Mary Queen of Scots on film and TV: 1895 to 1967


08 June 2020
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In the first of a two-part series, Mickey Mayhew takes a look at how the Stewart queen has been portrayed on screen, from a late 19th-century clip with Mary played by a male actor, through to a lost Sixties TV mini-series.

From the first time she appeared onscreen in 1895 - when ‘she’ was actually ‘he’ - there have been many differing depictions of Mary Queen of Scots for both casual viewers and serious historians alike to enjoy.

These versions of Mary might be used as social documents, concise chronologies about how women are depicted onscreen, how LGBT and ethnic minority characters are treated, and so on and so forth. They also mirror more focused thinking in regard to various aspects of her life, as authored in the countless biographies and other historical works concerned with her era, and how arguments between various sources swing back and forth; what might seem the authoritative take on her life in one generation may be rendered almost obsolete by a discovery or definitive new ‘take’ in the next.

Mary on screen

The following chronology offers as complete as possible a timeline of each and every appearance of Mary Queen of Scots onscreen, from short, experimental pieces through to cameos in TV drama, headlining her own series and of course the motion pictures.

The execution of Mary Stuart (1895)

This first piece runs to eighteen seconds and features the ‘stop trick’ technique to depict the actual beheading, with a mannequin substituted for the actor. It was produced by Thomas Edison and directed by Alfred Clark, with the role of Mary being taken by a male actor, in the great Shakespearian tradition, in this case one Robert L Thomae.

Apart from being one of the first features to use this type of ‘special effect’, there is relatively little than can be gleaned from it in terms of assessing any specific portrayal of Mary, other than marking her first time as a cinematic subject, and already she is depicted as the victim, or perhaps the perpetrator, if one traces her trajectory backwards from the block and onto the path of the Babington Plot that brought her there. 

Mary of Scotland (1936)

Starring Katharine Hepburn as Mary – the 1936 RKO movie was the first big screen outing for Mary, also starring Frederic March as a Bothwell most definitely more in the mould of romantic hero than the bullish schemer he would sometimes be portrayed as.

Although it was a flop at the time it is now considered by some critics as almost a semi-classic. Moroni Olsen plays probably the most visually accurate John Knox ever seen on screen; little wonder, as he had previously played him on the stage. Hepburn plays Mary as a somewhat tremulous tragic queen, fated to spend the nineteen years of her English captivity in one solitary room! Florence Eldridge is an underrated Elizabeth I; their brief, fiery exchange must surely be worth the price of the DVD alone.

The musical numbers – mainly the raging bagpipes played by Bothwell’s band of brigands – make this movie at times somewhat of a black and white ‘The Wizard of Oz’, especially when the populace of Edinburgh serenade Mary at her window, only to have John Knox literally materialise in their midst like ‘The Wicked Witch of the West’. Joan Crawford played Mary in a later radio version of the movie (1937).

Das Herz der Konigin (The Heart of the Queen) (1940)

This film stars Swedish ‘chanteuse’ Zarah Leander as Mary, and Willy Birgel as Bothwell. This German movie, made during the Second World War, took Mary’s story and made it a tool of Nazi propaganda; the production was decidedly anti-British, with an Elizabeth I – Maria Koppenhofer – even more cold, calculating and intent on empire-building than usual.

It’s worth watching for the social significance, but Birgel makes for a slimy Bothwell, and Leander – who breaks into song several times – is somewhat cold and distant herself. If anything, this film depicts Elizabeth I representing the worst aspects of Britain’s colonial past, with Mary herself as an unfortunate victim of that ravenous foreign policy.

On a more personal level, Mary still comes across as the far more emotional of the two women, and thus by default a victim also; the cold, ‘mannish’ - in manner, at least - Elizabeth I triumphs because her heads rules her heart, and because she has effectively - and famously - cut herself off from any physical or emotional succour. 

Sir Francis Drake (TV series; 1961)

A TV series, with Noelle Middleton as Mary – the episode entitled ‘Queen of Scots’ is set at Tutbury Castle (for more on Mary at Tutbury click here) during the time when Mary was held there under the watch of Sir Amyas Paulet, around late 1585. The result is either a moody, atmospheric black and white drama or pure teatime kid’s kitsch adventure yarn, depending on your point of view.

Jean Kent does a fine turn in her ongoing role as a decidedly sympathetic Elizabeth I, appearing in most of the episodes. Noelle Middleton’s depiction of Mary leaves the viewer little to work with, but given the show’s clear bias, she is of course cast firmly in the role of the opposing chaotically emotional force, squared up against the English queen’s stout, mindful and pragmatic determination. 

The Queen’s Traitor (TV series; 1967)

A TV series with Stephanie Beacham, in one of her first onscreen roles, as Mary. All five episodes are now lost from the archives - thus making it hard to offer any substantial critique. It was set during the Ridolfi Plot, when Mary was held at Sheffield Castle; covering her relationship with the Duke of Norfolk, after whom one assumes the entire thing was named. Unlike some 1960s serials now lost, this show wasn’t ‘screencapped’ either, whereby off-air stills would be taken roughly every ninety seconds or so, making it even more difficult to get an idea of what the thing actually looked like.

Indeed, all we have to go on are some black and white stills of Stephanie Beacham looking either anguished or conspiratorial, which - to be perfectly honest - seem to be the two default settings for most people considering Mary Queen of Scots in captivity. 

For part 2 (1971-2018) click here.

'Mickey Mayhew is a lifelong Londoner. His PhD on the cult surrounding tragic queens Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots has now been satisfactorily completed and is due for publication next year. He was co-author on three books relating to Jack the Ripper and his first non-fiction work, The Little Book of Mary Queen of Scots, was published in January 2015 by The History Press; 'I Love the Tudors' followed soon after.'

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