The Father’s Day Intertitle: The Leith Police Dismisseth Us
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.
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.
(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 THE 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.
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.