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Sunday, July 19, 2015

SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935)

Katherine Hepburn & director George Cukor laid a very large egg when they released this infamous cross-dressed romance. Awkward, but rather charming, it eventually managed to find its audience a few decades too late. Disguising herself as a young man in order to flee France with her embezzling Dad (Edmund Gwenn), Hepburn finds herself stuck in drag after they join forces with Cary Grant’s slick Cockney conman. Along the way, Gwenn finds an unfaithful maid for a mate, and Hepburn a confused admirer in Brian Aherne’s bohemian artist. The film’s a bit of a head-scratcher, not from Hepburn’s boy act, she’s deliciously androgynous, a young David Bowie with good teeth, and audiences of the time certainly had no problem when Garbo played out similar gender identification/sexual innuendo games with John Gilbert in QUEEN CHRISTINA/’33. More likely, it was the wildly fluctuating tone of the thing that set them off. It jumps all over the place, from country pastorale to suicide to bedroom farce, then back again, and Cukor isn’t able to adjust fast enough. (Who could have? Lubitsch? Renoir?) But even when things don’t add up, there’s something going on here. And in Cary Grant’s atypical raw openness, something fresh & rare.

DOUBLE-BILL: Three & a half decades later, this film’s appalled producer (Pandro Berman) S.O.S.’ed Cukor to rescue him from a fresh disaster of his own making when indie director Joseph Strick was sinking fast on JUSTINE/’69. That film turned out problematic & intriguing, much like this.

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