Sep 22, 2017
DVD Review: Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Undercurrent (1946)
A new wave of Katharine Hepburn flicks recently released on DVD from Warner Archive drew me to a pair of titles that, while not among her most celebrated, were of interest to me because of their unusual quirks. Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Undercurrent (1946) vary in critical, box office and artistic success, but it is worth shining a light on both of these underseen films.
Sylvia Scarlett was a critical and box office bomb upon its release and time has not revealed that response to be unjust. It is a Hepburn picture by billing, but it is perhaps most notable for being the film where Cary Grant's persona truly began to take shape. Kate plays the daughter of an embezzler and thief (Edmund Gwenn) who must masquerade as the teenage Sylvester in order to escape the authorities with her father. They meet grifter Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant) in their travels and team up with him to attempt to make a living without stooping to work.
Hepburn is handsome, but profoundly irritating as a boy and the action zig zags in an erratic way, sort of moving forward, sort of getting nowhere, but it is all so bizarre that you can't look away. Fluffy-haired Brian Aherne is appealing as Michael Fane a cheerful artist who is drawn to Sylvia, but doesn't quite understand what he sees in this handsome young boy. His confusion and the female advances "Sylvester" must manage are among the most interesting elements of the film.
While homosexuality was seen as repellant, even deviant at the time, the characters here don't seem overly concerned when they touch upon it. It makes you wonder if there were a few closeted souls in the audience who took this as a positive bit of representation. Sylvia is repulsed,but not too scandalized by the prospect of gay eroticism, but the lady who attempts the seduction seems mostly amused by her mistake. Michael is not only less tortured, but a bit intrigued.
Romantic maneuverings aside, it is Cary Grant's transformation from handsome mannequin to sexy devil that distinguishes the film. While his lame Cockney accent hits the ears with a splat, his charm makes up for much of that awkwardness. This is the true screen debut of the debonair, mischievous and dangerously flirtatious Grant that would become a legend even outside of his own understanding.
In the more critically and financially successful romantic noir Undercurrent, Hepburn is Ann Hamilton, a wealthy socialite approaching middle age, who unexpectedly veers into marriage with handsome businessman Alan Garroway. Perplexed by his reluctance to discuss his brother Michael (Robert Mitchum), who seems to have disappeared due to some kind of disgrace, she tries to learn more about this scorned sibling. In the process she finds herself drawn to this figure of mystery, at least partly because he is so elusive, but also because he seems to perfectly fit her sensibilities.
I love the idea of falling in love with someone you've never seen and director Vincent Minnelli creates a dreamy feeling of romance even though the prospective lovers are not acquainted for much of the film. That mood is so intense that when Alan becomes jealous of his wife's obsession, the change in tone feels like a brutal intrusion.
Undercurrent is ultimately an odd film, because the leads are brilliantly cast, but they don't quite fit together. Mitchum perfectly fits the image of Michael that Ann has created, but Hepburn is not a good fit for him. They are discordant in temperament onscreen and apparently were in real life as well, where she seemed to think he was a no-talent skating by on his looks. It's an odd situation where she is not well cast opposite her love interest, but she also fits her role quite well. It is the same for Taylor, who is dangerously seductive, but not believable as a man obsessed with Hepburn. In a way, that lack of cohesion adds intrigue to the film, because it creates an imbalance that keeps you slightly on edge.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.