Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

When you have both the main lead as well as the director reportedly begging the studio to not to release the movie and offer in exchange to make a new one for free, you know you’re in for something truly special. It is not hyperbole to say that it is absolutely astounding just how bad Sylvia Scarlett is. I know what you’re thinking. “Well how bad could it possibly be? It has Cary Grant and Kathryn Hepburn in it!” Trust me, the quality of the movie is horrendous and neither of them make it worth viewing, unlike you like watching slow moving train wreck. Cary Grant has one of the worst Cockney accents I’ve ever heard and the script is so terrible even Hepburn can’t make it good. To shed some light on how awful this movie is, Kathryn Hepburn’s acting career was almost over after the movie completely bombed at the box office. You could call it a small miracle that she was even able to recover from being associated with this movie, that’s how big of a box office poison this picture was 80 years ago.The movie even ended up being one of the biggest flops of the entire decade. The only positive thing you could possibly say about this movie is that Kathryn actually looks remarkably convincing as a boy. I honestly wasn’t expecting such a good job for the make up, and the play on gender roles in itself can be said to probably a bit head of its time.

To say the movie makes little sense would still be too generous. It simply is beyond human comprehension. The story jumps through so many mental hoops that even Jesse Owens would have found it hard to keep up with the pace. It’s easier to just show what I meant, rather than trying to explain it, so here we go: the movie starts out simple enough, Kathryn Hepburn’s father is about to get arrested in France, so he and Kathryn decide to run away together to England. How do they accomplish this? Well Kathryn decides to cut her hair and disguise herself as a boy, which the movie claims, will help her father to get through customs because they’d be looking for a man and a girl traveling together, not a father and son. Um, what? Wouldn’t they primarily be looking for a man who fits the description of Kathryn’s father? And wouldn’t it make more sense to disguise her father? Apparently not. Anyway, once in England, they hook up with “an adventurer” Cary Grant, and as a trio begin a career as unsuccessful scam artists, with Kathryn still in disguise and Grant being completely oblivious to the fact, for whatever reason. Alas, crime simply does not seem to put much money on the table so after a few failed scams, out of the blue, the three of them decide it’d be a brilliant idea to change jobs and become a traveling sideshow instead, where they could make money, I kid you not, by singing and dancing. How they can suddenly finance this change in profession, when they were practically broke, is anyone’s guess. In the next scene they already are traveling on a caravan and own show costumes, piano, etc. for their act. To make things weirder, Maudie the maid, the final victim that Kathryn and co. attempted to scam before their career change, has also joined their colorful troupe. This is worth noting only because she basically not soon after she just gets written out of the movie, making her joining them main trio a completely pointless addition.

Now, at this point, the movie in a bizarre twist decides it wants to be romance story, so Kathryn falls in love with a local artist (played by Brian Aherne) who they meet while doing their song and dance number.  She’s still disguised as a boy, which results in very awkward and unfunny moments where Kathryn fails to inform Aherne that she’s actually a girl, while Aherne keeps going on about how he feels weirdly attracted her, the  boy he has only just met. To complicate the story even further, when Kathryn finally finds the courage to tell the truth and Brian embraces her, it takes not longer than couple of minutes before Natalie Paley’s character turns the situation into a love triangle. And if things weren’t convoluted enough, immediately afterwards from Kathryn basically losing Aherne to Natalie Paley’s sensual Russian character, we have Cary Grant become Hepburn’s new love interest (after he discovers the truth about her gender), only for Grant to dump her five seconds later so he can run away with Natalie Paley’s character. That’s right. Grant and Paley elope together in a heat of passion,  leaving behind both Aherne and Hepburn. The movie now builds a frantic “climax” by Hepburn and Aherne chasing after their eloped beaus on a car, and leads to one of the most anti-climactic and abrupt endings I’ve seen in a long while  when Aherne and Hepburn take a train and both to realize (separately but simultaneously) at the last minute that actually, they love each other rather than the people they had been chasing. While their ex-lovers are just across the aisle. And then the movie just ends by Hepburn and Aherne jumping off the train. The End.

Adding to this, my favorite bit of insanity with the story must be when Hepburn’s father, out of the blue, just get killed, right after Maudie the maid has vanished from the story, as if the writers just one day realized they were not contributing anything to the plot, so off they go. And what makes this even better, is that Hepburn basically mourns her father maybe two minutes in total, before she’s too busy being in love again and her father’s demise is entirely forgotten. Ludicrous, isn’t it? It’s completely nonsensical melodrama where plot elements get introduced and dropped in a moments notice.


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