Mary of Scotland (1936), released by RKO, is an interesting historical drama with a touch of romance directed by John Ford. In 1936, Ford was hardly a novice; he had directed over eighty productions, including Academy Award nominated films Arrowsmith (1931), The Lost Patrol (1934) and The Informer (1935). Although he had success in some of his early films, Ford had yet to hit his creative stride, which arguably didn’t begin until the 1939 masterpiece, Stagecoach. In Mary of Scotland, we only catch but a glimpse of Ford’s genius.
Mary of Scotland is a film adaptation of the 1933 play written by Maxwell Anderson and has the makings of a great historical drama: a star-studded cast with Katharine Hepburn and Fredric March in the leading roles; Pandro S. Berman and John Ford at the helm; a reasonably large budget from the notoriously fiscally tight RKO and costumes by Walter Plunkett, who was the brilliant designer behind the iconic looks in Gone With the Wind (1939), Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) to name a few. Mary of Scotland is a beautifully shot film with Ford’s trademark composition, lighting and impressive sets. Unfortunately, all of these remarkable components cannot save the film from collapsing under its own bloated weight. For starters, the romance between Mary Stuart (Hepburn) and the Earl of Bothwell (March) feels haphazardly tacked on. There is virtually no romantic chemistry between Hepburn and March, which is quite painful to admit, considering how wonderfully talented both actors are in their own right. Apparently, March realized there was an issue with the weak romantic plot and pleaded with John Ford to film additional scenes between the doomed lovers. While there is one overtly passionate scene between Mary and Bothwell, it is still not enough to salvage that component of the story. Although they did not know each other well, and only worked together on this one film, all accounts indicate that Hepburn and March got along quite well. It is a shame that we do not have a better example of their one-time collaboration, whether it be a different film or stage production. (Can you just imagine these two powerhouses sharing a stage? Wow.)
Adding to the weak romantic plot line is Hepburn’s portrayal of Mary Stuart as overly pious and stilted. It is difficult to feel compassion for the character’s plight in both her fight for the Scottish throne and her doomed romance with Bothwell. As for March’s portrayal of Bothwell, he is too gregarious with a fierce devil-may-care attitude, which is in stark contrast to Mary’s quiet, deliberate, often sullen demeanor. Compounding this is the factually inaccurate depiction of Mary Stuart and her tenuous relationship with Elizabeth Tudor (Elizabeth I). Speaking of Elizabeth I, the one glimmer of pure brilliance in Mary of Scotland is Florence Eldridge’s portrayal of the The Virgin Queen. When talking of Queen Elizabeth in film, one usually thinks of Flora Robson’s Elizabeth in Fire Over England (1937) and The Sea Hawk (1940), or Bette Davis’s legendary portrayals in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Virgin Queen (1955) where Davis boldly shaved off her eyebrows and a considerable portion of her hairline in an effort to maintain authenticity in the role. Supposedly Davis lobbied for the part in Mary of Scotland, bitterly losing out to Eldridge, who was the wife of Fredric March. In the 1930s, Fredric March was one of the most sought-after leading men in Hollywood. He was an Academy Award winning actor for his role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and had starred in a number of successful Paramount films with the top leading women of the day including The Sign of the Cross (1932) with Claudette Colbert, Design For Living (1933) with Miriam Hopkins, Smilin’ Through (1932) with Norma Shearer and Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) with Sylvia Sidney. Bette Davis and others in Hollywood felt that Fredric March’s influence helped his wife Florence land the part in Mary of Scotland. While that might have certainly been a factor in her casting, that line of thinking pays a serious disservice to Ms. Eldridge’s immense talent as an actress who was one of the most respected leading ladies of the stage. Florence Eldridge’s forgotten role as Elizabeth I should be included with these other iconic performances.
You might be wondering why it’s even worth writing about this horrible film, or even recommending you set aside two hours to watch it. Yes, I am a self-proclaimed Fredric March fanatic, but this is one of his weakest, most insignificant roles, and he is woefully underused by Ford. I’m also quite the fan of Katharine Hepburn, but not even Ford’s lovingly glamorous close-ups of her or her impassioned monologues are enough to save her performance. Hell, not even John Carradine’s fabulous bejeweled tunic and tights can pull this film out of the trash heap. It’s all about Florence Eldridge and her powerhouse performance. From the very first scene when her Elizabeth storms into the room, grabs a little white maltese puppy by the scruff of the neck and passes it off to one of her advisors, Eldridge makes it clear that she is Queen Elizabeth and refuses to be eclipsed by anyone else in her orbit. While Eldridge was highly respected in the theatre, she experienced only a fraction of that success in film, mostly when cast beside her more famous husband. Her performance in Mary of Scotland gives us an idea of what she was like on the stage, and what could have been in film, given the chance.