony-baloney. There is no anchor in reality. If there is an anchor, it would be Grant’s character, who, despite his criminal mind, is the most consistent, the most recognizable as, you know, human.

I love that it was a weird little movie that would set Cary Grant free. The pressure was off. He could dance and cavort and sneer and bark out annoyance, and speak in his actual voice, and Cukor “let” him. Grant was not just a boy-toy. He knew who this character was, and knew exactly how to play it. A less confident director would have put the reins on Grant, asked him, “Why are you speaking in that silly voice?” Cukor let Grant go, and, along with Hepburn’s overly-stylized terrible (yet strangely effective) performance (how does THAT work?), and the strange Midsummer Night’s Dream quality to the plot-line, Grant helps make Sylvia Scarlett the Celebration of Weird that it is.

A father and daughter (Edmund Gwenn and Hepburn), who appear to live in the Dickensian era in the opening scene, she with long braids and long black dress, her crazy stylized theatrical voice, and he with the waistcoat and the melodrama, must flee Marseilles because the father has embezzled from his own company. They weep and moan and gnash their teeth in anguish at the shame and the horror. (You would be forgiven for turning the film off in the first 5 minutes, if you haven’t seen it already! But don’t do so. Hang in there!) For reasons not at all clear, although it has something to do with escaping the notice of the authorities, the daughter makes the bold decision to travel as a boy, chopping off one of her long braids in the mirror, shouting hysterically at top-decibel-level about how she will be there for her father. Keep it down, sister, the creditors may be listening.

Next, we see the two on the boat back to England. Sylvia has become Sylvester. The fog swirls thick around the boat, making everything seem ominous. The father is a not cut out to be a crook, he’s far too emotional: he gives himself away constantly by his panic, anxiety, and flustery-blustery responses to simple questions. Sylvia, meanwhile, retches over the side of the boat, and barges into the Ladies’ Room at one point, causing screams of alarm. Meanwhile, they are being watched, by a mysterious figure (Grant). He hovers on the outskirts of their panicky duo, and Sylvia is suspicious of him.

Her father, however, is a moron and befriends the stranger, even letting him in on a little secret: he has wrapped his torso with expensive lace to smuggle into England. Tee-hee, ha-ha, isn’t a delightful joke?? The father rocks back and forward howling with laughter at his own ingenuity, as Grant smokes his cigarette in a pensive cunning (gorgeous) way. The father’s indiscretion leads to an act of treachery on the part of this mysterious Cockney fellow, father and daughter/son are thrown into jail upon arriving in England. After their release, they hook up with the man who betrayed them (because, of course, that is the logical choice), and begin a career of petty crime, hoodwinking people in the park to give donations by pretending to be stranded French orphans. It all makes sense.

Maudie (Dennie Moore), a giggly maid with a screech-owl laugh, joins up with their threesome, and, in a moment of bravura and inspiration, they decide to form a traveling theatrical troupe and tour the provinces. It’s so random. What a high-maintenance lifestyle change for a bunch of crooks! It requires so much capital, so much planning. But that is what they do.

The next time we see the four of them, they sit outside their whimsical painted circus caravan at night, eating under the stars. The plot has thickened: Mr. Scarlett has fallen deeply in love with Maudie, and she appears to be going along with it, giggling and teasing him. Monkley barks cynically, “‘Ow’s married loife treatin’ ya?” Meanwhile, Maudie has also fallen in love with Sylvester, not knowing, of course, that it is a girl in drag. She trails along behind Hepburn, mooning away in love at the young boy washing dishes, and, in one overt scene, draws a mustache on Hepburn’s face and then attacks her, kissing her passionately.

Midsummer Night’s Dream may not be the best analogy here, although Shakespeare is clearly an influence on Sylvia Scarlett. As You Like It would be better: Rosalind dresses up as a boy to escape court life, and also because it is dangerous out there for a girl without a chaperone. Of course, once she puts on boy’s clothes, she starts to get into it, the power, the freedom. But her disguise is so convincing that women fall in love with her, causing much mayhem, and she is forced to become best buds/love counselor to the man she loves, who thinks he is confessing his feelings to a good guy friend, rather than a GIRL. Everyone always goes back to their proper gender at the end of Shakespeare’s comedies, but it is that gender confusion that sets everybody free in the first place.

To complicate matters sexily, Grant as Monkley of course assumes that he will be bunking with Sylvester, and unselfconsciously undresses in front of a shocked Hepburn. He says to her, “It’s cold tonoight. You’ll be a roight proper hot water bottle.”

