Tower of London (1939) ***½
In another review not long ago, I brought up the concept of “surrogate horror,” the practice (especially common during the late 1930’s) of piling traditional horror movie trappings onto a film whose plot and subject matter would not normally include it within the genre, generally as a way of trading on the appeal of horror while dodging the ire of censorship boards or other professional busybodies. Most of the 1930’s surrogate horror films were mysteries, but a few were adventure movies (particularly of the “peril in the jungle” school) or crime pictures instead. Universal’s Tower of London might be the strangest example of the form, for it applies the surrogate horror technique to a historical melodrama— and a historical melodrama with a Shakespearean pedigree, at that!
Tower of London takes as its text the bloody rise and fall of England’s King Richard III (Basil Rathbone, from Queen of Blood and Tales of Terror), beginning in the immediate aftermath of his first usurpation, when he helped his older brother, Edward (Ian Hunter, of Dr. Blood’s Coffin and the 1941 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), depose the senile King Henry VI (Miles Mander, from Fingers at the Window and The Picture of Dorian Gray). Richard was the Duke of Gloucester in those days, a pretty impressive title in and of itself. As we join the story, old King Henry is under a plush and mostly painless imprisonment in the Tower of London, while Lord Devere (John Rodion), an erstwhile supporter of his, is on his way to a date with Mord (Boris Karloff), the sadistic executioner who is the willing instrument of Duke Richard’s most devilish schemes. Queen Elyzabeth (Barbara O’Neil), Edward’s wife, is in an intolerable position, for she is the condemned man’s cousin, yet her rank requires her to be present at the beheading. She is also somewhat worried about another cousin, John Wyatt (John Sutton, of The Invisible Man Returns and The Bat), who insists upon standing beside the still-defiant Devere as he goes to his death. At the very least, this show of family (if not necessarily political) solidarity imperils Wyatt’s prospects of convincing the king to let him marry Alice Barton (Nan Grey, from Dracula’s Daughter and The House of the Seven Gables), the queen’s chief lady-in-waiting. But there’s a far greater danger, for with Richard at his brother’s side in the royal box, there’s every chance of John being marked as a potential traitor, and targeted for preemptive elimination. Elyzabeth manages to cool her husband’s anger, but it surely does not bode well for John Wyatt when Richard describes his actions as “indiscreet.”
It might seem odd at first that Wyatt would need King Edward’s permission to marry Lady Alice, but courtship among royal relatives is not like its counterpart among commoners, or even among the lesser nobility. With all political authority being a question of inheritance, unmarried relations of the king and queen become a diplomatic resource— royal cousins marry whomever will contribute the most wealth and power to the dynasty, not whomever they love most dearly, and Alice Barton has nothing to offer King Edward in terms of family connections. And Edward, even more than most kings, has made strategic marriages the cornerstone of his power politics. The queen has lots of relatives, and Edward has been marrying them off left and right into wealthy and influential families. Similarly, his other brother, the Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price, making his very first appearance in anything like a horror film)— whose birth intervened between the king’s and Richard’s— scored big-time with the daughter of probably the richest man in England. Right now, Edward is expecting the arrival of a dowager duchess, to whom he intends to marry Richard. Richard won’t have it, though. He’s still in love with Anne Neville (Rose Hobart, from The Mad Ghoul and the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), whose marriage to the now-exiled Prince of Wales (G. P. Huntley) was brokered by the Duke of Clarence. (That last part, in case you were wondering, remains a major source of friction between the king’s two brothers.) Edward’s instinct is to run roughshod over Richard, but the timely arrival of John Wyatt gives the duke a way out of his fix. Richard suggests that Wyatt would make a fine husband to the duchess, especially since he’s sure to outlive the old bag and inherit everything she owns. Naturally, the irony of saddling young John with the nation’s least desirable bride, at the very moment when he had come seeking the king’s permission to marry Alice, brings a tingly warmth to the blackened little cinder that Richard calls his heart. First Wyatt protests, then he outright refuses; this is not the most sensible way to deal with King Edward IV. Edward summons the guards to hand John over to Mord in reprisal for his disobedience, and only a giant shit-fit on the queen’s part suffices to get his sentence commuted to banishment across the English Channel.
