Subversion In The Dream Factory

Strong Women And Other Crazy Ideas in Katherine Hepburn's "Sylvia Scarlett"


Hollywood is too money-driven an industry to be radical. Large investment means there’s an expectation of larger financial returns; and those are guaranteed, so the wisdom goes, by giving the audience “what they want.” Or what they are presumed to want, since a business with enough cash to bankroll a film has no more insight into the minds, the real minds, of the cinema-going, dvd-watching public than a booster for political change. That’s why we get “surprise hits.” A producer takes a chance on something slightly different, or a low budget movie gets good distribution, and the public everybody has been talking on behalf of picks the movie up and runs with it.

Representations of gender and sexuality have always been a problem in the mainstream, give-me-your-money cinema. Hollywood in its pursuit of the buck and its fear of causing offence to the “ordinary movie goer” tends to reflect the cultural consensus of the times; and at no time, really, have strong women or homosexuality been socially acceptable, much less a subject to bring to the dinner table. Some argue that this is beginning to change. My view is that the representations of homosexuality, which began to have occasional screen currency in metropolitan movies in the 80s, are still as clichéd as they are well-intentioned. Strong women in mainstream cinema continue to be so rare we tell all our friends when we’ve seen one. They’re like the first cuckoo of Spring, and I use the cuckoo advisedly, since it isn’t their own nest these strong women are sitting in.

Given the rarity of these positive images of women and homosexuality in 2013, then, I was quite staggered last night to watch a movie made 77 years ago which features heavy doses of one and daring, almost Shakespearean investigations of the other. The movie Sylvia Scarlett was no underground curiosity or foreign import either; it was a star vehicle for two of Hollywood’s hottest actors, Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and director George Cukor was a stalwart of the studio system, already known by that time for film adaptations of David Copperfield and Romeo and Juliet. He was hardly a radical tubthumper.

Based on a novel by Compton Mackenzie, Sylvia Scarlett was a fantastic flop in its time, grossing nearly $250,000 less than it cost to make. And it’s not hard to see why. When audiences were used to Fred and Ginger, or Gable and Lombard, in tales where good and bad were usually well defined if the polarities were evident at all (not much wickedness in You Were Never Lovelier), a movie in which all three heroes are con artists would have been puzzling enough; watching the central female dress up as a boy for most of the film must have made the miniscule number of people who saw it feel they had been the victim of some sort of elaborate, distasteful trick.

The subversions of the film don’t stop there either. After Hepburn, her father and Cary Grant (letting down the whole project with the worst lor’-luv-a-duck London accent in cinema history), decide to give up their life of petty crime and go on the road in a travelling show, their new partner Maudie (Dennie Moore), in a distinctly homoerotic scene, draws a Ronald Coleman moustache on the disguised Hepburn and then kisses her. And later artist Michael Fane (Brian Aherne), before he learns that Hepburn is a woman, tells her that she provokes a mysterious interest in him. It’s Twelfth Night replayed for Hollywood in an era that Shakespeare would have found morally suffocating. Unwitting and unacknowledged homosexuality as heavy in the air as impending rain.

Oh, and then, then, the coup-de-grace. Aherne fails to return the love of his Russian suitor and she tries to drown herself. Who dives into the storm-racked sea to rescue her? Hepburn, before Cary Grant has even got his boots on. And although she has fallen for Aherne herself, she realises the suitor’s love is greater; so she appeals to Aherne to come to the Russian’s bedside and show her compassion. Sacrifice or sisterhood? or both? I confess I don’t know; but her refusal to make an enemy of the competition seemed an enlightened act to me – she looked into the other woman’s heart and saw something there that she recognised.

And so they rush to the camp where the travelling show has parked its caravans; but Cary Grant, still the grifter, has taken the woman away to exploit her devastation at the loss of Aherne and make her his own. She is wealthy. In his unreformed, unsentimental mind there is nothing else to do. There follows a chase, a high speed chase (or as high a speed as a 1936 jalopy could muster), and when Aherne gets his hand caught in the car door Hepburn takes the wheel; once again woman becomes rescuer, careening down country roads – alas, she’s not a terrifically good driver, but she drives. And then, in a twist of the plot which reinforces all of the complex ideas about gender and sexuality that the film explores, Hepburn is forced to remove the dress she has stolen to reveal herself to Aherne as a woman and return to the rough suit and flat cap she has worn as her disguise. As two men, they get into a fight with a policeman. As two men, they share a cell for the night, never letting on to those who’ve locked them up because Aherne doesn’t want them to be separated.

Propriety is restored for the final, inevitable romantic clinch. For that Hepburn is in an elegant long black coat, although obviously her close-cropped hair remains. They have had an inordinate amount of time to buy the coat given that when the chase resumes, they find themselves on the same train as Cary Grant; apparenty a lead of at least 12 hours on his pursuers wasn’t enough of an advantage for Grant. But that’s fine; Shakespeare usually restored propriety too – it’s the messing with it in the first place that’s interesting. Morality, however, is left decidedly skewed here. The wealthy Russian isn’t warned of Grant’s ill intentions by Aherne and Hepburn; that was their intention, but once Kate has Aherne’s confession of love she drops any feelings of sisterhood she has . . . the new couple just pull the train’s emergency chord and run off into the night, while Grant in his compartment watches them from the window and laughs boyishly. It’s a weird, weird ending, but it’s great. Neat moral resolutions may make us feel good in movies, but they bear little resemblance to the world we find when we come out of the darkness of the cinema and walk like blind hamsters into the light.

Katherine Hepburn was never an archetypal Hollywood star. She didn’t look like one, and she definitely didn’t think like one. Others may have been intelligent, but Hepburn didn’t care who knew it; and the simple irrefutability of her assertion that she could, indeed, match any of your asses in anything caused even stupid reactionary men (John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn) to stand back and let her do her thing. Sylvia Scarlett is one of many examples. Films where she carries you along with her like a wave and as Holden Caulfield says about good writers in The Catcher in the Rye, you wish you’d been able to call her up and invite her round for dinner after you watch it. But it’s more than just a tour-de-force performance by one of Hollywood’s great actors, in her physical prime. It’s a movie of ideas and investigations, a movie about women and men, hetero- and homosexuality, even servant and server (which ties in with the gender theme) – all three con artists are poor, and when Maudie comes into their circle she is, literally, in service, to a rich family we never see.

In the sense that it’s a movie of ideas, I could be glib and say, not surprising it tanked so spectacularly then. But that would be arrogant, and probably bullshit too. I know how things work. A movie’s success depends on reviews, distribution and advertising even before footfall becomes a consideration;  all of those are part of the large patriarchal machine of the entertainment industry. To what extent did the men who ran the system support a movie so filled with ideas that challenged the world as they constructed it, the world they profited from so nicely? Not a hell of a lot, I would imagine (with informed confidence).

Still, quality, common sense and Katherine Hepburn have had their final revenge, as anyone who can find the movie now will tell you.