Rowland V. Lee, 1939
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price
Richard, Duke of Gloucester, helps his brother Edward usurp the British throne from inept former king, Henry VI. The two plot and scheme, sending various enemies to the execution block or the torture room in the dungeon, with the help of Richard’s nefarious and deformed henchman Mord, but Richard’s taste of power makes him crave the thrown for himself. Meanwhile, Edward decides to arrange the union of an older duchess to Richard in order to bring their families together. Not wanting to marry her, he manipulates Edward into selecting John Wyatt, the Queen’s cousin, though he was intending to marry the young and beautiful Lady Alice. Wyatt refuses and though Edward nearly executes him, the Queen persuades him to exile Wyatt instead. He joins the exiled Henry Tudor in France.
Richard sneakily suppresses an attempted rebellion by the aged and somewhat confused King Henry and when the King dies, the line of succession is a little bit shorter. Another person in Richard’s way is the Duke of Clarence, his middle brother. Richard also dislikes Clarence because he had his first love, Lady Anne, married to the now exiled Prince of Wales, though Richard eventually wins her back. Richard manages to cruelly dispatch with the Duke of Clarence in a drinking challenge. When Edward falls ill and dies of natural causes, the kid gloves come off and Richard and Mord begin a full scale campaign of paranoia, torture, and murder in order to finally reach the throne.
Tower of London is certainly an ambitious film. It is not specifically based on Shakespeare’s Richard III, but rather was written by the director’s brother and is inspired by the history of the period. I say “inspired” because much of the film (and several of the characters) are fabricated. The film’s primary fault is that it aspires to be a historical epic, but doesn’t quite have the reach. There are a wealth of characters and a vast number of plot events, forcing parts of the film to race through scenes to get to the inevitable conclusion. (Well, inevitable for anyone who has studied British history or read Richard III.)
Director Lee, Karloff, and Rathbone had all just worked together on Son of Frankenstein and they certainly brought along a number of horror elements with them. Tower of London was essentially competing with historical melodrama The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex (also featuring Vincent Price) from the same year, but instead of relying entirely on the melodrama, Lee focused on horror, torture, murder, manipulation, and the grimmer side of life in the 15th century. Throughout the film characters are beheaded, drowned in a vat of wine, tortured to death in an iron maiden, stabbed, and much more. Also, don’t forget the scene of child murder.
Mord, Karloff’s character, was invented solely for the film and plays up Karloff’s considerable abilities with physical performance. Though in other adaptations, Richard’s monstrous qualities, such as his humpback, are played up, here he looks completely normal next to the club footed, misshaped Mord, hungry for death and violence. The studio was not pleased with the original score, so they oddly used much of the score for Son of Frankenstein, further intensifying the horror connections.
The cast is excellent overall, though be forewarned that the acting style is highly theatrical and seems a little over the top in some scenes. Though Karloff is wonderful as Mord, he could use more screen time. The film undoubtedly belongs to Basil Rathbone (Tales of Terror), who gives an unusually charming portrayal of Richard III. Vincent Price doesn’t get an overwhelming amount of screen time, but is great as the whining, cowardly Duke of Clarence. The drunk showdown between he and Richard is one of the film’s most delightful and entertaining scenes. Though I wouldn’t call Tower of London an outright genre film, it is Price’s first role in a film with numerous horror elements. He had previously worked with Lee in one of his first roles in the comedy Service de Luxe (1938).
Barbara O’Neil (Gone With the Wind) is also memorable as the long suffering Queen Elyzabeth, among the first to recognize Richard’s treachery. Nan Grey (Dracula’s Daughter) is decent as the spirited Lady Alice, who is one half of the romantic subplot alongside John Sutton (The Invisible Man Returns and The Bat, both with Price), who plays Wyatt. Both characters were invented for the film and their subplot is certainly one of the weaker points. There are a number of other familiar faces from horrors films of the period: Rose Hobart (the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Ian Hunter (the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Miles Mander (The Picture of Dorian Gray), etc.
Lee is great at getting around the mediocre budget and the film looks a lot more robust and expensive than it actually was. Though this might bore fans of some of Price and Karloff’s classic horror films, it is a lot of fun and comes recommended to fans of darker historical fiction and Richard III.
Tower of London is available in the Boris Karloff Collection along with The Black Castle (which uses some of the sets from Tower of London), The Climax, The Strange Door, and Night Key. The film was loosely remade in 1962 by Roger Corman and stars Vincent Price as Richard, though this follows the plot of Richard III more closely.