Sylvia Scarlett (Katharine Hepburn) has been placed in a difficult position by the deeds of her father Henry (Edmund Gwenn), for he has been embezzling at the lace company where he works as an accountant and has recently been found out. On breaking the news, he has another bombshell: he is leaving Marseilles and going to England with a good few yards of stolen lace he plans to smuggle into the country, and he's not taking Sylvia with him. She protests, but he explains they would be too conspicuous, so the young woman arrives quickly at a solution, which is dressing as Henry's son Sylvester. What could possibly go wrong?
How about a box office flop of such dramatic proportions that it nearly scuppered the screen career of Hepburn and her director George Cukor? However, while back in the thirties this was lambasted as a complete disaster, a strange thing occurred around the sixties when the hip young things were seeking subversive entertainments to latch onto, and along with the more modern for the time counterculture movies, a liking for certain old time movies began to establish itself, with Sylvia Scarlett being one of them. That was down to the whole gender confusion of the plot, which could either be viewed as unconsious camp, or a clue to what the filmmakers were really thinking.
Certainly Cukor was gay, but Hepburn wasn't, and neither of them had any good things to say about this film even when it was reclaimed by its cult following all those years later. They were baffled that anyone could find anything of worth in what they regarded as one of the major embarrassments of their careers, and watching it now yes, there were all sorts of undercurrents that they may or may not have acknowledged, but on the surface it was a shrill, top of the voice melodrama when it wasn't being a foolish comedy. It was as if the filmmakers could not settle on the right tone, with the result that they flitted from one to another, leaving a mishmash of moods, none of which gelled.
This was based on a novel by Compton MacKenzie, best known for writing Ealing favourite Whisky Galore, here adapted by three writers, one of whom interestingly was John Collier who would soon become renowned for his eccentrically humorous, twist in the tale horror stories. In spite of the talent before and behind the camera, Sylvia Scarlett lurched from scene to scene with the sense that nobody really knew how to approach the material, leaving the cast flailing as they resorted to barking out their lines and roughly manhandling one another, ostensibly to show how they didn't realise Sylvester wasn't all he seemed. Cary Grant was the conman the Scarletts met on the boat to England, and his bumptious performance was surprisingly unendearing.
This was Cary Grant were were talking about, and knowing how suave and adept at comedy he could be it's strange to see him pitch the reading of his role so off-key. Yet it was this very awkwardness, as if you were watching an amateur cast struggling with something beyond their means, which made for such curious and compelling viewing, especially as the theme of the movie was how difficult it is to sustain a deception, and by that reasoning how tricky this whole acting thing could be if you wanted to be convincing. Very appropriate for a time when homosexuality was illegal, and there were a good few moments here where Sylvia was calling not only her own sexuality but the other characters' into question as well. Love interest Brian Aherne had the famous line about getting a "queer feeling" when he looked at Sylvia in drag, and she is almost seduced by another woman who is oblivious to her actual identity, so you could see where the camp appeal stemmed from, but really this was so all over the place it was a dog's breakfast of a movie.