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Mary Of Scotland

01 Dec

Mary Of Scotland—directed by John Ford. Historical. 123 minutes Black and White 1936.
★★★★
The Story: An attractive young queen assumes her throne only to be bullied by everyone.
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Mary of Scotland as a monarch is not a good subject for drama, although Mary Stuart as a person is so tempting that even Schiller placed his great talent at her disposal. I saw Eva Le Gallienne and and Irene Worth (and later Signe Hasso) do it in Tyrone Guthrie’s production at The Phoenix. It is a play frequently revived. It is based on a confrontation between the two queens Elizabeth and Mary that never (as politically inexpedient) could have taken place. And of course there is the opera Maria Stuarda of Donizetti, based on the Schiller. Schiller had a massive talent for extensive confrontation scenes of a romantic order. And they have a certain carrying power in his play. Shakespeare wisely stayed clear of the subject, even when his patron, the king, was Mary’s son, James. Maxwell Anderson, however, riding his over-stuffed studio couch of talent into the ditch accomplished a traffic jam.

What’s the problem?

Mary made unwise decisions. If we had a good play about her today, it would resemble the decisions the present queen of England is seen to make in The Crown: every single decision Elizabeth II makes is wrong. But her string of errors holds the story of her reign together.

But Mary was also a creature of bad luck. And that is a subject that cannot be dramatized. While if ever an actress was born to overrule bad luck it was Katharine Hepburn, even she cannot do it. Dudley Nichols, an able screenwriter if there ever was one, cannot do it. Pandro Berman has produced it magnificently, but that merely detours the problem. And, of course, John Ford directed it with his crude sentimentality and his robust love of men doing manly things this time in kilts. They execute them in close order marches, singing in brave choral unison, amid the screeches of bagpipes.

Frederic March as the sexy rash warrior Lord Bothwell is miscast although he assumes the position with all the will of the matinée idol he wasn’t. Frederic March cannot assume a role perfect for Errol Flynn. March’s real-life wife Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth falls into the same trap that snared Bette Davis in the role: playing the queen as a waterfront thug.

Katharine Hepburn alone carries the film, which is all over the place Alone among the actors at least she is not over-costumed by Walter Plunkett. Sometimes she plays in the Noble Mode of her era and choice, but often she is touching, not because she can generate at will that left-eye tear of hers, but because Mary was flustered and muscled by her Scots lairds. She assumed a throne whose rule had been in the hands a regency of men too accustomed to having their own way, and her assumption was ignorant, incompetent, and incorrect. To see Hepburn helpless has its appeal.

She is supported by the brilliant filming of Joe August. If you want to learn something about how to shoot this sort of royal hooey (Game Of Thrones), watch Mary Of Scotland. Watch how his camera holds his actors in its embrace, caresses them with black, searches their faces in fade-outs.

When I was eighteen I lived in Oundle and visited the next town over, Fotheringhay, where Mary was held by Elizabeth in house arrest. After much delay, Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant. But when Mary was beheaded and fell, a commotion bestirred her garments. Then it was discovered she has secreted her lapdog in the voluminous sleeves of her dress.

It’s a telling detail of a woman too trivial to grasp the reality of her royal situation. A child woman, of course, Hepburn could play but only as a hoyden as Jo in Little Women. Still she looks lovely in the role and acts it with all the restraint necessary to an actor baffled by a role of a sexy woman once played on Broadway by the least sexy actress of all, Helen Hayes. That is to say, into the basic material nothing fits because the basic material for drama is not there.

Hepburn is not box-office poison, but the material RKO gave her in those days was. Or perhaps her arrogance in thinking she could overcome that material by force of personality was the poison. Hepburn was not an actress who could shape material to her own ends. That was not within her genius or appeal. She could do a lot. She could not do everything. Still if you love or admire her, as I certainly do, here she is in the least heroic role she ever played. And it is worthwhile to see how she keeps her seat in the role to ride it right off the cliff at the end.

 
 
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