In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor’s ‘Sylvia Scarlett’

George Cukor’s gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Sylvia Scarlett
George Cukor
RKO Radio Pictures
25 December 1935

A cross-dressing tragicomedy considerably ahead of its time, George Cukor‘s Sylvia Scarlett notoriously flopped at the box office when first released in 1935. Even more than Mary of Scotland (1936) and Bringing Up Baby (1938)—the latter enjoying little initial success beyond urban centers—Sylvia Scarlett was the film that branded Katharine Hepburn box office “poison” (a label rescinded in 1940, following The Philadelphia Story). Preview audiences not only failed to find Cukor’s gender-bending eccentricities amusing, but “walked out in droves”, presumably appalled by the film’s narrative digressions and disorientations. (McGilligan, 127)

The film’s choppy, picaresque structure primarily derives from the nature of Compton Mackenzie’s 1918 source novel, The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett. But Cukor scholars have also perceived in the film’s schismatic structure hints of the director’s closetedness, a theme more clearly embodied by Ronald Colman’s schizophrenic thespian in Cukor’s A Double Life (1947).

Sylvia Scarlett is an unusually transgressive comedy for its era and a special film for Cukor, who never made an “out” queer film, even though he continued to direct features through 1981’s Rich and Famous. As Cukor biographer Patrick McGilligan remarks, “Sylvia Scarlett was unique in the director’s filmography, an offbeat—not to mention brave and experimental—film that was also…a serious personal allegory about sexual awakening.” (ibid., 126).

The film is among the first by a major auteur to ingeniously flout the parameters of the Hays Code, which labeled any deviation from marital heteronormativity a “sex perversion”. It’s sometimes difficult to swallow the argument that Hollywood censorship was inadvertently “constructive”, prompting filmmakers to be inventive in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have been, as Annette Kuhn argued in her 1988 monograph Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality, 1909-1925. Usually, such arguments depend on cherrypicked examples, downplay the simply oppressive nature of censorship, and overstate the ingenuity of filmmakers ensnared in puritanical institutions. Sylvia Scarlett, however, does seem to be a rare case for Kuhn’s argument, as Cukor’s sexual duplicities work simultaneously within and against the Code’s neurotic moralisms.


Film Strip by joseph_alban(Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Cukor-Mackenzie’s “bent” narrative, nearly as disorienting as the labyrinthine structures of Buñuel‘s The Milky Way (1969) or The Phantom of Liberty (1973), was doubtless too modern for the era’s mainstream audiences, as was Katharine Hepburn’s crossdressing heroine, an adventurous sister to her strong-willed aviatrix in Dorothy Arzner‘s Christopher Strong (1932). Hepburn’s charade follows in the Shakespearean tradition of the “temporary” transvestite comedy, in which an enterprising young woman adopts masculine dress to move freely within a patriarchal society. When true identities are discovered, the farce of misrecognition invariably yields the heteronormative pairings expected of festive comedy.

The Elizabethans, of course, managed to keep in check conservative plot designs by having boys play female roles onstage, thus maintaining a subtextual layer of dramatic irony. While Cukor obviously has to play by Hollywood rules, Sylvia Scarlett nevertheless sustains a subversive element through the narrative itself. Even though genders are finally sorted out, the story decides to pair its protagonists with morally incompatible partners—a disorientation arguably more radical than those engendered by crossdressed subterfuge. The film further leavens its romantic farce with intimations of tragedy, revealing a greater kinship with Shakespeare’s “problem” plays (e.g., All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure) than with his brighter festive comedies.

The story begins in Marseilles, as long-braided, maiden-like Sylvia (Hepburn) mourns the death of her mother and consoles her pathetic, alcoholic father (Edmund Gwenn), an embezzling banker. Pursued by angry creditors, the two flee to England, with Sylvia disguised as a boy to throw pursuers off their trail. (The plotting demands a suspension of disbelief: Hepburn, here 28, hardly passes for a late adolescent.) “I won’t be weak, and I won’t be silly,” cries Sylvia, as she scissors off her exaggerated braids. “I’ll be a boy and rough and hard!” she continues, crossing out “Sylvia” on her luggage tag and writing in “Sylvester”.

