Friday, April 13, 2012

Mary of Scotland

When Orson Welles was asked what movies he studied before embarking on directing Citizen Kane he replied, "I studied the Old Masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." This week, we're looking at little-seen films from The Old Master, each different in tone, temperament and subject matter, but all unmistakably the work of America's storied film-maker, the irascible, painterly, domineering, sentimental puzzle that was John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.

Mary of Scotland (John Ford, 1936) The film, written by Dudley Nichols from Maxwell Anderson's play, begins with an odd preamble, giving an overview of the whole Mary, Queen of Scots/Elizabeth R situation, and ending with the hopeful suggestion that they are "all equal now," buried close to each other in Westminster Abbey.  Cheery thought, and, despite what the play and movie say, the only time that Elizabeth and Mary were in the same room together.

It's a problematic film. betraying its stage roots (the speeches are very formal, stylized, and performed theatrically, with no overlap and AT THE TOP OF EVERYBODY'S LUNGS, as if trying to reach the last row of the balcony) although Ford works overtime to find interesting angles to shoot from.  So much Hollywood gossip swirls around this film—part of Hepburn's "box-office poison" cycle—that one is hesitant to bring it up as sources for the film's problems, which are many. But the main fault lies with Anderson's play, which lionizes Mary (Katherine Hepburn) while demonizing Elizabeth, and the production goes right along with it—Mary's first lines are a prayer to God for returning safely to Scottish shores, while Elizabeth's is ordering people around and played (by Florence Eldridge) as if she were Edward G. Robinson.  It would have been nice if this subject were a little more nuanced, as it involves two strong women in positions of power with men as being subjective, if constant irritants. One wishes that the two could have gotten together and agreed that all the men surrounding them were jerks and done something about that, rather than engaging in power plays for England's throne.

But, that's not how history went, and the play plays fast and loose enough with the facts as it is.  And this is Mary's movie, to the point where Hepburn is the only cast member with close-ups—jarring close-ups that have the feel of insert shots as the lighting changes dramatically from the establishing shotsElizabeth is only seen in full shots that emphasize costume over performance.

There are joys to be had, though.  Ford's penchant to use unruly horses is much in evidence, and the animals are particularly out of control on the sound-stages that dominate the film.  And Frederic March is something of a revelation, boisterous and accented, his is the best performance in the film.  And Ford's presentation is never less than spectacular, as has been mentioned, giving the film a scope that it wouldn't have had in other's hands.

A not-altogether successful film, but interesting to see.

1 comment:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

One of those old Kate's I've not seen yet. I promise myself that one day I'll sit down and watch all her films, but it's nice knowing I still have bits of her to discover, because when I've watched them all I won't have any to look forward to.