The Mediaeval Dead?: ‘Tower of London’ (1939)

❉  A heady mixture of pageantry and pain set against a violent, turbulent period of history.

The hallowed halls of history are a hive of horrors to be rifled like a treasure-laden tomb and exploited for the sliver screen.  Whether it’s the 17th century witch-scare hysteria of Michael Reeves’ 1968 classic Witchfinder General and Ken Russell’s diabolical 1971 masterwork The Devils, or perhaps the rebellions and civil war of late 18th century England during the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ that inspired the tortures and bloody assizes doled out by Christopher Lee as the notorious Judge Jeffries in The Bloody Judge (Jess Franco, 1970) and the sardonical disfigurement of Conrad Veidt’s tragic Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni, 1928) the turbulent times of humanity’s past have been a vast resource for depictions of the macabre and the grand guignol.

Strange, then, that the Wars of the Roses – that turbulent and violent series of conflict that ravaged the country and tore families apart, pitting brother against brother according to their alignment with the Houses of Lancaster and York – is a period that has yielded relatively little in the field of horror aside from portrayals of Richard III as a grotesque and fiendish figure, a la Olivier.

By 1939, Universal Pictures had well established themselves as the prime purveyors of gourmet feats of horror, having firmly established the European-influenced ‘Hollywood Gothic’ style in the previous decade with chiller blockbusters such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley, 1923), The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian [ostensibly and according to the credits, but it’s a long story], 1925) and the aforementioned The Man Who Laughs and then blazed the trail in the talkie ’30s with such classics as Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and James Whale’s heady mixture of the camp and the chilling in Frankenstein (also 1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  After a horror hiatus of four years (the company having been thrown into something of a state of dissaray behind the scenes due to massive overspending on James Whale’s 1936 musical extravaganza Show Boat)

Universal had returned to the fray once more with Son of Frankenstein directed by Rowland V. Lee – which proved a revitalising shot in the arm (or shot of lightning to the neck-nuts) for both Universal and the flagging genre.  Later that same year, Universal mounted Tower of London, reuniting both director Lee and his Frankensteinian leads – Basil Rathbone and the king of horror Boris Karloff (by this time being so iconic that his first name wasn’t needed, being billed simply as KARLOFF THE UNCANNY).

Written by the director’s brother Robert N. Lee (who had collaborated on the screenplay for the acclaimed 1931 gangster noir Little Caesar), the film vaguely follows along the same period expored by famed dramatist and Tudor apologist-cum-propagandist William Shakespeare in his The Tragedy of King Richard the Third (also known to fans of The League of Gentlemen as “Richard Three”, and yes it does have more killings than Predator 2), exploring the irrestistable rise of Richard of Gloucester (Rathbone, haughty and imperious as ever) as he weaves Machiavellian webs of intrigue and plays the game of thrones.  Karloff co-stars as the titular Tower’s grim torturer in chief Mord – grim and bald of head is he, pale of face and with bandied leg and one big built-up shoe (very probably one of Karloff’s famed asphalt-spreader’s boots from his most famous role – bow down, bow down to the Lord High Executioner.  Karloff plays the ghoulish role with relish (does relish really go with goulash?) and is easily the best screen representation of the head of the Bloody Tower’s chamber of horrors this side of Howard Vernon’s Jack Ketch in the aforesaid The Bloody Judge, and given acharacter-setting introductory shot as the camera tracks back to reveal him whetting the blade of his axe, hunched over the grindstone with intense intent, a midnight black raven perched atop one broad shoulder.