Girls make out with other girls, boys use one another as hot water bottles, girls put on mustaches, boys flirt with each other (as Aherne flirts with Hepburn, dressed as a boy), and there are strange sexual undercurrents in every interaction. It’s pretty radical stuff for the time, and it’s not even subtext in Sylvia Scarlett: it’s the Text itself. Of course, things start to go south when actual, you know, feelings are involved. Sylvia falls for Michael (Brian Aherne), a sort of country lord (I guess) who invites the troupe over one night for a party, and although it is revealed that Michael hangs out with a pretty nasty group of bohemian people with cruel hearts, Sylvia goes ga-ga for this laughing jolly man. Later, when Hepburn shows up in a dress, revealing her womanliness, he roars with laughter saying, “I was WONDERING why I was talking to you in the way that I was!!”

Hm. Maybe you need to look at that, Mr. Michael with the Curly Flop of Hair and the Curly Pipe and Your Artist’s Easel and Nasty German Ladyfriend.

Hepburn rules the roost here, and is in nearly every scene. She had already won one Best Actress Oscar at this point, and been nominated for another. Sylvia Scarlett was the beginning of her slide in popularity, which would end with her going back to New York, purchasing the rights to Philadelphia Story, appearing on Broadway triumphantly in the role, and engineering a massive comeback in 1940. Putting the lovely Hepburn in drag for the majority of Sylvia Scarlett was a disastrous choice, at the time, and the film was not a success. The only person who got anything good out of it was Cary Grant, as mentioned before.

But removed from the box office concerns and trends of its current time, Sylvia Scarlett is a weird and uneven piece of work, defiant and unique, chaotic and ridiculous. It’s a lot of fun, and its spirit is unfettered. Mr. Sylvester, randomly, goes mad. It seems to come over him in a 24-hour period. He drinks to excess one night, falls off a barrel, makes a huge scene, and really never recovers his mental equilibrium again. “We must away from this place, my dear …” he pleads with his daughter by the caravan, “… my head is filled with dark imaginings.” WTF is going on with this guy? He is in love with Maudie, and yet it gives him no joy. He is consumed by jealousy, and Maudie plays him for a fool, as would be expected. Jimmy Monkley throws everyone under the bus, repeatedly, and yet we kind of love him, because he’s Cary Grant. Cukor understood atmosphere better than most, and there are scenes, particularly the nighttime scenes, where we see the “Pierrots” perform at a makeshift stage in the middle of the countryside, that reverberate with theatrical magic. It’s so … odd-looking, it seems to emanate from another time, a Time out of Time. Sylvia Scarlett does not take place in a recognizable world or era. There are motor-cars at one point, but the energy of the film is pre-modern, where magic can operate freely, where the ties that bind us socially are irrelevant, where a caravan can park in a field by the sea, and nobody thinks anything of it.

Hepburn acts up a storm. She has a drunk scene that is particularly awful, and yet considering the script (which is overblown to say the least), you can understand why she went the way she did. Brian Aherne can’t stop laughing throughout the entire picture, and it’s ridiculous, and you hate him for it, for his arrogance, but he’s also extremely fun: he doesn’t take anything too seriously. You better not if you’re going to live in a Sylvia Scarlett world. Cary Grant sneers and mugs and man-handles Hepburn, but his natural animal charm is so palpable that we ache to touch him, to hang out with him, to be in his presence. It’s a marvel, this performance.

Besides, seeing Cary Grant in a puffy Pierrot costume with bells down the front playing the piano and singing at the top of his lungs is one of the greatest movie joys I have ever known.

Sylvia Scarlett failed to find an audience in 1935. The Hepburn-Grant pairing here is now overshadowed by their far more successful outings together in Bringing Up Baby, Holiday (my favorite), and Philadelphia Story. But they’re great here together, too: the camera aches with the tension between them in their final scene together, there’s a tension in the space between them, a space that yearns to be filled. In the world of Sylvia Scarlett, Jimmy and Sylvia couldn’t make a go of it, although that is what we want for them, merely because they are so dynamite together onscreen. Jimmy, in his final moment, lets her go without (for once) ruining it for her. With all of the madcap romping about Love in Sylvia Scarlett, his selflessness in that moment is profound, and is representative of what the best of love really means and looks like. Cukor obviously knew what he had here, and knew that Grant was having a breakthrough in his acting. It’s not an accident that the film ends with Grant leaning back in his seat on the train, bursting out into a wild whoop of laughter that still, after seeing it so many times, is thrilling to behold.

