Mary of Scotland (John Ford, 1936)

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!

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Katharine Hepburn in one of the amazing costumes created by Walter Plunkett

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.

Mary of Scotland 3While 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.

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The two queens meet at last – Florence Eldridge and Katharine Hepburn

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.

Mary of Scotland 4Originally, 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.

Douglas Walton as Darnley, with Hepburn

Douglas Walton as Darnley, with Hepburn

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.

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Hepburn and March as the lovers

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.

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16 thoughts on “Mary of Scotland (John Ford, 1936)

  1. Great review! You would think this movie would be amazing with this cast and John Ford as director, and it’s a disappointment to see that it isn’t. However, you’ve still sold me on this film because of your review. I’ll be watching for it!

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    • Thanks, Ruth, very kind of you.I certainly started watching with high hopes, as I usually like both Ford and Hepburn a lot. Will be interested to hear what you think if you get to see it!

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    • When I saw the title of your post, I thought, How come I haven’t seen this before? This sounds amazing!

      I’m keen to see Hepburn’s performance, especially as she vascillates between determination and uncertainty.

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  2. Great review – though not quite Kate’s cup of tea. But she sure looked swell in her real attire1 Thanks for choosing a film off the beaten path o Kate’s greatest. She could read the phone book and make it seem like a classic.

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    • Yes, she’s always worth watching, great film or not – and those outfits do look spectacular. Thanks.

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  3. Thanks for your really perceptive look at this film, which I gather isn’t rated as one of Hepburn’s best today (I recall seeing it years ago and not being too impressed). I think there were some genres that Hepburn wasn’t suited for, and historical epics would be one – she always seems so angular and modern, unable to place herself in any time period but her own (though Hollywood scripts and productions didn’t help, as everything is done to make it seem as if taking place in the here and now). I think this film is remembered because Hepburn and Ford supposedly had an affair during its making (and she did go to visit him on his deathbed). Ford as a director did seem to like strong women, as the roles he gave Maureen O’Hara attest.

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    • That’s an interesting point about Hepburn’s portrayal feeling modern – I was actually surprised by how that “angularity” you describe is softened here, partly by the lighting and costumes but also by Hepburn’s performance. Though it is still there, of course. I’d agree that the script does make it feel as if it’s in the here and now at times – for instance, there’s a scene where Mary insists she will live her own life. I haven’t read very much about the affair with Ford, but it seems as if it was an important relationship for both of them, even though it was short-lived. I agree about Maureen O’Hara’s roles, and there are some other good parts for women in his films too – I love Jean Arthur in the comedy The Whole Town’s Talking. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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  4. Pingback: #TheGreatKH Blogathon 2015 Has Arrived! | Margaret Perry

  5. It may not be a great, fabulous film, but I want to watch it anyway – for the costumes, for March, for John Ford and, of course, for Hepburn! As I was reading your peace I started wondering how Katharine’s Mary compares to Garbo’s Queen Christina.
    Thanks fro the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    • It’s definitely worth watching for all those reasons, Le, even though I was a bit disappointed overall. It’s a while since I saw Garbo’s ‘Queen Christina’ so I can’t really say how many similarities there are, but they are both powerful central roles. Thank you for the nice comment.

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  6. I can’t see Hepburn as Mary, which is why I’ve never seen this. But it sounds like her performance is interesting enough to watch, even if the film itself doesn’t quite work. I wonder how it would have worked if the roles were reversed?

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    • That’s interesting to think about! Hepburn’s been quoted as saying she would have preferred to play Elizabeth – I’m sure she could have done it, but I can’t see Eldridge as Mary in this film, where she is presented as such a romantic figure. The two women seem to be of different generations here – I was quite surprised to see that Eldridge was only about 6 years older. Thanks for the comment.

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  7. I had the same lukewarm reaction to the film as you is. In his documentary on Ford, Peter Bogdanovich says that the director and Hepburn were having an affair at the time. Too bad their love didn’t produce a better picture!

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    • Yes, lukewarm is how I felt – but I’ve got a feeling the film is going to grow on me in retrospect as I just remember the best bits! The review at Dark Lane Creative in last year’s blogathon which I’ve linked to at the end, by James, looks at how the romance might have influenced the film through the high number of close-ups of Hepburn, showing Ford’s feelings for her. Many thanks for dropping by and commenting, Bea.

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  8. Wonderful review Judy, – I think you’ve laid your finger precisely on the film’s flaws and the reasons why it disappoints. Lovely observations about Darnley too. That was very kind of you to mention my review from last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if we both appeared together on another blogathon soon, and look forward to reading your next review!

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    • It was a pleasure to mention your review, James – and many thanks for the kind words on mine. I hope we do take part in another blogathon soon and will look forward to it too.

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