Hepburn Dabbles with Sylvia Sylvester
When "Sylvia Scarlett" was released way back in 1935 it was the first of 4 movies which Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant made together but was more notable for being a flop. The public didn't get and to be honest I can see why because I just didn't really get it either. The trouble is that "Sylvia Scarlett" sounds like it is just going to be a fun comedy which sees Hepburn pretending to be a boy and as such having all the obvious issues which befall such a storyline, including romantic issues. But Hepburn's masquerading as a boy ends up playing second fiddle to various other stories such as various cons which Cary Grant's Jimmy Monkley comes up with and as such it becomes something you're not expecting.
Having gambled away not only his money but also his clients, widower Henry Scarlett (Edmund Gwenn - The Trouble with Harry) plans to abscond from France to the UK and his daughter Sylvia (Katharine Hepburn - On Golden Pond) is going with him, except she cuts off her long hair, dresses like a man and calls herself Sylvester to make their detection harder. Along the way they make friend with con man Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant - Father Goose) and embark on a short career of crime before deciding to enlist the help of the flirty Maud, who Henry falls for, and become travelling performers. Whilst they do this the only one who knows that Sylvester is really Sylvia is Henry but cracks begin to show when she meets the handsome Michael Fane (Brian Aherne) and falls for him whilst of course he thinks that she is a he.
So as already mentioned on first look "Sylvia Scarlett" feels like it should be a comedy about Katherine Hepburn pretending to be a young man. The initial scenes which sees Sylvia chopping her hair off to become Sylvester so that she can join her father as he legs it from France sets this up nicely and there is some nice comedy on the journey with Hepburn acting blokish. If "Sylvia Scarlett" had just focussed on delivering the humour of this it would have been good fun if a little obvious but for some reason this side of the story ends up playing second fiddle to other things.
What this means is we get some comedy of Jimmy along with Sylvester and Henry trying to pull various cons before then joining up with flirty maid Maud and becoming performers. It's basically not what you are expecting as we have romantic issues such as Henry falling for Maud and getting drunk too often. The element of Hepburn pretending to be a man is still present and there is some comedy of her not only trying to hide her femininity from both Jimmy and Maud but also falling for artists Michael. But it just seems almost unsure what it wants to be about, a movie about Hepburn being a man or this group of con artists becoming performers.
Thankfully the focus does return on Hepburn masquerading as a man for the final third as the truth becomes known and it leads to a pleasant if slightly long series of screwball comedy scenes as we have a chase sequence. But whilst the focus does return on this it also feels quite strange when a darker element is introduced surrounding Henry's affections towards Maud. It almost feels like someone had this idea for a fun movie which saw Hepburn masquerading as a man, which had a touch of risque about it but decided to water it down with another storyline but in doing so gave it an almost split personality.
Because of this sense of being unfocussed and with a split personality the performances also feel a little strange. Katharine Hepburn is good fun when delivering the comedy of masquerading as a young man but then the minute the story focussed on other things she seems to become lost. The same can be said of Edmund Gwenn as her father Henry but in reverse as when the story focussed on Sylvia being Sylvester he seems at a loss but then when it focuses on him becoming Jimmy Monkley's hustling partner in crime he bounces to life. The only consistent performance through out comes from Cary Grant as Jimmy delivering scene after scene of comedy especially of the romantic variety and in many ways it was "Sylvia Scarlett" which would lead to Grant becoming one of the biggest romantic comedy stars in cinema's history.
What this all boils down to is that whilst "Sylvia Scarlett" is a fun movie it also feels like a confused movie delivering something different to what you expect. When it focuses on the comedy of Katharine Hepburn pretending to be a man it is good fun but then when it focuses on other stories and the darker story of her father's relationship with the flirty Maud it just feels wrong.