Sunday, April 19, 2020

Mary of Scotland: A Review (Review #1385)


Few doomed monarchs have been featured as often in drama as Mary, Queen of Scots. There have been plays, novels and operas written about our unmerry monarch and more than a few films. Mary of Scotland, whatever its merits, has earned an unfortunate place in film history as the film that caused Katharine Hepburn to be labeled "box office poison". A notorious flop when released and not among either Hepburn or director John Ford's fondest film memories, is Mary of Scotland a bad film or one made bad by reputation?

Queen Mary I (Hepburn) has returned from France as a widow to retake the Scottish throne which is hers by right. This alarms her cousin/rival Queen Elizabeth I (Florence Eldridge), who knows that Mary's claim to the English throne is stronger than her own.

Fortunately for Gloriana, Mary has her own set of problems among the unruly Scots. Mary of Scotland does not overtly mention it, but Mary has maintained her Catholicism while her subjects are fierce Presbyterians, followers of the near-fanatical John Knox (Moroni Olsen). Her illegitimate half-brother James, Lord Moray (Ian Keith) and the other Scottish lairds push Mary to do as she is told, but she wants to rule in her own name. Only two lairds are loyal to her: Huntly (Donald Crips) and the Earl of Bothwell (Fredric March).

Mary agrees to marry her cousin Lord Darnley (Douglas Walton) and they have a child, much to Elizabeth's distress. Elizabeth's own machinations appear to fall until Darnley's murder, creating a political crisis culminating in Bothwell and Mary's marriage, fortuitous for they are in love. The Scottish lairds and public, whipped in fury against "the Jezebel of France" by Knox, force Bothwell's exile and Mary's series of imprisonments until her beheading on order by Elizabeth once Mary reaches English soil.

Mary of Scotland (1936) - Rotten TomatoesMary of Scotland is interesting in terms of where Hepburn and director John Ford were in terms of their career. John Ford is one of the cinematic greats, but I think he quickly found that Mary of Scotland was not his kind of film, as Hepburn observed years later. There is a sluggishness, a boredom among the Highland theatrics and bagpipe parades.

The lavish sets and musical numbers, such as the Scots serenading their Queen until Knox comes to be the party-pooper are entertaining, though they also extend the film to a sleep-inducing two hours. There are also individual scenes and sequences that are close to brilliant.

Of particular note is when Mary realizes that far from granting her refuge Elizabeth has imprisoned her. The transition from light to dark within her comfortable jail is beautiful. The final scene where Elizabeth and Mary meet and have a verbal duel is a showcase for Hepburn and Eldridge (aka Mrs. Fredric March).

However, the sum total of Mary of Scotland is a theatrical bore. Dudley Nichols' adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's blank-verse play makes things sound if not odd too unrealistic. The things said and manner of saying them is so grandiose as to be laughable in its efforts at being dramatic and serious. Those same sets make Mary of Scotland look like a large theater versus a genuine location. They look great, but they also overwhelm everything and everyone. 

The script also leaves a lot of holes. You sense that a lot of things are missing and are pretty much left to fill in the blanks themselves. The lairds got their wish to marry Mary off with the virtually homosexual Darnley (as played by Walton he was such a dandy as to veer into a stereotype), but soon after the same lairds are plotting with him to kill her secretary/lute player David Rizzio (John Carradine) because maybe Mary's child may be his? Mary of Scotland rushes the Bothwell/Mary Stuart romance, and given that there is still fierce debate whether Mary married Bothwell out of true love or was forced into it (perhaps even raped), you still get a bit of a puzzle about the goings-on.

One of Mary of Scotland's oddities is whenever there are scenes at Holyrood Castle, Mary's main residence. They are so cavernous that you can literally hear the echoes of the actors as they thunder their dialogue. Perhaps that is a reason why Mary of Scotland is so theatrical. Nathaniel Shilkret's score blew more theatricality into the proceedings, so overblown and pushing the drama.

Mary of Scotland (1936)
The theatricality extends to the acting. Hepburn, curiously enough, is the only one who wasn't theatrical but instead was a zombie. She seemed more focused on spitting out the dialogue than on showing Mary's emotions. A low-light is in her trial: neither her verbal sparring with the kangaroo court judges or the discovery of Bothwell's death display a hint of emotion. Florence Eldridge out-acted Katharine Hepburn as the vain, plotting Elizabeth I, and in their one scene she triumphed over Hepburn.

As a side note, she pronounced Pontius Pilate as "Pon-TIE-Us" versus the more common "Pon-Tious". I don't know if this is due to Hepburn's clipped New England tones or the actual pronunciation, but it does sound curious.

Fredric March struggled valiantly but ultimately lost his battle with whatever Scottish accent he was trying out. He too was so emotionalless in Mary of Scotland it is almost laughable to think he was passionately in love with anyone. To be fair, I think he did as good a job as possible but this is not one of March's finest hours.

The best description of Mary of Scotland is it's as if a large museum exhibition suddenly came to life. It's long, dull and a bit bizarre at times (endless close-ups of Hepburn that bordered on obsessive).


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