This is my contribution to the Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, organised by Margaret Perry. Please do visit and take a look at the other posts!
On paper, it ought to have been so good. A great director, John Ford, a great star, Katharine Hepburn, and a legendary story of rivalry between two queens. Yet somehow on the screen this historical spectacular doesn’t live up to its pedigree. It’s a slow and often boring film, despite its atmospheric, shadowy lighting, lavish art direction and evocative score by Nathaniel Shilkret, featuring snatches from many Scottish folk songs. There are some memorable patches, but the film as a whole doesn’t live up to its best scenes.
Ford famously “printed the legend” rather than worrying about historical accuracy, and that’s certainly the case here. The film turns Mary into a tragic heroine and her controversial relationship with Bothwell, played by Frederic March, into a picturesque romance. Of course, biopics and historical dramas always reshape events, and this one does that shaping from a pro-Stuart, anti-Tudor angle, editing out facts and speculation which work against its chosen story. Many dramas taking Elizabeth as the heroine have done just the opposite.
While the film’s main focus is on the doomed, romantic figure of Mary, Elizabeth also plays a major role, with the drama constantly cutting between the Scottish and English courts. A contrast is drawn between the wildness of Scotland and the more sophisticated court of Elizabeth, played by Florence Eldridge, who was married to March. Large, wild-looking dogs stalk around the Scottish court, howling at the start and end of some scenes – whereas in the English scenes Elizabeth strokes a pampered lap dog. This difference of backdrops brings out the difference between the two queens, with Mary frequently seen outdoors, and seeming to embrace the untamed landscape through her love for Bothwell, while Elizabeth’s world is mainly one of grand interiors.
On the face of it, Mary should be a great role for Hepburn, as a woman striving to rule a nation and control a group of warring chieftains. She does give a powerful and mercurial performance – and it’s interesting to see her playing someone so changeable, who is determined one minute, uncertain the next. The idea of being torn between her role as a queen and her love for a man is reductive. Elizabeth is a strong ruler because she crushes her femininity, Mary is a weak ruler but a “truer woman” because she falls in love and is a mother. But Hepburn’s performance goes beyond the script’s clichés and gives Mary a multi-layered changeability which is interesting to watch. The many close-ups mean there is a focus on her changing expressions, including scenes where she has tears in her eyes. She turns Mary’s very inconsistency into her key quality.
Eldridge has less screen time, but looks startlingly like portraits of the real Elizabeth, and also gives an excellent performance. A layer of ice is always there as she flirts with her courtiers, yet keeps the upper hand. Bette Davis was originally in line for the part, and would doubtless have brought more fire than ice, as she does in the two films where she did play Elizabeth. Ginger Rogers also wanted the role, and it would have been fascinating to see her cast in such a different part for her, but it’s hard to imagine her bringing the coldness and calculation that Eldridge gives to the role.
The film was adapted from a successful stage play by Maxwell Anderson, which was in blank verse – but, when it was brought to the screen, the poetry was jettisoned for new dialogue by Dudley Nichols. Inevitably, though, taking away the verse also changed the characterisation, as seen whenever people try to “translate” Shakespeare into modern speech, rather than just using modern dress. Here, the resulting dialogue feels rather clumsy and clichéd, and is one of the film’s main problems.
Originally, Hepburn hoped that George Cukor would direct the film, but the studio, RKO, decided otherwise and brought in Ford. Bearing out his label as “woman’s director”, Cukor made many films with powerful central performances by women and would have seemed like a perfect choice here. Having said that, Ford could have been a good fit for this film too. “My name’s John Ford, I make Westerns,” was never the full story. He also made many other types of film over his long career, often with good roles for women. Westerns are historical dramas in themselves, and at times there’s a flavour of the West in this film’s feeling for its open spaces, with many darkly atmospheric scenes of Scottish countryside, castles, and people riding horses in and out of scenes.
At the start of the film, Mary arrives in Scotland and takes power from her illegitimate half-brother, Moray (Ian Keith) who resents her. She soon marries the “weakling” Darnley because he strengthens her claim to the English throne. Historical dramas offered an opportunity to smuggle in material banned by the code, such as the portrayal of Darnley’s sexual ambiguity here. Actor Douglas Walton wears earrings and make-up, and there is even a line where he is described as a “wench”. Although we are clearly not supposed to warm to Darnley, Walton’s performance as a mocking drunk commenting on the rest of the cast ends up being one of the most memorable elements of the film.
Other powerful scenes come in Mary’s battles with firebrand preacher John Knox (Moroni Olsen), whose angry rants give the young queen a cue to stand up for herself and fight her own corner, and the murder of her secretary, Rizzio (John Carradine). However, the most memorable conflict of all is the fictional confrontation between the two queens, who famously never met in real life during the long years that Mary spent imprisoned in a succession of English castles.
By contrast with these warring relationships, the romance between Hepburn and March doesn’t work as well as it should. One problem is March’s attempt at a Scottish accent – thank goodness Hepburn stuck to her own voice. Maybe partly because of the dodgy accent, though the script is obviously to blame too, this heroic version of Bothwell isn’t very convincing . The romance develops too abruptly and it’s hard to see any very good reason why Mary should warm to this blustering character, who always seems to be striking attitudes, apart from the fact that he’s played by the handsome March.
Once the relationship is established, though, they do have some good moments together, including one tender scene which Hepburn directed herself. The intensity between them deepens, and, when Mary confides in Bothwell about her hatred of her husband – who is murdered soon afterwards – we are almost in film noir territory. It isn’t spelt out in the film that Bothwell arranges for Darnley to be killed, but I assumed it. However, from looking at other reviews, I see many people take it he is not to blame. The middle of the film does often feel muddled and disjointed, so I’m not sure how deliberate the ambiguity is.
The whole period of Mary’s imprisonment in England is rushed through and neither Mary nor Elizabeth ages, so it isn’t at all clear how many years have passed. The tragic ending, as Mary goes to her execution, is powerfully done, but in general I do find the film rather a mess – some great patches, but a disappointment overall.
For further reading, Dark Lane Creative wrote a great review for last year’s blogathon, which has a lot of detail about the making of the film as well as the reactions it received.