On a sea voyage to England, she encounters Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant), a Cockney confidence man who proposes that they join forces. Unfortunately, Sylvia/Sylvester’s combination of naiveté and decency continually foils their con jobs, and they instead decide (of all things) to put on a vaudevillian traveling show, the “Pink Pierrots”. Thematically, the vaudeville episode comes across as baffling, and narratively, it seems like an arbitrary detour—though it is slightly less so in the novel, where Mackenzie’s droll prose facilitates transitions smoother than those possible in a 95-minute film. But why should petty swindlers take up vaudeville? Con artistry, which is a performance given in bad faith, has little in common with vaudeville, a performance given in good faith.

In a remarkable bit of amorality, the film nevertheless conflates the two kinds of performance, the faithless and the faithful, suggesting that one can logically flow into the other. Happily extrapolating, we can assume that the film wishes masculinity and femininity likewise interflowed, unguided by conventional morality.

During his clowning debut in a county fairground, “Sylvester” catches the eye of a blue-blooded painter, Michael Fane (Brian Aherne), who takes a private interest in the “lad”. When Sylvia realizes that Fane already has a girlfriend—the arrogant Russian aristocrat Lily—a crushed look flashes across Sylvia’s face, and for the first time we realize the inner pain of her gendered limbo. After Sylvia rushes from Fane’s home, the vagabonding Monkley attempts to soothe her with some misguided advice: “It don’t do [sic] to step out of your class.”

Perhaps unconsciously, Sylvia has, in fact, invested her boyish performance with received class assumptions. As critic Lesley Chow notes, “Sylvia’s notion of “a man [is]…an impulsive, stout-hearted lad—in other words, a ‘type.'” As Sylvester, a more or less Runyonesque scamp, Sylvia collapses scrappy masculinity and itinerant poverty into a body that (according to farcical conventions) must eventually sacrifice performative experimentation to divested “truth”.

We expect that when Sylvia discards this puerile boyishness she will, after requisite tribulations, swiftly mature into a marriageable woman. Yet her “reveal” comes anticlimactically—about two-thirds into the story—and in no way signals maturation or personal evolution. On the contrary, her reveal sends her reeling backwards into confused, infantile despair.

Crossdressed as Sylvester, Sylvia returns to Fane’s house to feign an apology for her abrupt departure the day before. After she enters Fane’s bedroom and they come to an accord, he suggestively exclaims, “I know what it is that gives me a queer feeling when I look at you…there’s something in you to be painted!” We needn’t wrestle with the word “queer” which, in 1935, was only coming into its present meaning and hadn’t yet entered common parlance. But Fane’s choice of prepositions is telling: what’s seductively queer isn’t “about” her but “in” her.

When Fane invites Sylvester to return the next day for a portrait, s/he excitedly reveals her true gender and, by extension, her true romantic feelings. But Sylvia’s revelation only inspires callous derision: “You’re a freak of nature!” Fane laughs. Attempting to apologize, he begins to take advantage of now-girlish Sylvia, who forcibly—that is, boyishly—pushes him away. “Chuck it, I say!” she yells. “I should have stayed as a boy…it’s all I’m fit for.”


Katharine Hepburn as Sylvester and Cary Grant as Jimmy Monkley (IMDB)

As Sylvia continues to behave like Sylvester even after shedding her disguise, the film suggests that Sylvia has internalized Sylvester’s boyishness, her self-conscious performance of masculinity now becoming an unconscious one. Unfortunately, Sylvia soon forgets Sylvester’s rough-and-tumble ways and (re)emerges as a conventional lass pining for a man above her station.

To this point, we had entertained Sylvia-Sylvester as a fascinating dialectical crisis; by contrast, the unconflicted Sylvia is a bore. As Chow remarks, Sylvia’s final “version of ‘woman’ is…sappy, weak, and virtually useless: all the sass has gone.” (ibid.) One recalls Marlene Dietrich’s reported disappointment at the premiere of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). When the tormented, indeterminate monster at last resolves into a humdrum, off-the-rack prince, Dietrich turned to Cocteau and exclaimed, “Where is my beautiful beast?”

