You Have Been Watching…Mary of Scotland

From seeing her opposite Cary Grant in Holiday at an early age I have always been a little bit in love with Katherine Hepburn, so when I discovered that one of her earliest films was Mary of Scotland, where she plays Mary Queen of Scots, I knew I had to get a copy.
Made in 1936, the film is a fairly historically accurate telling of Mary’s return from France to claim her rightful place on the throne of Scotland, becoming a threat to her cousin Elizabeth’s reign in England. Her life becomes a battle between heart and head as she puts aside her love for the Earl of Bothwell, played here by Frederic March as a kilted lover and fighter, to marry the politically expedient choice of Lord Darnley, who is a foppish womanising alcoholic, but who has a claim to the throne of England and brings the possibility of uniting the thrones.

This love triangle is at the heart of the film, but the most important relationship is the one between the two Queens. Hepburn plays Mary as a stoic, strong and principled woman who is determined to overcome sexism and sectarianism to try and unite the country and keep the power hungry Lords in check. Elizabeth is played by Florence Eldridge, and she is portrayed as scheming, devious and ruthless, willing to stop at nothing to protect her crown. For those who believe that English monarchs get a raw deal from Hollywood (Patrick McGoohan as Edward Longshanks in Braveheart readily springs to mind) this will do nothing to persuade them that there is not a bias. Superficially there is a difference too as Liz is constantly needing reassurance about her looks whereas Mary looks like Katherine Hepburn, and knows it.

Other key characters include Donald Crisp’s Lord Huntly,  Ian Keith as Mary’s brother Moray and Gavin Muir as Leicester, all of whom grasp their characters with gusto. Moroni Olsen plays reformer, and anti all things Roman, John Knox in a terrific cameo. But the most interesting piece of casting for me is that of John Carradine, father of David and Keith, as the Queen’s Italian consort David Rizzio. Carradine became a genuine Hollywood cult legend going on to appear in many genre movies, but here he exemplifies another country, one of art, literature, music and Catholicism. The Lords are suspicious of him and his influence on Mary and through him we see the prejudices of the time and place played out.

Here’s the trailer:

Mary of Scotland was critically well received but was a commercial flop. Hepburn (left as Mary) had a few films in her early career which underwhelmed at the box office and this led to her being thought of as ‘box-office poison’, a label she carried until the huge success of The Philadelphia Story in 1940 before going on to become legend. Frederic March, who is probably best known for playing both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the 1931 version of Stevenson’s tale, went on to make many more movies, including one of my favourites, 1960’s Inherit the Wind opposite Spencer Tracy and Gene Kelly. If you are a sucker for courtroom dramas then you should seek it out.  

If you are a fan of Hollywood’s Golden Age of the 1930s and 40s then Mary of Scotland has lots to interest you. The sets are impressive and detailed, the costumes are beautiful as well as being less than subtle signifiers as to who to cheer for and who to boo. The direction is assured, which is no surprise as it was directed by John Ford who would go on to work on The Grapes of Wrath, The Searchers, The Quiet Man and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Mary of Scotland is not Ford, or Hepburn, at their best but for film historians, or simply historians, this is a film which should be seen.

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