The film, based on a successful blank verse drama by playwright Maxwell Anderson, is an example of Hollywood History at its most extravagant — but it is less the numerous historical inaccuracies than the wild melodramatics affected by every performer (excepting perhaps only John Carradine). Mary of Scotland was a financial disaster and one of the films responsible for making Hepburn "box office poison" until her career was revived by The Philadelphia Story in 1940. Director John Ford was reportedly so disgusted at being slated to oversee a "woman's picture" that he took to leaving the set early and even delegated the direction of one of the romance scenes to Katherine Hepburn herself!
Nevertheless, the film is undeniably handsomely mounted, with attractive costumes by Walter Plunkett (which, indeed, started a mini-fad for in 1936 for Scottish styles) and striking high-contrast black and white cinematography by Joseph H. Augusta. Ford may have disliked the narmy script and loveydovey romantic plot, but seems to have enjoyed deploying his actors and the various masses of extras in an almost balletic fashion in several sequences in which the characters are essentially wordless while the soundtrack (by RKO second-string composer Nathaniel Shilkret) establishes the requisite romantic mood, often with surprising success.
Synopsis (Spoilers Included):
- In the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth I (Florence Eldridge) learns that Mary Stewart (Katharine Hepburn) has returned to Scotland to take her throne, while refusing to yield her claim to England. The Scottish lords, under the lead of the treacherous James Stewart, Earl of Moray (Ian Keith), have been using the fanatical preacher, John Knox (Moroni Olson), to defame Mary as a dissolute persecutor. Mary finds support in the person of the bluff Earl of Bothwell (Fredric March), with whom she falls in love, but, angered by his presumption and urged by her Catholic secretary David Rizzio (John Carradine) to marry a Catholic, to strengthen her claim to the English throne, she weds the drunken, effeminate Lord Darnley (Douglas Walton). Darnley, despised by all and insanely jealous, conspires with the lords to murder Rizzio. Thereafter the lords blow up (no, really) the feckless Darnley and seize Mary and her infant heir, James VI. She escapes to Bothwell, who "forces" her to marry him; denounced by John Knox, Bothwell agrees to leave Scotland, so long as Mary is left on the throne. However, as soon as he is gone, the lords betray her. Mary escapes to England, seeking aid from Elizabeth — who instead imprisons her. She is tried for conspiracy against Elizabeth; having heard meanwhile of Bothwell's death in prison, she accepts her condemnation to death. Elizabeth comes to her secretly to offer a last chance if she will renounce her claim to the throne, but Mary rejects her offer, taunting the English queen with her loveless life and the fact that Mary's son will inherit Elizabeth's throne. She then goes to her death — hearing as in a vision the pipers of Bothwell announcing her apotheosis.
Interestingly, Ginger Rogers tried out for the part of Elizabeth under the pseudonym "Lady Ainsley," much to the annoyance of Katharine Hepburn, who detested her (and actually kicked her at one point during the screen test). At one point Hepburn is said to have lamented the fact that she could not play both queens, on hearing which, Deadpan Snarker John Carradine remarked: "If you did, how would you know which one to upstage?" The part eventually went to Fredric March's wife, Florence Eldridge.
Tropes Employed in this Film Include:
- The Alcoholic: Darnley
- Ambiguously Gay: Darnley, with his dangling ear-bob and fashionably cut doublet. He's still jealous of Mary, though.
- Bilingual Bonus: Latin scholars can hear Mary saying the "Our Father" in that tongue as she goes to execution.
- Boisterous Bruiser: The film's characterization of Bothwell.
- Crowd Song: The crowd regales the newly-returned Mary with a topical version of Loch Lomond.
- Dramatic Thunder: As Mary goes to her execution, the heavens crackle with thunder above her.
- Empathic Environment
- Everything's Louder with Bagpipes: As when, early in the film, Bothwell has his pipers drown out the sound of John Knox's sermon denouncing Mary. Later, Bothwell tells the Queen that if she ever needs him, she will hear his pipers coming — and, after his death, she hears their ghostly sound as she goes to her execution.
- Evil Chancellor: Moray
- God Save Us from the Queen!: The film depicts Elizabeth as a vicious, calculating, almost witch-like caricature.
- Ham-to-Ham Combat: In almost every scene, but perhaps the Battle Royale of Hamdom comes in the confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth, in which Florence Eldridge reaches a level of sheer Hamviliciousness that even "Katherine of Arrogance" cannot surpass.
- Heroes Want Redheads: Naturally, as played by lively, red-headed Katherine Hepburn. (Interestingly, the real Mary's gray hair as a young woman (ash-blonde, perhaps?) is called one of her most attractive features by Brantôme.)
- Heroic BSoD: How Mary reacts when she hears of Bothwell's death.
- The High Queen: The film's characterization of Mary.
- Historical Beauty Update
- Historical Domain Character: Elizabeth I of England; Mary I of Scotland; the infant James VI of Scotland (later James I of England); Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, King consort of Scots James Hepburn, 1st Duke of Orkney and 4th Earl of Bothwell; Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray;William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley; Sir Nicholas Throckmorton; John Knox; David Rizzio; etc.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Whatever one thinks of Mary, most historians agree that Bothwell was little more than a pirate and a brigand, with an eye open for the main chance, who ditched his fiancée for a chance at Mary.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Even the most fanatical Papist could scarcely accept this travesty of Elizabeth I; whatever else Elizabeth was, she was at least intelligent and charming.
- Holier Than Thou: John Knox, who treats the obviously innocent and tolerant Mary as a Scarlet Woman dripping with the blood of martyrs of the Reformed Religion.
- Hollywood History: Of the many, many, MANY historical liberties taken in this film, probably the most egregious is the meeting of the two queens. In reality, Elizabeth was desperate to avoid any meeting with Mary.
- Hollywood Costuming: There is not a hint of a farthingale in this film, and the Scots lords are mostly clad in the kilt, wildly improbably for men of their social class and geographical provenance (Bothwell, e.g., being a Lowlander).
- Kangaroo Court: Mary stands utterly alone against a towering bench of judges, who have obviously predetermined her condemnation.
- Large Ham: Amid a titanic struggle of over-acting, in which Hepburn and March make gallant efforts, and Moroni Olson chews holes in the very rock of Edinburgh Castle, the prize must go to Florence Edridge's flouncing, pouting, cackling, bellowing Elizabeth — the Queen of Large Hams.
- Purple Prose: Elizabeth to Mary:"What do you know of my life? You were born a queen. Honors, thrones, everything fell into your lap. What do you know of the struggle for power? I started with nothing, robbed even of a name, not acknowledged by my father. My own mother — yes, Anne Boleyn — was executed. And I learned how a woman may be a queen one day, and stand on the scaffold the next. I was sent to the Tower by my own sister — oh, I know what prisons are, and being threatened month after month with execution. I died a thousand times. But I fought my way upward, inch by inch, until I wore the Crown. I gave my love to no man, but to my kingdom — to England! And you prate to me of love! What do you know of my life?"
- Regional Riff: The score makes use of various melodies such as Loch Lomond (See Crowd Song, above) to set the scene, including, to introduce the English court, The British Grenadiers, not written until over a century later.
- Stuff Blowing Up: Darnley's slightly unhistorical death. (See the entry on Mary's life for further details.)
- World of Ham: When John Carradine is the least over-the-top member of the cast...!