SYLVIA SCARLETT (George Cukor, 1935)

George Cukor’s favorite among his films, Sylvia Scarlett has Katharine Hepburn kissing a woman on the lips—but don’t worry; Sylvia, Hepburn’s character, is in drag as Sylvester, which is the way she appears throughout much of the film, as she and her father, an embezzler, flee France and try to elude British police, becoming grifters. Audiences way back then were scandalized. Indeed, this may not be as you like it.
     I, however, love the film, for its Shakespearean air, its Dickensian exploration of the remarkable poor living at their wit’s ends, and Cary Grant’s nervy performance as con-man Jimmy Monkley (“. . . sparrows and ’awks: that’s Nature”), who knows another poor Cockney, Maudie, who works as a maid for the rich.
     Of course, Hepburn could not possibly pass for a boy (Jimmy isn’t fooled); but Sylvia’s masquerade is no less convincing than the tran/barfly’s in The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992). And Hepburn is hilarious collapsing into teary-eyed French to dupe an English crowd with a hard-luck story that actually isn’t far from the truth. (Her burst into English and laughter gives away the con.)
     With Cukor, there is often theatricality. “Sylvester” mistakes (or pretends to mistake) Maudie, dressed in her employer’s clothes, for a “fine lady”—gender transvestism confronting social transvestism: delicious! “Sylvester” persuades the other three to join her in becoming a vaudeville troupe that performs seaside. Thus “Sylvester” meets the artist with whom she falls in love. When “Sylvester” shows Michael Fane her true gender, he exalts, “No wonder I talked to you the way I did.” (Hm.)
     Cukor’s gay sensibility comes through more unmistakably in some films than others, Camille (1937), Justine (1969) and Rich and Famous (1981) among them. But nowhere more so than in Sylvia Scarlett.

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