Tower of London (1939)

tower-of-london3Director: Rowland V. Lee

It’s night #8 of 9 in the series with blog friend Mike’s Take on the Movies as we count down to Halloween, and tonight’s theme is Universal Monsters. I’m stretching the definition of monsters just a bit with my choice, Tower of London (1939). I picked this for the Universal Pictures Blogathon before Mike suggested a creature from that studio as part of the Halloween series. Though it’s not strictly horror, it’s not much of a stretch to classify as monster this evil character made legendary by Shakespeare’s Richard III, whose sinister and gruesome exploits are showcased in a beautifully shot Universal saga featuring some horror icons.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone), sixth in succession to the throne, murders his way to the top with help from his obedient executioner Mord (Boris Karloff). Richard holds King Henry VI (Miles Mander) prisoner until his murder, banishes Wyatt (John Sutton), eliminates the Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price), and waits some years for King Edward IV (Ian Hunter) to die. Then, despite Wyatt’s efforts to return and stop him, Richard gets rid of young Edward V (Ronald Sinclair) and his brother Richard (John Herbert-Bond), becomes ruler and is killed in battle by Henry Tudor (Ralph Forbes).

Tower of London2

“Beware of Gloucester,” they say, don’t dare underestimate this vicious, ruthless enemy. In reality Richard was the victim of propaganda and Tudor myth-building, and there is much historically wrong with this movie, but this semi-fictionalized killer King provides gripping material and a juicy role for Rathbone. His devilish look, those pointed eyebrows and penetrating stare complement his intelligence and methodical ambition. He uses tiny dolls to represent his obstacles to the throne, and tracks his progress by plucking each dolly out of the scene, tossing it into the fire and rearranging the figures. He watches beheadings with sadistic glee and is so slick he manages to convince his most suspicious opponents that his word of honour means anything.

Dignified, astonishingly strong Queen Elizabeth (Barbara O’Neil) senses Richard’s evil with a mother’s intuition. She’s chilled by the sight of him hovering over the children’s bed and nothing will convince her that Richard “loves them….” Her worst fears come true when the Edward, on his deathbed, appoints Richard Lord Protector of the Princes. Though the actual murder of the boys isn’t shown, it’s a dreadful scene with an outcome confirmed by their screams waking the Queen and the absence of their dolls on Richard’s Royal playset.


Karloff does well in his supporting role as a thoroughly evil henchman. Sent to kill the Princes, Mord stands over them and hesitates–to size the boys up, presumably for coffins. He’s almost comically monstrous in some parts, calling Wyatt “my pretty,” and tossing another poor child’s bouquet over the hedges after snatching him to intercept a message.

The good cast also includes Rose Hobart as Richard’s bride Anne, Nan Grey as Wyatt’s devoted Lady Alice, Leo G. Carroll as Lord Hastings, Rathbone’s son John Rodion as Lord DeVere, and Vincent Price in his third movie. He shrinks in fear at Rathbone’s withering gaze, and giggles confidently when he accepts a wine-drinking challenge to win the whole of the Warwick estates. The fool believes he can outsmart the devil, and pays for his mistake in a scene memorable for its “overindulgence of Malmsey.”

Hunter’s Edward is obsessed with maintaining power and image, participates in Richard’s plots and plans to strengthen the Crown’s position through strategic betrothals. “Marry your enemies and behead your friends” says Edward, it’s all part of securing the throne. This is an age where a beheading is entertainment that has the young chimney sweep climbing for a better view. Not unlike an age when viewers enjoy stylish historical horror about family members being marked for death by a super-villain Duke.

Over at Mike’s Take on the Movies, there’s more Karloff at Universal with another icon of horror, so click here for that,  

and both of our picks are part of The Universal Pictures Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes! click here to see all the great posts.

Universal Blogathon - Dracula


14 thoughts on “Tower of London (1939)”

  1. I’ve always liked this film and in part because it was directed by Rowland V. Lee who also did the somewhat underrated Son of Frankenstein which I love to champion. Rathbone is suitably evil as if he’s just left an Errol Flynn set to take on the next villain role. Well done.

