Of the four movies Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant made together, none is as flat-out bizarre as the first, 1936’s Sylvia Scarlett. This George Cukor oddity is a high-spirited, sexually adventurous picnic of a movie: Hepburn disguises herself as a teenage boy and tramps around rural England putting on shows with con man Grant. The plot is ramshackle and the tone schizophrenic. One minute the leads are leaping about in clown outfits as ”The Pink Pierrots” (really), the next minute Hepburn’s alcoholic/insane father (Edmund Gwenn) is jumping off a cliff in jealous delirium.
This is truly weird, but charmingly so — and Hepburn in drag carries a surprising erotic charge. Cukor once said Sylvia Scarlett was his favorite film ”because we were all so happy while making it.” That shows, but it’s not surprising that this unorthodox film was a flop when first released (nor that it had a cult comeback in the sexually liberated ’60s).
Viewed 55 years after its production, Sylvia Scarlett’s only mistake seems to be in having Hepburn and Grant wind up with other partners. These two were the perfectly matched image of intelligent glamour — if anything, Grant suited Hepburn on film better than Spencer Tracy did. Luckily, the great Hepburn-Grant films that followed — Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, and the peerless Bringing Up Baby — didn’t make the same mistake. B