Sylvia Scarlett

Sylvia Scarlett is a 1935 romantic comedy film starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, based on The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett, a novel by Compton MacKenzie. Directed by George Cukor, it was notorious as one of the most famous unsuccessful movies of the 1930s. Hepburn plays the title role of Sylvia Scarlett, a female con artist masquerading as a boy to escape the police. The success of the subterfuge is in large part due to the transformation of Hepburn by RKO makeup artist Mel Berns.

Sylvia Scarlett
Directed byGeorge Cukor
Produced byPandro S. Berman
Screenplay byGladys Unger
John Collier
Mortimer Offner
Based onThe Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett
1918 novel
by Compton MacKenzie
StarringKatharine Hepburn
Cary Grant
Edmund Gwenn
Brian Aherne
Natalie Paley
Music byRoy Webb
CinematographyJoseph H. August
Edited byJane Loring
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
December 25, 1935
Running time
90 minutes
Box office$497,000[1]

This film was the first pairing of Grant and Hepburn, who later starred together in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940). Grant's performance as a dashing rogue sees him incorporate a Cockney accent and remains widely considered the first time Grant's famous personality began to register on film. (Grant used the Cockney accent in only a few other films, notably 1939's Gunga Din and Clifford Odets' None but the Lonely Heart in 1944.) Cockney was not, however, Cary Grant's original accent. He was born and grew up in Bristol, which has a very different accent from that of London, although it was much closer to Grant's pre-Hollywood accent than the voice he used in most films, a product of his attempting to sound more American in order to broaden the range of roles for which he could be cast.


Sylvia Scarlett (Katharine Hepburn) and her father, Henry (Edmund Gwenn), flee France one step ahead of the police. Henry, while employed as a bookkeeper for a lace factory, was discovered to be an embezzler. While on the channel ferry, they meet a "gentleman adventurer", Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant), who partners with them in his con games.



After a disastrous test screening, Cukor and Hepburn reportedly begged producer Pandro Berman to shelve the picture if they agreed to make their next film for free. According to RKO records, the film lost a whopping $363,000,[1] and thus began a downturn in Hepburn's career (causing her to be branded "box office poison") from which she would eventually recover.[2]

In a review published two days before his death, Andre Sennwald of The New York Times wrote, "With what accuracy Compton Mackenzie's novel has been transferred to the screen this deponent knoweth not. But the film has a sprawling, confused and unaccented way of telling its story that might easily be the result of too literal a dramatization of just that sprawling kind of book."[3] Variety said, "Despite good production values and some strong performances, 'Sylvia Scarlett' is not a reliable candidate for public favor. The story is hard to get. It is puzzling in its tangents and sudden jumps plus the almost poetic lines that are given to Miss Hepburn. At moments the film skirts the border of absurdity and considerable of its mid-section is downright boresome." The review added that "Cary Grant, doing a petty English crook with a Soho accent, practically steals the picture."[4] Harrison's Reports stated, "The material in the two novels, from which this story was supposedly taken, could have made an outstanding picture. But it was altered radically and was weakened, with the result that it has made an uninteresting comedy. The story is far-fetched and somewhat unpleasant. And the fact that Miss Hepburn goes through most of the picture in male attire may disappoint her followers."[5] John Mosher of The New Yorker was positive and found that despite Hepburn's difficult role, the picture was "charming, sparkling with the feeling that Compton Mackenzie gave his novel of romantic vagrants. Indeed, it is that part of the film with Hepburn in breeches that is best. When at last she puts on skirts and is a girl again, and a girl in love, she is more like most of the movie heroines we have known, and the fantasy fades out in an almost perfunctory happy ending."[6] The Monthly Film Bulletin declared, "A very entertaining film. Parts of the story are a trifle illogical but the direction, acting and some very delightful photography make it seem almost possible."[7]

A Turner Classic Movies article suggested that the film's themes of sexual politics were ahead of its time and that the film's reception has improved over the years.[8]

See also


  1. Richard Jewel, 'RKO Film Grosses: 1931-1951', Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, Vol 14 No 1, 1994 p58
  2. "Sylvia Scarlett (1936)" — Notes at TCM.
  3. Sennwald, Andre (January 10, 1936). "The Screen: Katharine Hepburn and Edmund Gwenn in 'Sylvia Scarlett,' at the Radio City Music Hall." The New York Times. 16.
  4. "Film Reviews: Sylvia Scarlett". Variety. January 15, 1936. 18.
  5. "'Sylvia Scarlett' with Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Brian Aherne". Harrison's Reports. December 28, 1935. 207.
  6. Mosher, John (January 18, 1936). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 61.
  7. "Sylvia Scarlett". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 3 (27): 51. March 1936.
  8. Frank Miller, "Sylvia Scarlett (1936)" — Articles at TCM.
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