Speaking of the Channel, the Prince of Wales, son of old King Henry, has just sailed across it with a formidable army, and is marching in the direction of London. Thus Richard, who seems to have been the brains behind the coup that put Edward on the throne, must now devise something equally clever to enable the usurper to stay there. Playing upon the old king’s senility, Richard convinces Henry that he’s in charge again, and that the Prince of Wales is coming to depose him. Then he has Mord organize a gossip campaign spreading word throughout London that Henry has given his support to Edward and his brothers. With the fake united front serving as fifth-column insurance at home, Edward and his men (including Henry— maybe the royal conspirators will get lucky and the old geezer will die in the fighting) march off to meet the Prince of Wales at Tewkesbury. The prince falls before the Duke of Gloucester himself (Henry annoys his enemies by surviving after all), and that’s one uprising down the toilet.
It’s also one fewer person in the line of succession between Richard and the crown, and the prince’s death makes Richard extremely itchy to shorten that line further still. He has Mord kill King Henry in his private chapel. He plays upon Edward’s paranoia to bring the Duke of Clarence under suspicion, and then eliminates him in what must surely be the strangest duel ever fought. And when Edward eventually sickens and dies (making him probably the only person ever to know Richard of Gloucester and still pass away of natural causes), that’s when the fun really begins. With the queen packed off to a convent and Richard acting as regent for his brother’s two young sons, just how long do you think it’s going to be before Richard is ruling England in his own name? But Queen Elyzabeth knows well the danger her children are in, and she hopes to save them with the aid of Alice Barton, John Wyatt, and Henry Tudor (Ralph Forbes, from The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Thirteenth Chair), a loyal partisan of Henry VI who preceded Wyatt into French exile by several years.
As the foregoing synopsis ought to make clear all by itself, this Tower of London is considerably more ambitious than the version directed by Roger Corman 23 years later. Whereas the Corman Tower of London mostly concentrates on Richard, beginning, in fact, with Edward IV already on his deathbed, the Universal version works on a much broader canvas. There are a great many more characters, nearly all of them involved in some sort of intrigue, and the plot is a hell of a lot more complex— indeed, I left out quite a few minor loops and meanderings in the interests of brevity and clarity. As a consequence, the older Tower of London makes greater demands on its audience, and viewers without a firm grounding in English history are apt to find themselves wishing for a scorecard.
Nevertheless, Tower of London is a very well-made movie, and is highly entertaining if you can give it your undivided attention. Director Rowland V. Lee and stars Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff were all fresh from making the superb Son of Frankenstein, and the teamwork among the three men is nearly as effective this second time around. In contrast to Vincent Price’s scowling and saturnine take on the role in 1962, Rathbone plays Richard as a man whose greatest weapon is his self-effacing charm; rarely has utter ruthlessness been so likeable. The glowering thuggery is Karloff’s job here, and he does it with all his usual brilliance (even if there are a couple of moments when the actor’s chronic back troubles cause a false note in an action sequence). The frequent visits to Mord’s torture chamber are the primary reason why anybody still remembers this movie today, and not until 1945’s The Body Snatcher would Karloff get another comparable chance at such totally unrepentant villainy. Lee contributes loads of gloomy atmosphere and some nifty camera tricks, and does much to disguise the limitations imposed by an inadequate budget during the two big battle scenes. He can’t do anything about the curious paucity of horses (medieval kings did not fight on foot unless their horses got shot out from under them), but the armies always look bigger than they actually are, and Lee makes the necessity of shooting on a soundstage work for rather than against him on both occasions. Finally, it’s great fun to see a 27-year-old Vincent Price— that future master of movie malignancy— playing a doomed and cowardly weakling, directly counter to an image he wouldn’t fully develop for another two decades. Tower of London is one pre-stardom film he had no reason to leave off his resumé.