Combustible Celluloid
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With: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Edmund Gwenn, Dennie Moore, Brian Aherne, Natalie Paley
Written by: Gladys Unger, John Collier, Mortimer Offner, based on a novel by Compton MacKenzie
Directed by: George Cukor
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 94
Date: 12/12/1935

Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Drag Team

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Directed by George Cukor, Sylvia Scarlett has baffled audiences for generations and has earned a few passionate fans in the process, turning the film into a minor cult classic. It's an odd film that treads into certain uncomfortable gray areas. To start, Hepburn in the title role plays most of the movie in drag, but the rest of the movie is just as nutty. When Sylvia's father, Henry (Edmund Gwenn), is caught embezzling, the pair of them flee Paris for London, Henry smuggling a batch of silk. Sylvia cuts off her hair and dresses as a boy to lure away suspicion. On the ship over, they meet Jimmy 'Monk' Monkley (Cary Grant), a con man who fingers Henry so that he can slip through customs. Afterward, the trio team up for a life of crime. When a robbery goes awry, they join a maid, Maudie (Dennie Moore), and become show people. After a performance, Sylvia falls for an artist, Michael Fane (Brian Aherne) and Monk falls for the artist's girlfriend, Lily Levetsky (Natalie Paley). Cukor handles these bizarre plot turns with consummate grace, and even when it no longer becomes necessary for Sylvia to keep up her charade, she keeps it going for sheer entertainment value alone. The film ends messily and with a bittersweet tone, but it's the correct ending for a film that feels as if it's very nearly -- but not quite -- out of control. Hepburn pulls off her boyish role surprisingly well; her angular cheekbones and tough manner give her the air of a reckless young man. Grant had yet to achieve his full-fledged "Cary Grant persona" (that would come two years later, in The Awful Truth), but his cockney swagger with its hint of darkness suggests future roles, like Walter Burns (His Girl Friday). At one point, Cukor said this was his personal favorite of his films, mainly because everyone had such a good time working on it.

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