Evelyn Waugh and “Sylvia Scarlett”

The Turner Classic Movies channel will tomorrow broadcast the 1935 George Cukor adaptation of Compton MacKenzie’s 1918 novel The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett. Waugh came close to adapting the screenplay for the film.

According to TCM’s notes for the film:

For years, Cukor had dreamed of filming Compton MacKenzie’s 1918 novel about a female con artist who dresses as a boy to elude customs inspectors. He had proposed the project at MGM, where he was currently under contract, but studio head Louis B. Mayer had turned him down. Then Cukor’s friend Hepburn, who had just scored a hit at RKO with Alice Adams (1935) proposed the film as her next project. The role seemed a natural for her; she had already set tongues wagging as one of the first women in the U.S. to wear trousers in public. Not only did she make a very convincing young man with her hair cut short, but Time Magazine’s reviewer would quip that “Sylvia Scarlett reveals the interesting fact that Katharine Hepburn is better looking as a boy than as a woman.” To play Hepburn’s partner in crime, a Cockney crook named Jimmy Monkley, she suggested Cary Grant, whom she had only recently met through their mutual friend Howard Hughes.

This is the point at which Waugh enters the story. The TCM notes say that “Cukor wanted British novelist Evelyn Waugh to write the screenplay. When that didn’t work out, he turned to John Collier, a noted author of bizarre short stories who had never written a film before.

They don’t explain why the Waugh proposal didn’t work out. The A D Peters Papers at the University of Texas show that Waugh agreed by telegram to Peters, his agent, on 27 April 1935 to write the adaptation. He followed up  the same day with a letter which is paraphrased as follows:

[Waugh] is certain that the Amercans will not be satisfied with his work, but Hollywood is close to the South Seas. G Miller, an American, says that Waugh can ask £200 per week, but Waugh does not believe him. Can leave within seven to ten days but only if absolutely necessary. (R M Davis, Catalogue of Evelyn Waugh Collection, p. 112)

Matters were apparently still pending on 30 April 1935 when Waugh informed Peters that the Americans could find him at the Savile Club and that the G Miller was the source for the salary information. This would suggest that RKO may have choked on the £200 per week asked by Waugh.

The man who got the job, John Collier, discussed his hiring in a 1973 interview with Max Wilk. He says that he was paid $500 per week for 8 weeks, and it was his first job in Hollywood. That would be about half the amount Waugh had asked at the then prevailing exchange rates. Collier explains that his selection:

“…was something of a mistake. Hugh Walpole had told George [Cukor] I’d be right for the job. George thought he was talking about Evelyn Waugh…he was very surprised when I showed up, and I wasn’t Evelyn Waugh.” Max Wilk, Schmucks with Underwoods: Conversations with Hollywood’s classic screenwriters (2004), pp. 128-29.

There is then a break in Waugh’s correspondence in the Peters papers from 1 May until 11 July. By the month after that he was already making arrangements to travel to Ethiopia to cover the expected war.

It may be just as well he didn’t write the script since it might have prevented him from going to Ethiopia and writing Scoop. Moreover, as described in the TCM notes, the scriptwriting was a chaotic process and involved the rescue efforts of two additional scriptwriters. But even those extra efforts failed. According to TCM:

…the preview was like a cold blast of reality. The audience hated the film, hooting and jeering at it. Moreover, when the seductive maid kissed Hepburn, three quarters of the audience walked out. Afterwards, producer Pandro S. Berman was furious. Realizing they had a flop on their hands, Cukor and Hepburn begged him to destroy the film, offering to make another picture in its place for free. But he wasn’t having any of that. He yelled, “I never want to see either of you again,” and stormed out. His threat held true where Cukor was concerned. The director would never work at RKO again. Hepburn still had a contract there, however, though later films would do little to repair the damage done by Sylvia Scarlett. Within a few years, she left Hollywood a failure, branded “box office poison” by exhibitors. Although the film would eventually win a devoted cult audience, it has yet to show a profit on its $1 million budget.

The film’s flop does not appear, however, to have ended John Collier’s career as a screenwriter. Nor did Katherine Hepburn and George Cukor stop making movies.

TCM will air the film tomorrow, Tuesday, 5 May 2020 at 1245p (presumably EDT). The film adaptation is also available on DVD, and the book itself is available in both print and digital editions.


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