*. Katharine Hepburn had a long career that began strong but, by the time of this film, it was entering into a bit of a slide. The press was turning against her (dubbing her “Katharine of Arrogance”) and she had never cared much for them. This movie was one of a few flops she had come out at this time, leading to her being considered box office poison.
*. Well, she was a great actor, and she’s very good here. But I can see why Mary of Scotland didn’t take off. While Hepburn tries to breathe some life into the proceedings (literally with some heavy breathing in her big love scenes), this is a stiff historical costume drama, which is a genre not known for being very supple in the first place.
*. I don’t think I’m wrong in attributing most of the film’s failures to its genre. Hepburn is good and Frederic March (playing the Earl of Bothwell) is at least in there trying. Director John Ford apparently had no interest in the project at all, occasionally leaving the work for others, but it’s still reasonably well put together. And yet it’s thick and sticky as pitch.
*. The story itself has always been a draw. Mary Stuart’s life is presented as having only one chapter, beginning with her arrival in Scotland and ending with her quick execution. Her childhood here is, as would become usual, left out (and she’d been Queen of France!), as is her long imprisonment (some twenty years in England, as Elizabeth tried to figure out what to do with her). Instead we get marriage to the fop Darnley, the murder of David Rizzio (a towering John Carradine) and her husband, marriage to Bothwell, and then a quick trip to the chopping block.
*. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the dramatic highlights of such a life, but Mary of Scotland goes further than most of her biopics in taking historical liberties. And by this I don’t mean the meeting with Elizabeth at the end, a bit of fiction that has become obligatory in every Mary movie. What I’m talking about here is how Mary is forced to marry Darnley against her will, all the while pining for her true love Bothwell. This is pretty much the opposite of what really happened.
*. But what drags Mary of Scotland down the most is its script. This was written in blank verse (honest!) and it’s fully of fusty stuff that must have had audiences laughing even at the time. When Bothwell comes on to an imperious Mary he begins with “Do you expect me to bow and scrape and make pretty speeches? I’m a soldier! I love you!” Mary, getting all breathy, can only rejoin: “You forget I’m your queen!” To which there can be only one proper response: “Have I ever forgotten that? But I remember you’re a woman! Don’t ever forget that yourself!”
*. It’s all that silly. When Bothwell is dying in jail he wants his servant to go to Mary and tell her that he’s still planning on rescuing her from her prison in England this is what he says: “Tell her she’ll hear the pipes when I come for her! Tell her to listen! Tell her my pipers . . . my pipers are coming . . . ” And then he expires. As we hear bagpipes playing, somewhere in the distance. So obviously he isn’t going to rescue Elizabeth. But the message is faithfully passed along, with the servant telling Elizabeth that Bothwell will always be waiting for her where the bagpipes are a-playin’.
*. Troops of pipers march across the stage (it really is a stage) several times throughout the film, letting us know where we are. We also get some actors who throw in the odd burr, because nothing says you’re in Scotland like hearing people rrrrrrroll their r’s.
*. Yes, it’s all this silly. And at the end it’s even a bit surreal, with a gigantic courtroom set that looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, and a long, long climb up the scaffold at the end, as though Mary’s going to meet her fate on a mountaintop. As the lightning sparks in the sky and the thunder rolls and the music soars.
*. Perhaps, no matter how hard you try to twist this story, there just isn’t a great movie in it. Heaven knows they’ve tried and tried with some regularity over the last hundred years. I’d call this one a production of its time, but it actually feels a bit older than that. And while it doesn’t play at all well today, I can’t say it’s much worse than what was to come.