The Father’s Day Intertitle: The Leith Police Dismisseth Us

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OK, it’s not exactly an intertitle, but I had to honour the fact that John Ford pasted my address across the screen in MARY OF SCOTLAND.

It’s a legendarily quite bad film, though more of an honorable failure than, say, THE HURRICANE (a commercial hit but a veritable TOWERING INFERNO artistically), part of a string of more-or-less misfires which led up to the burst or energy that is STAGECOACH. In fact, the movie is quite interesting, or anyway “interesting” — it rarely achieves anything resembling compelling drama, and censorship forces it to take the dullest path whenever there’s a knotty historical issue to be resolved. Dialogue is of a heavily expository nature, with everybody always telling each other things they must already know — you’d never guess that either Dudley Nichols, or Maxwell Anderson whose play he’s adapting, was a good or even competent writer.

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However, it’s possibly Ford’s most gay film, with Lord Darnley in particular striking a bold blow for the lipstick, earring and ruff look. Queen Elizabeth surrounds herself with rather camp confidants too, despite the fact that she’s basically a sullen mound of beads.

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(This was the movie where Ginger Rogers campaigned hard for the role of Elizabeth, and shot a screen test in heavy makeup which the suits loved until they realized who it was. The thought of Ginger as the Virgin Queen was apparently too much of a stretch. So Florence Eldridge lands by far  the best role and does well with it.)

Katherine Hepburn as Mary is surrounded by several of the same stock Scots and pseudo-Scots from RKO’s ┬áTHE LITTLE MINISTER (Alec Craig, Mary Gordon, Donald Crisp). Fredric March does do more than hint at a burr, but Fiona felt he captured a quintessentially Scottish attitude. It seems to involve bellowing heartily. He also presents a baby with the present of a broadsword, which does seem quite authentic behaviour.

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Perhaps sensing the inertia of the material, Ford attempts a few stylistic flourishes. In one key scene, Mary/Hepburn must decide whether to sign, at sword’s point, a pardon for the murderers of David Rizzio (John Carradine [!]). In her closeup, she’s separated by the characters over her shoulder by a layer of scrim — and interesting psychological effect, thrown away by too-hasty editing. I suspect the film was so stodgy they took the shears to it, and out went the more promising material. (Tag Gallagher certainly suggests that the studio botched the edit, and it appears that Ford’s system of protecting himself by shooting no coverage was not yet in place.)

Ford also plays with theatrical lighting changes, dimming the key light on Darnley when he acquiesces to an assassination plot. Did Orson Welles check this movie out when he was running STAGECOACH all those times? It’s made by the same studio, so it would have been to hand. CITIZEN KANE advanced on the idea by staging the fades during dissolves, so that one part of the shot would linger longer as the rest faded out, but the initial idea had to come from somewhere

For years (decades?) Alexander Mackendrick dreamed of filming MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, his office papered in storyboards. Since historical movies usually ossify alive onscreen, he was determined to make his version live and breathe — the western was his role model, a genre in which history is depicted IN ACTION. Ironically, the man you would have thought ideally suited to make such a film had already tried, and fallen victim to period movie syndrome.

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15 Responses to “The Father’s Day Intertitle: The Leith Police Dismisseth Us”

  1. The only rendition of this story I care for is Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Ford’s problem is compounded by Hepburn — one of the world’s most boring actresses. Dorothy Parker nailed it WAY back in the day when she said La Hepburn “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Yes I’ve liked her in a few things — under Cukor’s direction (particularly Holiday.) But most of the time to quote Hepburn herself in On Goldfish Pond: “BOWAH! BOWAH! BOWAH!”

  2. dremble Says:

    Supposedly Katherine Hepburn launched an unsuccessful campaign to play both Mary and Elizabeth. When he heard this John Carradine asked her: “Kate, if did you play both roles, how would you know which one to upstage?” after which she blanked him for 20 years, until a reconciliation on the set of The Last Hurrah…

  3. Heh!

    She’s lovely in George Stevens films too… Very much enjoyed Quality Street recently. And it was fun seeing her attempt a Scottish accent in The Little Minister.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    Apparently, it was Kate who strongly opposed casting Ginger as Queen Elizabeth: “The Virgin Queen? Can you imagine?!”

    Of course, their rivalry was more than professional, as they were both allegedly boffing Howard Hughes.

    But as for Kate Hepburn being a boring actress…have you seen SUMMERTIME? SYLVIA SCARLETT? SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER? WOMAN OF THE YEAR? A WOMAN REBELS? She is nothing short of magnificent in all of these.

    You may like or dislike her as a personality, but if Kate Hepburn is boring…all I can say is, God help Jennifer Aniston and Meg Ryan!

  5. Well, she’s very technical, and that can have a deadening effect, no matter how cunning the technique. But unquestionably a unique persona behind all the cleverness.

    Will be watching Suddenly Last Summer soon as I’m catching up on my Mankiewicz (also Minnelli, Stevens).

  6. david wingrove Says:

    If you’re catching up on Minnelli, check out Kate Hepburn and Robert Taylor in UNDERCURRENT. Utterly ridiculous, but played with great conviction. Alas, it’s one of those movies where Kate is obviously much smarter than the role she’s been given to play!

  7. I’ve been meaning to see that for a while. Minnelli noir is an exciting thought, even if it doesn’t entirely come off.

  8. Alexander Says:

    “part of a string of more-or-less misfires which led up to the burst or energy that is STAGECOACH”

    Here lieth a man who has not yet seen THE BLACK WATCH, PILGRIMAGE, JUDGE PRIEST, STEAMBOAT ROUND THE BEND or WEE WILLIE WINKIE. Shame, shame on you!

  9. I ought to see The Black Watch and Wee Willie Winkie for their Scots appeal, immediately if not sooner. I wasn’t implying that everything before Stagecoach was a disaster, though! But The Plough and the Stars, Mary of Scotland, The Hurricane, Four Men and a Prayer and Submarine Patrol are not prime Ford, so I would still argue that this was a patchy period…

  10. david wingrove Says:

    Personally, I much prefer The Hurricane to Stagecoach…but you know I have an allergy to Westerns!

    And what about The Lost Patrol?

  11. The Lost Patrol is LUDICROUS! Quite enjoyable, once you get over the shock. What an incompetent bunch of soldiers! They fall far short of Hawksian professionalism, that’s for sure.

  12. nathanrh Says:

    There is quite an interesting (unofficial) Soviet remake of The Lost Patrol, THE THIRTEEN by Mikhail Romm…

  13. I’ve been meaning to watch it! I bet the Russians are better organized.

  14. The Lost Patrol is a strange one all round. Doesn’t really feel like a Ford film beyond some small character exchanges and Karloff’s breakdown and death whilst dragging a makeshift man-size crucifix is so out of the blue!

    I agree that he made a lot of misfires pre-Stagecoach, but you really ought to see the Will Rogers three if you haven’t already, I think you’d enjoy…

  15. I’ve been meaning to, and I have a project that might cause me to plunge heavily into Ford territory soon!

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