Sylvia Scarlett is one of those bafflingly erratic movies that is as frustrating as it is fascinating. A good movie, it is not. It is not a good George Cukor film. It is certainly not a good Cary Grant film. The plot skips from one setting to another, making it both exhausting and hard to follow. Plus it is one of those types of movies where you just know that if someone staggers out the door in a rainstorm, that they will end up dead, magically finding a cliff and plummeting to the rocks below. But it is the presence and the novelty of a young Katharine Hepburn parading through most of the movie in drag that just about makes it worth seeking out.
Twenty-something Kate plays Sylvia Scarlett, a young woman who is forced to flee with her small-time crook father from Paris to London after her mother dies, and his swindling schemes catch up to him (I have to admit, this part was unclear to me, as I missed the first five minutes). At breakneck speed, Sylvia cuts her hair, dons drag, and dubs herself “Sylvester” to help them stay incognito from the law.
While on the train to London, they hook up with a smarmy scoundrel, played against-type by Cary Grant, who has a terrible sometimes-there, sometimes-not Cockney accent. The trio of crooks team up and work it in London, til they get run out of town, then hook up with a maid (!) and become a travelling performance troupe (what the..?!?). Sylvia (as a boy) falls for a smarmy artist-type (played by Brian Aherne) who tells Sylvester, “There’s something that gives me a queer feeling every time I look at you…” (just a taste of the all-possible combinations sexual flirting and toying). There is abruptly romantic triumph, a tragedy, things hastily wrap up, and you’re left wondering what the heck the movie was about.
Sylvia Scarlett apparently was buried in obscurity for years, and a bit rightfully so because of it’s quality (or lack thereof). But the film has been recently unearthed, partly because of the interest in the late, great Katharine Hepburn, but also because of its discovery by the gay and lesbian community, as an early example of a film that playfully toys with sexuality. This alone makes the film worth checking out.
Oh, and the fact that Katharine Hepburn just happens to make an awfully cute boy!