The year of Cary Grant: Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

I did not like this movie! I didn’t even understand it and can't believe that you're meant to. Katharine Hepburn plays a (French) woman named Sylvia who disguises herself as Sylvester to help her con man father (Edmund Gwenn, that nice Santa Claus from A Miracle on 34th Street) escape the aftermath of one of his cons. On the boat from Marseilles to London they hook up with yet another swindler played by (you guessed it) Cary Grant and decide to band together to commit additional cons. These involve traipsing about the English countryside in a pair of caravans with a housemaid/“singer” and performing unfortunate vaudeville numbers for the local yokels, one of whom is an artiste that Sylvia (still playing Sylvester) falls in love with. This cat has a boho Russian girlfriend for reasons no one explains yet he falls in love with Sylvia also, after realizing she’s a she. There’s a death in there somewhere that might be a suicide, and I guess it has a happy ending, although the plot feels mostly like wandering through the middle of a John Irving novel (i.e., five or six long separate stories tied together with no indication of how they’re related) so I’m not entirely certain.

To be sure, this is a Katharine Hepburn picture (and not a good one!), and there’s an interesting scene where she realizes she’s more comfortable as Sylvester than Sylvia, but they clamp down on that angle pretty fast. Cary Grant in 1935 was also not yet CARY GRANT, although there are hints of what’s to come: he’s at least two heads taller and more gorgeous than anybody else on screen and seems perfectly at home playing a fast-talking rascal. Every other actor just seems confused.

Best line: from Hepburn to Gwenn: “Your darn tips have landed you in the soup!”

Runner-up: Hepburn to Grant: “You’ve got the mind of a pig.”
Grant: “It’s a pig’s world!”


On a scale of 0 to Cary Grant, I award this picture 5 CARY GRANTS

Character: Jimmy Monkley (I did read a recap on some blog today that referred to him as “Arthur” the whole way through, which was an interesting choice but not even in the ballpark)
Occupation: Trickster
Overall film quality: Um...? 
Chemistry w/costar: Antagonistic but palpable. You want more because you know there is more, and you know how good it is.
Cad vs. charm scale: He's mostly a cad and frankly more than a little animalistic about it. What charm there is is calculating and cruel, just another icepick in a con man's toolbox. 
Costume fit & flair: Not once but twice he wears what looks to be a striped flannel suit, and he displays a regrettable penchant for cravats (see above). But there is one scene where he wanders around in a rainstorm atop a seaside cliff dressed in a long dark trench coat and a newsboy cap where you really have to stop and sigh to yourself for a minute.
Fox scale: Too young and doughy to be truly foxy, but still a dish.
Gray scale: n/a
Screwball scale: Nein nein: script, tone, and pacing are way more “screwy” than screwball.
Romance scale: Zero. It was weird to see a Cary Grant film in which Cary Grant does not play the romantic lead, but even Cary Grant had to start somewhere.
Tearjerker scale: I was sad that this movie was terrible.
Essential Cary Grant-ness: He does have that familiar whiz-bang mad gleam in his eye when he cuts loose, and that rakish way of clutching a cig between his thumb and first two fingers while hatching a scheme, but this is basically the training bra version of Cary Grant. According to a great post at The Sheila Variations, this was the film most responsible for all the films that came after, which of course is reason enough to praise its existence. However, as a film qua film, it was still terrible.