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Sylvia Scarlett

The packaging for Warner Home Video's "100th Anniversary Collection" of Katherine Hepburn films describes Sylvia Scarlett (1936) as "her most controversial film." That's a nice way of saying that critics loathed Hepburn as the young con woman dressed as a boy, and that the picture was a box-office failure. Watching the picture today, one would expect to realize that it was simply ahead of its time and that the naysayers were wrong — after all, it's directed by George Cukor, and it was Hepburn's first pairing with Cary Grant. Unfortunately, it really is pretty awful — too broad in every respect, from Grant's ridiculous Cockney accent to the script's sappiest melodramatic elements, the entire picture engages in relentlessly exaggerated hokum, and Hepburn is so over-the-top that it's actually embarrassing to watch her at times. It doesn't help that the characters are both unbelievable and unlikable, a deadly combination. After the death of her French mother, young Sylvia Scarlett (Hepburn) discovers that her English bookkeeper father (Edmund Gwenn) has been embezzling from the lace company that employs him, and he's about to be arrested. He's also, it should be noted, a huge load — a pathetic, mewling loser who has even less skill at thievery than he has ethics. So the pair hop a ship to England, with Sylvia disguised as a boy to throw off the cops. During the voyage they meet a more seasoned crook named Jimmy Monkley (Grant), who takes them under his wing and teaches them the fine art of fleecing the rubes. Love enters the picture when Sylvia falls for an artist (Brian Aherne) who, naturally, believes she's a boy. It's not a terribly well-written picture, but the real fault with Sylvia Scarlett has to lie with Cukor, who appears to have directed his actors to perform as if they're selling vaudeville to the cheap seats. What he was trying to achieve is a mystery — if Cukor was shooting for farce, what he achieved was cornball camp. Only Grant, who was still a fledgling film actor, comes out well, even with the awful accent. Within a few years, Grant and Hepburn would star in three of the greatest film comedies of all time — Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940), the latter two directed by Cukor — but the trio's first outing was a bust. Warner's DVD offers a full-frame transfer (1.33:1) that's very good, fro a source-print that's clean as a whistle with fine contrast. The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio (English with English and French subtitles) is also excellent. Also on board are the travel short "Los Angeles: Wonder City of the West" (8 min.) and the cartoon short "Alias St. Nick" (10 min.). Available only in Warner's "Katharine Hepburn Collection," a six-disc digipak with semi-transparent sleeve.
—Dawn Taylor

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