Director: 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).
“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.