Mary of Scotland (1936): John Ford’s Historical Epic, Starring Katharine Hepburn

Maxwell Anderson’s estimable play Mary of Scotland was adapted for the big screen by Dudley Nichols and directed by John Ford, right after scoring big with the Oscar-winning The Informer (1935).
Katharine Hepburn, riding high after the huge success of Alice Adams, stars as Mary Stuart, who serves as the Queen of Scotland until she is jealously put out of the way by her British cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Florence Eldredge, miscast).
Betrayed by the Scots nobles, Mary is sentenced to the chopping block for treason.  Elizabeth is willing to pardon Mary if only the latter will renounce all claims to the British throne, but Mary refuses, marching to her death with head held high.
The Mary-Elizabeth confrontation scene was purely fabricated by Maxwell Anderson’s imagination; in reality, the two women had never met.
RKO’s other star at the time, Ginger Rogers coveted the role of Queen Elizabeth, but the studio refused to allow her to play a secondary role–and unsympathetic at that.  To prove the RKO execs wrong, Rogers secretly arranged for a screen test, in which she was convincingly made up as Elizabeth.
Still, RKO would not consider casting her in the part, so the role of Elizabeth went to Florence Eldridge, the wife of Fredric March, who was cast in Mary of Scotland as Mary’s fearless protector the Earl of Bothwell.
Most critics, then and now, have dismissed the film as a weak Hepburn performance (she does declaim occasionally) and one of John Ford’s few stale and overly theatrical pictures.
However, revisiting the film decades later, I find some merits in this admittedly so-so attempt to make both an epic feature and character drama, centering on one strong and willful woman.
The scenes featuring Douglas Walton as Mary’s cowardly husband Darnley are particularly touching.
Fortunately, in the following two years, Hepburn would make the Oscar nominated, female-driven melodrama Stage Door (1937), which was a hit, and Cukor’s second version of Holiday (1938), for which she would earn another Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Running time: 123 minutes