    1. He even gets to do some sword fighting! Basil was so good as a villain. Nice reunion not only for Son of Frank. stars and director Lee but written by Lee’s brother too. This was so fun for me to watch back when I was writing papers on Richard III, even though I couldn’t cite it as a source 🙂

  2. Regarding history: I have no love for the Tudors, but I’m one of the holdouts who just can’t buy the Richard counter-myth.

    Back to the actual film, it’s a great cast, and it’s always nice to see a great cast go through their paces. Although I thought John Sutton was one of the more blasé torture victims I’ve seen in films lately. And gosh, talk about recuperative powers! Was the guy a Tigger? (their tops are made out of rubber/ their bottoms are made out of springs.)

    Boris Karloff, like the Gopher, was “not in the books you know,” but helped up the horror quotient and made a good (err, should that be bad?) side-kick for Basil.

    And now I have to contemplate why this film has made me come up with two back-to-back Winnie-the-Pooh references…

    1. They could have done a bit more with Sutton’s Wyatt, just discussing today how much fun Claude Rains would have been in this mix. Nice Ian Hunter part though 🙂 what a great group. Karloff was featured on the vhs box art that I bought way back when, totally though it was “his” movie. So long as Richard III and Winnie the pooh never meet in real life, you’re ok. Thanks!

  3. I think you’re right that Sutton’s part was under-written. With all that juicy villainy going around, there wasn’t much left for him to do. I’ve seen Sutton in other parts where he was quite good, so was surprised how stiff he came off here. (And while I don’t want heroes to scream like little girls, I thought he overdid the stoicism a bit… but I guess what’s the point in acting in pain while being racked, if you’re able to climb a chimney soon after? It must not have hurt too bad 😉 )

    Yes, Karloff still sells! If you do a search for Mascot’s “King Of The Wild”, he is the only performer listed on the cover, but I believe he wasn’t even the main villain. Too bad there isn’t a restored, complete season of Colonel March available. I bet there’s plenty of people who would buy it.

    Ah yes, Ian Hunter 🙂 He seemed to relish playing the aging playboy King. A real eye-opener for anyone who thinks of him as only “stolid”. He, Rathbone, and Price played off each other so well it was a pleasure to see them work together.

    Haha! “Clarence would talk…”

    1. Sutton was good in lots of movies, earliest I saw him would have been Jane Eyre and Captain from CAstile I bet, and liked spotting him from then on, unique look. Those lasting icons get most everything credited to them as stars now, just like all kinds of movies get labelled “noir” even if they’re not. So many good observations here, thanks!

      1. Haven’t seen either of those two films (yet.) I think seeing Sutton as the Colonel’s aide in nearly all the Bulldog Drummond films first made me take note of his name. Like you say, a very distinct appearance. I’ve read that he started out as a technical advisor for British Colonial films (having been both a tea planter and veldt rancher), but soon wound up in front of the cameras based on that “look.”

        I’ve seen him many times, but a notable tv appearance that comes to mind is an episode of “The Rebel”, which had the interesting device of both he and Yuma relating very different flashbacks, each absolving the narrator of murder, and placing the blame on the other man… hmm… guess who was lying?

        Oh, absolutely about the “noir” sets! Some people seem to apply it to any black and white film that has a crime committed in it. Noir is a very subjective term anyway, and I hesitate to even use the term much myself…

        Best regards, and thanks 🙂

        1. Interesting re: Sutton! I like how many people in classic Hollywood had such different jobs and backgrounds before working in film, I often think it helped them bring more to their work than a generation raised just on film, I might be wrong, it happens a lot 🙂

  4. I’ve heard of this film but haven’t seen it (probably because it’s set in medieval times and I’m not a huge fan of that time period). Hard to resist such a great horror line-up, though (Karloff, Rathbone, and Price).


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