He’s a movie star already. The world just needed to catch up. It wouldn’t take long.


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14 Responses to The Wonderful Weird WTF-Ness of Sylvia Scarlett

  1. theduckthief says:

    What an awesome post! I love how you got down to the essence of Grant’s genius. I’m definitely going to have to check this movie out now, thanks to your description and these wonderful photos.

    • sheila says:

      Thanks so much! Yes, it really is so much fun! I love that it makes no sense, and everyone just seems to be having a good time.

  2. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Wonderful post. Hepburn looks a lot like David Bowie when she’s in drag.

  3. george says:

    Sheila,

    I admit having seen the movie but once and having noticed only the “weird WTF-ness” and none of the ‘Wonderful’. Now I’ll have to see it again.

    “He [Grant] had been around Hollywood for a bit, hired as a scratching-post for Mae West’s lady parts a couple of times…”

    There aren’t words to describe just how utterly brilliant, wonderful, perfect, and funny that line is. I am not surprised, it coming from the Balzac of the Blogosphere, just utterly envious.

  4. Jaquandor says:

    I’ve never understood the ‘knock’ on Cary Grant that he ‘always plays himself’, which seems to be to be saying that he plays every character the same way. When I watch North By Northwest, I never find myself thinking, “Huh, Roger Thornhill is really the exact same character as Nickie Ferrante in An Affair to Remember!”. I just think that’s really weird. (Ditto John Wayne — the guy in The Searchers isn’t remotely the same guy as in The Quiet Man.)

  5. Ken says:

    I wouldn’t put him (or anyone) up as the next Cary Grant, but after watching a bunch of Fringe episodes over the last year, I’d like to see what kind of old-school leading man Joshua Jackson would make with a good director and script (no idea who or what, though). As my wife said, who’d a-thunk Pacey had it in him?

  6. Lucy Amis says:

    Hi Sheila

    “They didn’t understand Cary Grant’s essential weirdness, and it was that weirdness that would put him on the map. He’s gorgeous, but he’s hilarious. He’s elegant, but brilliant at pratfalls and physical comedy. He’s romantic and tender, but also cranky and vicious. He could do it all.”

    Wow that’s good. Hats off to you, you’ve really incapsulated his magic here. I just had to deliver a presentation on Grant for an evening course I’m taking on Screwball comedies. I thought I was going to kick off with the importance of Leo McCarey’s direction and The Awful Truth, but found myself having to highlight Sylvia Scarlett and the crucial role George Cukor’s direction played in liberating Cary Grant from prison of what he’d done before. And of course it was also the critical reception for his performance in Sylvia Scarlett that gave him the guts to jump ship from Paramount and go solo. Great piece, thanks.

    Like Jaquandor, I think there’s also almost nothing in common in the pacing or texture of characterization between say Jeff Carter in Only Angels Have Wings, and Walter Burns in His Girl Friday. He was great.

    • sheila says:

      Lucy –

      I totally agree: Sylvia Scarlett, as the turning point, the breakthrough in his career, is the most important movie he made. It wasn’t a done deal that Hollywood would find a way to properly use him. Despite his beauty, he really was an odd duck. Unplace-able, really. Sylvia Scarlett let him let the Weirdo out of the bag. and all else followed.

      I would love to hear more about your presentation! That sounds like so much fun. How did it go over? Did you show clips?

      • Lucy Amis says:

        I think Sylvia Scarlett and Suspicion are probably the most important movies he ever made. Neither are great films, and he gave better performances in other films, but Sylvia Scarlett released him, and Suspicion gave him somewhere to go after Screwball comedy died.

        The presentation was a lot of fun. I talked about his gifts for improvisation, physical comedy and physical acting, plus touched on his listening, delivery, and light/shade dichotomy. And was able to show clips from The Awful Truth, Bringing up Baby, Holiday, Philadelphia Story, My Favorite Wife and His Girl Friday, plus a few snippets from the Class Apart documentary (to show the acrobatic background). If I’d had time though I’d have shown some clips earlier films too and Mr Lucky.

        • sheila says:

          Great!!

          And I totally agree with you: Suspicion and Sylvia Scarlett: two major major breakthroughs. Suspicion was the harbinger of the next wave in his career. It made so much else possible.

          What a great presentation – wish I had been there!

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