Even with the overbearing music and the strange lighting for emphasis (play-like, it dims to concentrate attention on an object or person), lots of Mary of Scotland is rather well done. Ford’s got some excellent shots and, at times, creates anxious scenes. It’s hard to get particularly excited during most of the film because, while there’s always something going on, it’s more interesting as history than drama. Katharine Hepburn and Fredric March are both good–Hepburn’s got some extraordinary moments–and they’ve got good chemistry, but it’s hard to sustain concern for their problems. Ford seems to get it–or maybe the source play got it–and makes everyone but Hepburn and March, and some of the supporting cast, absolutely evil. Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth, for instance, comes off slightly more inhuman than Emperor Palpatine. Moroni Olsen’s clergyman comes off even more soulless.
The wickedness of royalty raises a lot of questions about the film and historical filmmaking in general–the scene where Eldridge finally confronts Hepburn plays like something out of a Universal horror film of the era. In order to get sympathy for one royal, all the others must be abjectly inhuman. It’d be fine–I wouldn’t have even noticed it–if Mary of Scotland had a story going on. But it really doesn’t, it just sort of ambles along, killing the excellent momentum of the opening–Hepburn’s first night as queen is eventful and sets up the film with a lot of potential. But there’s so little visible interest from Ford’s part. Once he gets around to the lighting effects, he just keeps doing them; it’s a pragmatic way to get things over with.
There’s some excellent supporting performances–John Carradine’s great as Hepburn’s loyal secretary (playing an Italian no less). The scenes with Carradine are some of the film’s most enjoyable, because they’re fun. Also, a lot of March’s early scenes–fun. Donald Crisp’s early scenes, fun. Later on, there’s only Douglas Walton to provide any amusement (and we’re supposed to laugh at him, not with).
By the end, Ford would have been better served with title cards explaining events then trying to tell them scenically. Hepburn and March keep up, but the story’s rote. Regardless of historical inevitability, Dudley Nichols and Ford really should have found some way to vivify the last act. Instead, there’s the dour meeting between the two queens–which the viewer’s been waiting the whole film to see–and the pay-off… leaves a lot to be desired. And then the end, which leaves even more.
Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson; director of photography, Joseph H. August; music by Nathaniel Shilkret; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Katharine Hepburn (Mary Queen of Scots), Fredric March (Earl of Bothwell), Florence Eldridge (Queen Elizabeth I), Douglas Walton (Lord Darnley), John Carradine (David Rizzio), Robert Barrat (Lord Morton), Gavin Muir (Earl of Leicester), Ian Keith (James Stuart, Earl of Moray), Moroni Olsen (John Knox), William Stack (Lord Ruthven), Ralph Forbes (Lord Randolph), Alan Mowbray (Lord Throckmorton), Frieda Inescort (Mary Beaton) and Donald Crisp (Lord Huntley).