Friday, September 18, 2020
George Cukor | Sylvia Scarlett
refusing to learn
by Douglas Messerli
Gladys Unger, John Collier, and Mortimer Offner (screenplay, based on the novel The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett by Compton Mackenzie), George Cukor (director) Sylvia Scarlett / 1935
In his 2012 tell-all book, Scotty Bowers—who served for years as Hollywood’s unofficial sexual agent (without taking money for his services) for dozens of stars over several decades—tells the story that at one of George Cukor’s notorious gay-friendly parties, Bowers met Katherine Hepburn, with whom he spoke to at length that afternoon, struck by her intelligence and cocksure attitude. He describes her as appearing with a “severe short haircut, tightly cropped and combed with a boyish side part. She was wearing a suit with trousers and had no makeup on at all. She looked infinitely more masculine than feminine.”
Cukor, one of her favorite directors—she worked with him on ten films—later admits to Bowers that he was often challenged by Hepburn to allow her to dress as she appeared at the party, which her hairdressers, costumers, and make-up artists continual resistance. According to Bowers, Cukor complained that Hepburn “didn’t know how to behave in public.” “It’s not that she’s a dyke. I have no trouble with that. But the studio does. They’ve been pleading with her not to advertise that fact in public but she ignores them.”*
Whether or not one wants to believe Bowers who also claims to have over the years set Hepburn up with many lesbian companions—although I’d suggest that most of the Hollywood figures he names as being gay, lesbian, and sexually indeterminate have by now been substantiated as being so by others—in Hepburn’s case, her friend, gossip columnist Liz Smith and biographer William J. Mann have both confirmed Bowers’ assertions.
My point in mentioning all of this is not to claim the great actor as a being a unsung member of the LGBTQ community, but to simply contextualize her film from 1935, Sylvia Scarlett, in which she most certainly did have the opportunity to wear her hair very much as Bowers describes her wearing it years letter, along with pants, and a look that overall is quite masculine. Indeed, in the film the young female daughter, Sylvia trims away her braids and most of her hair, combs it into a mannish style and dons male attire to become a boy she names Sylvester so that she might join her criminal father, Henry (Edmund Gwenn), in his escape from their home in Paris to his native England.
The events that befall them, both on the boat over and their early adventures with a con-man they meet on the boat, Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant) are not of terrible importance. The one event that suggests some of the innuendos that are to follow is when the always scheming Henry, falling in almost immediately with Jimmy—a name, incidentally, which Hepburn called herself as a tomboy growing up in Connecticut)—reveals to him that he has lace wound around his chest as if it were a corset. Although we already know that he is planning to sneak this lace, stolen from his last job, through customs, his sudden decision to unbutton the bottom of his shirt to reveal that he is wearing the lace corset, might at first suggest to anyone other than the criminally experienced Jimmy that his new acquaintance loves to wear the common feminine item used for trimming dresses and in underwear apparel the way that film director Ed Wood loved to wear angora sweaters under his shirts.
But Jimmy is wise to it all and, in fact, reports Henry to the customs’ officers so that he may get through the line unchecked with an illegal container of jewels. Once Henry and his new-born “son” are freed from being retained at the customs office, Jimmy repays the price Henry expected to see from its sale, along with the fine he has had to pay. And with that Jimmy has suddenly acquired two new partners in crime.
Their criminal attempts, however, are stymied by the good intentions and open generosity of Sylvester, who, for example, when they attempt to con a maid Jimmy knows, Maudie (the comedienne Dennie Moore) of her mistresses’ pearls, ends with Sylvester demanding they give them back so that she won’t lose her job.
Frustrated with the young boy’s behavior, the three, along with Maudie decide upon Sylvester’s suggestion to take to the road as traveling performers with the queer-laden moniker of The Pink Pierrots. Singing and dancing are not their forte, and their first audience’s reaction, led by a handsome local well-to-do painter, Michael Fane (Brian Aherne), results mostly in laughter, for which the always impetuous Sylvester takes them to task.
Yet even if they have little talent and seem to take in no money on this “caper,” everyone seems to be vaguely happy once they have moved from the city into the country, the pattern of many a pastoral fable which Cukor’s film promises to become. Henry, having fallen for Maudie, takes up house with her in one of the caravans, leaving Jimmy and Sylvester to other—much to the inner Sylvia’s understandable dismay.
Accordingly, for a few moments at least this movie settles into a lovely tale of sexual indeterminacy, as Maudie, taking the young boy under her wing, asks him about his whiskers, helping him to imagine his own oncoming puberty by using an eye-liner to draw a Ronald Coleman-like mustache over his lips. Always ready for a fling with anyone in pants, Maudie suddenly hugs Sylvester and plants a big kiss on his lips, again making the crossdresser fairly uncomfortable.
Almost before he can escape from Maudie’s sexual embraces, however, Sylvester must face bedding down with Jimmy, who seems to love the idea of having the boy join him under the covers, as he strips down to the waist, commenting “You’ll make a proper hot water bottle”—yet another incidence of screenwriters hinting to their audiences of Grant’s sexual preferences off screen.