That a now-heteronormalized Sylvia longs after blue-blooded Fane seems to suggest that gender concerns have now been subsumed by class concerns. But as we watch the straight love story that ensues, previous scenes of erotic confusion still preoccupy our thoughts. Much as Dietrich clung to her beast, we sorely miss Sylvester, who instantly activated bisexualities latent in those drawn to his androgynous charms.

For example, after Sylvia’s father’s new girlfriend Maudie tells Sylvester, “Your face is as smooth as a girl’s,” she corrects his defect by drawing in a debonair mustache (a “Ronald Colman!”) with her eyebrow pencil. “I wonder what it would be like to kiss someone with a mustache like that!” she exclaims, proceeding to smooch Sylvester full on the mouth. “Don’t you like kissing?” Maudie continues. “It’s high time you had some practice!”

In their travails as traveling minstrels, nightly bedroom arrangements prompt more bisexual ironies. When Sylvester must share a tent with Monkley, the older man seems unusually delighted by the prospect. Undressing, Monkley muses that, in the cold of night, Sylvester will make “a proper little hot water bottle” when cuddled under the covers, a comment that goes well beyond antiquated notions of gentlemanly bed-sharing.

The queer subtext was readily sensed by Hollywood insiders aware of Cukor’s homosexuality and Grant’s rumored (and oft-denied) bisexuality. The subtext—barely veiled, really—impelled protests from the Catholic Legion of Decency, which blanched at the notion of a 30-something man snuggling an apparent adolescent boy, much as Puritans recoiled at transvestism on the Elizabethan stage. According to McGilligan, au courant viewers within Hollywood weren’t terribly sympathetic, finding Cukor’s tone “indulgent” and freighted with artifice. (ibid., 127) Capturing the era’s closeted mood (and preconceptions), Joseph L. Mankiewicz decreed the film “very fey and very wrong”, claiming the characters’ relationships evinced “no contact with humanity at all.” (ibid, 127)

“Fey” is probably an apt description, but a single adjective hardly constitutes substantive criticism. Such a flippant judgment is ironic, coming from Mankiewicz of all people—does the archness of All About Eve (1950) have any semblance to recognizable “humanity”? The question is neither sarcastic nor rhetorical. Arguably, All About Eve is terribly human, if we accept that artifice and artificiality are uniquely human ambitions. If we conditionally associate heightened or deepened human expression with artifice, Sylvia Scarlett is not “very wrong”, as Mankiewicz would have it, but deceptively authentic.

Deliberately defying convention, Sylvia Scarlett‘s final act violates every Hollywood cliché. Two-thirds into the story, Maudie runs off, never to return. As a result, Sylvia’s alcoholic father, at first a comic glutton, suddenly becomes a tragic figure poisoned by jealous delusions. The film’s literally anticlimactic ending—that is, there is no climax at all—refuses to either resolve erotic entanglements or reaffirm expected object choices.

Sylvia romantically commits to the caddish artist Fane, disproving Monkley’s outdated assertion about the mixing of the social classes. It apparently does “do” for Sylvia to step out of her class, much as it does to step into another’s clothes. Meanwhile, Lily (in an odd twist) has run off with Monkley. Upon finding the pair, however, Sylvia and Fane decide to leave the self-absorbed Lily and flippant Monkley to themselves. Yet Sylvia and Fane hardly seem destined for each other; though she’s cast off her trousers, she doesn’t emerge as eminently marriageable, especially in a plot that joins her with the insufferable Fane, whose arrogant elitism good audiences are taught to reject.

A moralistic finalé is deliberately avoided. Monkley spies from his and Lili’s train carriage Fane and Sylvia kissing. The film then cuts back to the train, where Lily remains unaware that Fane has fallen for Sylvia. Seeing that the grinning Monkley knows something she doesn’t, Lili grows irritated and impatient, insisting that she can always return to Fane should Monkley fail to satisfy her. Monkley bursts into uncontrollable laughter while she glares on, appalled and still ignorant.


Katharine Hepburn as Sylvester and Brian Aherne as Michael Fane (IMDB)

In Lily’s eyes, Monkley is merely insensitive, but we know he isn’t really laughing at Lili’s vanity, for he is nearly as vain. Rather, he laughs at the absurdity of romantic conquest and consequence and at his own imprisonment within a capriciously orchestrated plot. Sylvia’s pairing with Fane is likewise absurd. Not a Cinderella in disguise, seeking to escape poverty through marital wealth, Sylvia will surely break with Fane at some point, and their tryst will amount to little more than another picaresque fancy. To put it another way, that Sylvia returns to her “right” gender doesn’t mean she’s discovered the right partner.

