Mary Stuart returns to Scotland to rule as queen, to the chagrin of Elizabeth I of England who finds her a dangerous rival. There is much ado over whom Mary shall marry; to her later regret, she picks effete Lord Darnley over the strong but unpopular Earl of Bothwell. A palace coup leads to civil war and house arrest for Mary; she escapes and flees to England, where a worse fate awaits her. Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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Opening credits: "Like two fateful stars, Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor appeared in the sixteenth century, to reign over two great nations in the making ... They were doomed to a life-and-death struggle for supremacy, a lurid struggle that still shines across the pages of history ... But today, after more than three centuries, they sleep side by side, at peace, in Westminster Abbey." See more »
There was something of a fad for Tudor-period dramas in the late 1930s, although Mary of Scotland is something of an overlooked picture in the careers of Katherine Hepburn and John Ford. The star and director went on to have an on-off love affair, although this was the only occasion on which they worked together.
Mary of Scotland has the look that is typical of Ford's RKO features. It's often forgotten that Ford was a director who liked to work with space, shape and light, usually manifested in a sharp contrast between the indoor and outdoor worlds. Here the contrast is between the palace of Elizabeth light, open and filled of straight lines and symmetry and the castle of Mary small, shadowy and made of rough curves. At first glance this seems to imply that the Scottish setting is grimmer and more confined, but for Ford these cosy spaces with layers of shadows were also about honesty and simplicity see for example the compositions he makes in The Informer or The Fugitive. Those two pictures were also made at RKO, and their expressive look is testament to the fact that although the studio might not have had much money it did have a strong and open-minded production design team, something Ford took advantage of when he could.
By this point, few Ford films would be complete without the sing-song scene, and there is an especially fine example in Mary of Scotland. Ford never made an out-and-out musical in his career, but the way he uses singing as an emotional backdrop is remarkable. Here, the song sung by the peasants as they march into the castle begins as a simple yet effective expository device demonstrating where the people's loyalties lie but then the scene moves onto another level. Ford isolates one singer, then cuts to a rare close-up of Hepburn. The beauty of the music provides a backdrop to her emoting. It is in such moments that Ford's direction is at its strongest.
This was perhaps an important breakthrough role for Hepburn, whose parts until now had mostly been as teenagers or young women. This is her first real adult role and she handles it well, albeit with one or two touches of uncertainty when she is required to act "queenly". She does however manage the task of humanising the queen, more so than the screenplay would seem to allow. Unfortunately her leading man, the normally excellent Fredric March, is rather bland here. It's a real treat though to see John Carradine in a role where he really gets to show his more sensitive side. Because of his looks, not to mention his creepy voice, the character actor generally landed villainous roles, but he was actually at his best playing good guys.
One oft-repeated story regarding this production although it varies a little depending on who's telling it, so pinches of salt at the ready is that Hepburn and Ford disagreed over the necessity of Mary and Bothwell's final scene together on the tower top. Ford thought it a pointless bit of soppiness, Hepburn said it was the most important scene in the script. Eventually a flippant Ford challenged Hepburn to direct it herself, which she did. The scene stands out because Hepburn actually shoots it with some romantic tenderness something Ford hardly ever did with lengthy close-ups and rhyming angles. You can see why Ford didn't like it; he tended to downplay the love themes in his pictures, and on top of that the scene is rather heavy on dialogue. Hepburn was right though without this scene the romance between Mary and Bothwell would be little more than a subplot, and without the romance the film wouldn't work. Audiences would find it hard to empathise with a queen clinging onto her throne, but easy to sympathise with a woman separated from the man she loves.
Mary of Scotland was not really Ford's cup of tea, and it was his rather cavalier approach to interpreting a screenplay that spoiled a fair few of his pictures (even though it won him the admiration of the auteurists). This picture is only saved by his use of music, the proficiency of the RKO crew and of course the good judgement of Katherine Hepburn. Nevertheless, I can't help but love Ford's laid-back realism. In one scene, we see a dog barking crazily at men entering a room; in another a moth flutters about John Knox's head. How many other directors of that era would have kept those takes?
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