Later, Michael not only repeats his fascination but imagines that his fascination with what his mistress, Lily, has described as “such a pretty boy, has something to do with his own art, which apparently does not simply include applying paint to canvas but seducing those who sit for him: “I know what it is that gives me a queer feeling when I look at you . . . There’s something in you to be painted.”
Time went so far as to insist that the film “reveals the interesting fact that Katharine Hepburn is better looking as a boy than as a woman.”
Although this might have been meant as an absolute put down of the actor and the film in general, their comment demonstrates that if Cukor and his writers had been able to continue to amble down this lane instead of veering off to the road laid out by the Hays Code and studio notions of what the general public should be allowed to see, they might have created an absolutely splendid movie.
But before you can even blink, the former feisty Sylvester, who has immediately fallen in love with her would-be Pygmalion, steals a woman swimmer’s summer frock and appears for her sitting with Michael as Sylvia, the woman underneath her more fascinating previous persona.
Michael, in relief for his inexplicable attraction to a boy, now laughs it off and, as any male assured of his dominance might, proceeds to tell his new-born woman how to attract the opposite sex. When Lily, who has stomped out of the party the night before after being slapped in the face by Sylvester for abusing his drunken father, gets a look at her lover’s new guest, realizes that she too has been “tricked,” now kisses the girl in a fake-show of feminine bonding. Perceiving finally that now even as a pretty young woman she is once again being humiliated by both Michael and his Russian lover, Sylvia returns to the little circus she has helped to create, perhaps even regretting her attempt to enter the heterosexual world.
In this world also—as Maudie runs away with another man from the love-stricken Henry, who on a stormy night goes in search of her to bring her back—women are punished for the very frailties that the men so admire. In this instance, however, it is Sylvia’s father who is destroyed in the process, falling to his death in the dark from a nearby cliff.
There are now only the two, Jimmy and Sylvia left, and Jimmy, seemingly just as attracted to her in her new costume as before—probably realizing that she might serve as good of a hot-water bottle—suggests they move on together as a duo. Jimmy’s offer of their pairing quickly leads her to openly note, as she might equally have to Michael’s attempt to mansplain her own sexuality, “You’ve got the mind of a pig.”
“It’s a pig’s world,” he immediately responds.
Indeed, in a world dominated by men such as Michael and Jimmy, it is. Hearing the cry of a drowning woman calling out for Michael to save her, Sylvia (and the movie itself) quickly zigzags back into Sylvester mode, as the Hepburn character throws off her female shoes and athletically jumps into the roiling waters to save Lily, who she presumes has attempted suicide over her and Michael’s rocky relationship.
As soon as the reborn Sylvester has deposited her former rival into a bed in the remaining caravan, returning to life as Sylvia, she runs off to report the event to Michael, who jumps into his car with her in tow to redeem his actions. But when they arrive at the camp they see the caravan has disappeared. The true opportunists, Jimmy and Lily, have run off together, and the chase is on, pausing only for a few moments at a fork in the road, where Michael explores the terrain to the right and Sylvia the route to the left. There, she, temporarily at least, toggles her way back to gender confusion which had once made this movie so interesting—but now simply serves as source of confusion—when the very first person she encounters just happens to be the bather from whom she had stolen the dress.
Now forcibly re-attired in male dress again, the now thoroughly torn Sylvia/Sylvester goes speeding away with Michael, this time with the mad Sylvester at the wheel—since Sylvia has accidently slammed her fellow traveler’s fingers in the door—each of them apparently attempting to return the other to his/her proper heterosexual partner.
Michael is certain that Lily will insist upon returning with her new lover to Paris, so the traveling detectives follow. On the train that is destined to speed Sylvia/Sylvester back to home country, she spots the fleeing villains but refuses to tell Michael of her discovery. A few moments later, he witnesses them together in the dining car, also keeping the truth from his friend.
Recognizing that perhaps it no longer matters whether or not it is Sylvia he loves or her inner Sylvester, he pulls the train’s emergency chord, halting their voyage just long enough so that they can slip back into nature and return to the place from where they started—he hopefully no longer needing to explain to her about how to become a woman and she without the need to even identify her gender.
In this “happy” yet more traditional ending, however, we still know that something important is missing, namely the earlier mystery behind their sexual beings and desires that had so electrified them. And the future, given the society which they must now embrace, looks fairly bleak.
It is no wonder that audiences of the day were confounded by this film, which lost over $363,000, an astounding amount in those early Depression years. Cukor never worked with the film’s studio, RKO again, and Hepburn henceforth was described as “box office poison” until she made the very heterosexual movie with Cukor at MGM, The Philadelphia Story for which she had purchased the rights.
We now might better comprehend why Cukor would describe Hepburn to Bowers, soon after that successful movie’s release, as a person who “doesn’t know how to behave in public.” It seems that she was still Sylvester instead of being Tracy Lord.
*Bowers also quotes Spencer Tracy as insisting that the stories about his and Hepburn’s secret love affair were all a product of the studio publicity department, and he resented the fact that, at times, Hepburn seemed to really believe it, wishing that she might just leave him alone.
Los Angeles, September 18, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema (September 2020).