The fascinating badness of ‘Mary of Scotland’

In 2016 we can chuckle at monikers as casual in their misogyny as “box office poison” (why not call these actresses in flop movies the Wicked Witches of the West?). Katherine Hepburn joined Joan Crawford in this category when she stumbled after winning an Oscar for 1933’s Morning Glory. But that movie and 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement, in which she played opposite John Barrymore, made it clear that Hepburn was going to be an actress to whom audiences had to warm up. I’m not sure she’s acting in those movies; with her high voice, fussy diction, and herky jerk movements she’s like auditioning for a part in a verse drama, where human gestures and controlled shows of feeling matter less than projecting the lines. Fortunately Break of Hearts, A Woman Rebels, and Quality Street are terrible films: creaky, hobbled by RKO’s idea of prestige.

John Ford’s specialties were westerns, but early in his nearly five-decade career German Expressionism got to him; like 1935’s The Informer, Mary of Scotland boasts plenty of star profile shots and swanky mood lighting. Indeed, Mary of Scotland has the pace and pitch of a silent film, albeit released seven years too late.

Based on a drama by Maxwell Anderson, the thirties’ most popular “important” playwright, Mary of Scotland at last gave Hepburn the chance to chew on real blank verse, which Dudley Nichols bowdlerizes into an illiterate’s idea of tony English. The first mistake in this 1936 picture is the casting. Actresses as mannered as Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson, and Cate Blanchett have played Elizabeth I; instead, Hepburn plays Mary Stuart, the Catholic claimant to the English throne who lost her freedom and eventually her head. None of this matters in the RKO production. Playing Mary as if she were a lovestruck college girl who’d bumped into several trees once too often, Hepburn is at her flightiest and most overwrought. It isn’t merely that Nichols and the direction vulgarize Mary Stuart: I’m all for shaking the cobwebs from historical dramas. To believe, however, that Katherine Hepburn could deliver a ponderous speech asserting her right to love as she pleases is to believe Hepburn could also play Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The performance has a fascinating badness. Frederic March as third husband Bothwell is right there with her. With his wavering command of an acting coach’s interesting conception of a Scottish accent, March and his streetwise intonations keep interrupting the proceedings. Just when I think he’s had it he drops a “meself” into a sentence.

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