Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor / U.S., 1935):

The "theatrical line" and the "queer feeling," all part of the artiste's palette. The first casualty is conventional Victorian femininity, slashed with scissors as Sylvia (Katharine Hepburn) fashions herself into Sylvester, off with the braided tresses and on with the slanted trilby. From Marseilles to London is a seesawing cruise with father the fugitive embezzler (Edmund Gwenn), Cary Grant as the amoral "gentleman adventurer" materializes on the deck out of the mist in a manner not lost on Visconti (cf. Le Notti Bianche). Masquerades within masquerades: Small-time grifting segues naturally into small-time showbiz, the "three bad eggs" tour the Cornish coast as "The Pink Pierrots," saltimbanques extraordinaire. The heroine's mimicry of masculinity gets kisses from the honking servant girl (Dennie Moore) and the posh vixen (Natalie Paley) along with bewildered attraction from the fatuous Bohemian (Brian Aherne), the sundress she dons to reveal herself to him turns out to be one more disguise. "We professional people can never resists a telling costume!" Sudden shifts are the norm in this moonstruck realm ("Au Clair de la Lune" is a melodic leitmotif), champagne euphoria gives way to a plunge off the seaside cliff—"One sensation after another," that's the George Cukor approach with its frisky tempo and its flavorful swaths of Shakespeare and Leoncavallo. No less the auteur, Hepburn keenly rides the continuous sense of play and confrontationally stretches her persona. (If her incandescent drag gazes back at Garbo, Grant's blithe and boisterous virility looks ahead to Sean Connery.) Gender lines like the performer's painted mustache, not so much a concealment of sexual identity as a reinvention. "Here, here, here. That's not the sort of entertainment we want, is it?" A mercurial pirouette of a film, beautifully unsettled, direly misunderstood at the time by critics but later perfectly understood by directors like Melville (Les Enfants Terribles) and Bergman (The Magician) and Potter (Orlando). Cinematography by Joseph H. August. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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