Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 35 min.

Release Date: December 25th, 1935 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: George Cukor Actors: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Brian Aherne, Edmund Gwenn, Dennie Moore, Natalie Paley




n Marseilles, Sylvia Scarlett’s (Katharine Hepburn) mother has passed away, leaving Sylvia’s father, Henry (Edmund Gwenn), in emotional and financial trouble. “My life’s over,” he proclaims as he toils over lost gambling funds, which he stole from his position as a bookkeeper at a lace factory. Henry decides to flee to England to escape his woes, but Sylvia is insistent on going with him, untraceably, as a young man. Donning the name “Sylvester,” Sylvia cuts her hair and wears a suit to board a ship with her father.

Once on the open sea, Henry’s paranoia sets in, making him leery of all authority figures as well as strangers who gaze upon them for too long. One such passenger is Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant) – self-described gentleman adventurer – who appears terribly suspicious, yet Henry’s guard is soon down, allowing him to admit that he’s smuggling 30 yards of valuable lace without paying the duties due. Of course, when Monkley immediately rats on the Scarletts, it’s apparent that he’s quite the slippery scoundrel.

Since Grant is the male lead, it’s not unsurprising when, a few scenes later, the trio joins forces as rolling-stone swindlers, plotting elaborate scams to take advantage of London’s gullible citizens. None of these characters are particularly sympathetic (Monkley is, in fact, somewhat irredeemable after his initial fraud), which is problematic since these are the only personas at the heart of the plot. To add further incongruity to that premise, a bit of slapstick and lighthearted humor surface, uneasily infusing gaiety into the introductory dourness and betrayal.

In a briefly clever twist, Jimmy suggests that what they really need is a girl – which would enable them to attempt new angles of deceit. But Sylvia doesn’t go along with the ruse, remaining in her boyish disguise as the two men head off to a mansion in Buckingham Gate for a familiar, reliable racket. And then more physical comedy ensues, muddying the tone to an even greater degree. At least Sylvia aspires to be a Robin Hood of sorts, even though she resorts to petty trickery. But there’s a nagging insincerity wafting through their actions as Sylvia continually foils Jimmy’s crueler cons, resulting in threats of violence or the sense of unforgivable treachery.

“Women. They always mess things up.” Similarly unfitting are the various love stories that come and go – whether it’s jealous spats between Maudie (Dennie Moore) and booze-addled Henry, or the uncomfortable trifling between Sylvester and artist acquaintance Michael Fane (Brian Aherne), or the inevitable flirtations between Sylvester and Jimmy. Once the trio pauses their double-dealing, they bizarrely opt to travel around the countryside in a caravan as a singing and dancing troupe, performing to small audiences – transitioning the mood yet again, this time into something of a frivolous romantic drama. The film is clearly as confused and tonally vacillating as Grant’s accent, which surfaces and disappears in waves.

Unfortunately, despite Grant and Hepburn’s usual chemistry and charm, “Sylvia Scarlett’s” story is so unconvincing and unsatisfying that their star power is horribly muted. Tiny portions of humor – from Sylvester walking into a women’s bathroom, to sultry maid Maudie stealing a kiss from what she thinks is an inexperienced young man, to Jimmy suggesting a shared bunk – are no match for the bad writing and the awkward character designs. As it turns out, the pairing of Hepburn and Grant alone (and even with George Cukor directing) can’t save a picture with no focus and seemingly no purpose.

– Mike Massie

  • 2/10