Monday 8 January 2024

Tower of London (1939)

Director: Rowland V. Lee
Writer: Robert N. Lee
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Barbara O'Neil, Ian Hunter, Vincent Price, Nan Grey and Ernest Cossart

Index: The First Thirty.

I should be worried that Vincent Price went from one historical drama to another, but I’ve seen both before and they’re very different. It can’t be said that this is any more historically accurate than The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, but it doesn’t seem to matter as much.

Part of that is that it’s older history that we don’t remember as well, the Henry Tudor who wins a decisive battle at the end of the picture to become Henry VII, being the grandfather of Elizabeth I. We’re within the Wars of the Roses and they’re not even well remembered in the two counties who bluster at each other still.

However, part of it is also that, while Basil Rathbone is officially the lead here, as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, before, during and after he serves as Richard III, King of England, it has to be said that Boris Karloff seriously challenges him for the lead because he doesn’t think he’s even in a historical drama. He’s obviously in a horror film and, if we think about it, Richard is sometimes too. We could fairly read this as a slasher movie with Richard the big bad and Karloff, as Mord, his favourite weapon.

We begin in 1471 when the monarch wasn’t clear. The young Edward IV is king, because he deposed Henry VI, who is confined within the Tower of London, but Paper Crown Henry is a madman and thinks he’s still king, as he was a short time earlier for almost four decades. It’s a fascinating time in history, and it’s clear that Robert N. Lee, writer of this script, was on the opposite team to George R. R. Martin. Lee has the House of Lancaster the honourable, decent and rightful monarchs but the House of York a bunch of bloodthirsty scheming bastards who murder their way to the throne.

Anyway, Richard is the king’s brother and a seriously good swordsman, as we might expect given that he’s played by Rathbone. The first thing we see, after bald and clubfooted Karloff sharpening an axe in the torture chamber he’s running for Richard, while a raven is perched on his shoulder—can that be more horror?—is Richard battling the king in a ring, both clad in full armour and wielding pikes. Outside the ring, moaning about how close a swing came to his head, is a third brother, the Duke of Clarence, played by Vincent Price.

Hey, at least he has lines early in this movie, but he’s a wuss here, petulant and whiny and rather fond of the bottle, his personal tipple of choice being malmsey, which I really ought to try. Once more, he does an excellent job, but he’s always the other brother. The king is the king and, in the form of Ian Hunter, he seems worthy to be king, even if he happened to win it by conquest. Richard is intelligent, strategic and vicious, so the very last person you want around you if you’re king. Clarence is... well, he’s the other one who is generally ignored or manoeuvred around.

I’m not going to talk much more about the game of thrones that the houses of Lancaster and York are playing, because it’s complicated stuff and not particularly important to know. What is important to know is that, like Dennis Price in Kind Hearts and Coronets, Richard is not next in the line of succession and he wants to be, very much. He even has a dollhouse, with a doll of each character ahead of him in line and he takes great pleasure, after each successful manoeuevre, in burning the doll(s) of whoever he’s just eliminated. Like I said, this is an early slasher movie.

Of course, his brother, Edward IV, is already king, so he has to be disposed of. Then there’s the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Clarence and the two young princes, Edward and Richard, whose fate we remember from school, or least as far as anyone knows. They’re the princes in the tower, who simply disappeared never to be found, but were likely murdered. History is bloody! Oh, and he has a doll for Paper Crown Henry too, because the former king still has a fair claim that many might get behind.

And so this is about Richard, but his weapon of choice is Mord, who didn’t exist in history at all but quite frankly should have done. He’s an avid follower of Richard, worshipping him as a god, a role that Gloucester is more than happy to fill. In turn he calls them Crookback and Dragfoot, which sounds like a cheesy cop show from the seventies.

I liked Rathbone here, though Richard is the villain of the piece and nobody should like him at all. I liked Karloff even more, because he’s a capable and eager murderer, playing up a real fondness for killing by pleading for Richard to let him go to the next battle, pretty please, so he can kill someone who’s actively attempting to kill him right back, but he’s also inherently a victim, and that makes him far deeper than he has any right to be in this role.

Price can’t compete with either, though his character does mount an attempted coup that fails quickly. However, he gets opportunities to shine, most obviously one in which Richard challenges him to a duel, with Clarence able to choose weapons, including wine. That’s only the beginning of Clarence laughing his ass off, as he could drink for England and Richard isn’t a lush. He giggles throughout this duel, which he wins. However, Richard cheats and Mord is happy to stab Clarence and throw him into a vat of wine, just as Shakespeare wrote.

Like Elizabeth and Essex, this is poor history that gets poorer as it goes, played up in good old Hollywood style as melodrama. There’s a good guy who stands on his principles and so gets tortured by Mord. There’s a lady love who masquerades as a chimney sweep in order to rescue him. There are battles, both in the ring between two opponents and on the field with two armies. There’s cold blooded murder and ruthless betrayal and honour and passion and all the things you expect in vast quantities.

Unlike Elizabeth and Essex, I don’t really care about accuracy, because I saw this less as the historical drama it presents itself as and more as a horror movie set in the 15th century. And, hey, Rathbone, Karloff and Price on the same roster simply wasn’t ever going to fail. These three are wonderful, even with Price a pouty baby of a duke who’s easily overshadowed.

And that’s fair. This is an early film for him, made while he was still paying his dues and he was easily the least well regarded of the three. However, a quarter of a century later, when the three reunited for The Comedy of Terrors in 1963, he was the star of the show.


Karen said...

Happy New Year, Hal! This totally is not my kind of movie, and I can hardly believe it, but you've made me want to check it out. I really enjoyed reading your post, and this -- "...he calls them Crookback and Dragfoot, which sounds like a cheesy cop show from the seventies." -- made me laugh out loud. Great stuff!

-- Karen

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Glad you enjoyed, Karen!

Your comment reminds me that many of my film review projects involve me selecting what I plan to review. I try to keep the schedule varied but there's always going to be some subconscious bias in what I select. With the First Thirty projects, I get to see exactly that: the first thirty films someone made, whatever genre they are, whenever they were made and however great or awful they happen to be. I've got to see some films that I'd never have watched otherwise, "totally not my kind of movie" movies, and sometimes I've loved them.