Mankiewicz may have thought Cukor’s scenario contrivedly “inhuman”, but it is Sylvia Scarlett‘s picaresque narrative—in which events flow haphazardly and characters come and go—that more realistically reflects the human condition. Reality is chaotic; only fiction is tidy. The linear storylines of Hollywood, inherited from the post-Dickensian novel, are the contrivance that ideally should offend. Behind this stilted linearity is an ideological history of rationalism, positivism, and (fallacious) realism that conforms history to a map of narrowly marching “progress”.

It is no accident that everyone once called avant-garde—Eisenstein, Joyce, Pound, Godard—willfully violated popular expectations of linearity and the dubious forms of intelligibility it generates. (Today, of course, we’re more blasé: narrative nonlinearity generates neither revulsion nor acclaim but only a kind of bored confusion.) No, Sylvia Scarlett isn’t Joyce, but its quaintness disguises its perversities: it disorders narrative by disordering the genders through which narrative conventionally operates and then throws away narrative itself by denying audiences any semblance of climax or closure.

Most surprisingly, the film’s transvestism is mostly amoral, despite the queer possibilities it catalyzes. Traditional—that is, pre-queer—temporary transvestite farces usually propose some lesson for their masqueraders, even if hero(ines) realize only new formulations of gender and not new sexualities. Mainstream films like Sydney Pollack‘s Tootsie (1982) and Chris ColumbusMrs. Doubtfire assert a bogus didacticism, as Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams learn to be better men by experiencing the world though the shells of a female body.

Such mainstream epiphanies, of course, stop far short of queerness. Once disguises come off, crossdressed characters only rebecome themselves, wiser in the conventional politics of gender perhaps, but not erotically enlightened or willing to transgress heteronormative orders. Indeed, the “jokes” of films in the Mrs. Doubtfire mold depend on the very improbability that a crossdressed protagonist will undergo a queer epiphany. Dualistic rather than dialectical, the crossdressed charade merely recuperates characters’ heteronormative futures. Among older transvestite farces, Blake EdwardsVictor/Victoria (1982) is a notable exception, presenting a woman who crossdresses as an effeminate man—partly because Julie Andrews could never pull off being butch, but partly because Edwards was willing to queer the masquerade more than other mainstream directors of the period.

Refreshingly free of any “recuperative” ideology, Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal and winds up with a straight (and insufferable) partner she’ll likely abandon. If male-to-female farces usually subject a privileged man to the consciousness-raising trials of a vicariously—and thus spuriously—feministic awakening, the male-disguised woman rarely learns anything. This is to be expected, for hegemonic masculinity has precious little to teach, save for lessons in caddishness or competitive brutality. The dead-end of female-to-male crossdressing—at least in the standard formulation—acknowledges the obverse face of patriarchy’s ostensible power: the male may automatically hold sway, but his sway holds no automatic wisdom.

Younger audiences might perceive Sylvia Scarlett as a quaint relic, its alleged “subversions” nullified by a queer cinema that has supplanted signs of deception with those of politicized authenticity. Progressive, heroic politics has no use for irony, perhaps rightly so. Future generations will never know the impossible duplicities of the Cukorian closet, and hopefully they can learn to cultivate senses of irony without having to live double lives.

What becomes lost to progress is Katharine Hepburn’s bewitching performance, a kaleidoscope of mercurial pantomime and sly faciality, evoking indeterminacies Sylvia herself does not fully comprehend. The performance is indeed a triumph of human artifice.

Sylvia Scarlett is currently available on Amazon Prime.

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Works Cited

Chow, Lesley. “The Double Standard: The Twins of Two-Faced Woman and Sylvia Scarlett.” Bright Lights Film Journal. 31 January 2008.

Kuhn, Annette. Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality, 1909-1925. Routledge. 1988.

McGilligan, Patrick. George Cukor: A Double Life. Harper Perennial. 1991.