Karloff and Rathbone are not the only genre veterans amid the film’s cast, as we also have Ian Hunter (not the singer from Mott the Hoople, but the Dr Lanyon to Spencer Tracy’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde [Victor Fleming, 1941] and the the eponymous character’s father in Sidney J. Furie’s extraordinary 1961 Doctor Blood’s Coffin) as King Edward IV, future horror megastar of countless tales of terror Vincent Price as the ineffectual and doomed Duke of Clarence, the lovely Nan Grey (Sapphic vampire victim of Dracula’s Daughter [Lambert Hillyer, 1936] and Vincent Price’s co-star in The Invisible Man Returns [Joe May, 1940]) as damsel in distress Lady Alice Barton.  There’s also Miles Mander (the incredulous Sir Frederick Fleet in Lew Landers’ 1943 The Return of the Vampire) as the enfeebled and dethroned King Henry VI, Rose Hobart (Muriel Carew, the sweet betrothed of the schizophrenic medic’s better side in Rouben Mamoulian’s definitive 1932 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) as the Kingmaker’s daughter Anne Neville, and Leo G. Carroll (before he was over a barrel when Jack Arnold’s 1955 Tarantula took to the hills) as Lord Hastings.

There are also appearances from Frankenstein’s blustering Burgomeister Lionel Bellmore as Beacon, and – annoyingly – another Son of Frankenstein alumnus in the shape of Donnie Dunagan as the young Prince Richard of Shrewsbury, his strangulated Southern U. S. accent once again sticking out anachronistically amidst his patrician elders (thankfully he’s replaced by the much more appropriate John Herbert-Bond halfway through the film).

Rathbone’s Gloucester is portrayed in a much more realistic fashion than Olivier’s over the top hunchbacked villain, standing proud and erect like a male member of the royal family though slightly bent as he plots his intrigues with Mord knelt in supplication before him.  “Crookback and dragfoot – misfits, eh?  Well, what we lack in physical perfection we make up here..”  He plans his scent to the throne in a fastidious manner, having a secret cabinet with a diarama of the throne room set out with little figurines of the royal family all laid out in their respective places which he removes one by one and casts into the fireplace as he has them removed from life and out the way of his succession, like some evil (well, even more evil) version of Borusa at the Game of Rassilon.

After the decisive Yorkist victory over the Lancastrians at the Battle of Tewkesbury, wherein Henry IV’s son is slain in battle – Rathbone taking him on in a duel utilising the fencing skills so expertly displayed in such films as The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, 1938)and The Mark of Zorro (Rouben Mamoulian, 1940), though it looking slightly bizarre with a broadsword rather than a rapier – Richard and Mord take on the task of finishing off the mentally impoverished ex-monarch: Richard handing Mord the dagger with which to do the deadly deed and the grim executioner advancing towards his prey in a single panning shot that emphasises Mord’s shadow upon the wall reminiscent of German Expressionist cinema such as F. W. Murnau’s legendary Nosferatu (1922).

After wangling his way into wedlock with the widow of his battlefield victim, the ex-Princess of Wales Anne Neville, the spidery scoliosis sufferer next plans the removal of his guileless brother George the Duke of Clarence.  Challenging the hard-drinking Clarence to combat with any weapon including “your favourite joust – with wine”, the brothers sit down to a duel with a barrel of “rich, heady Malmsey” as their weapons, draining tankard after tankard until Clarence’s sturdier renal system and constitution prove Gloucester’s match and he decides to stay true to the rules if not the spirit of the game by still utilising the wine as his weapon and having Clarence drowned in the cask.

The film’s crowning glory is of course the famed section, after the death of Edward, of the Princes in the Tower – as bad uncle Richard has his nephews Richard (Herbert-Bond) and the newly proclaimed Edward V (Ronald Sinclair) imprisoned in the Tower “or their own protection” as he uses his position of Protector to consolidate his power before having the suffering little children suffocated in their sleep (the two child actors being made up, bewigged and costumed to look exactly like the princes in John Everett Millais’ 1878 painting The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483).

The two child actors look exactly like the princes in John Everett Millais’ 1878 painting The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower!

Events in a historical drama tend to take their predicted course, of course, and so these events are no surprise to anyone with a vague grasp of history or passing knowledge of Shakey’s (pseudo-)historicals, but they play out with great panache and style under Lee’s direction, and shot in crisp monochrome by George Robinson amid Universal’s standing ‘European village’ set – recognisable here in 15th century London as the same architecture from the Bavarian village of Frankenstein, the Welsh village of Llanwelly from George Waggner’s 1941 The Wolf Man, and many more.

❉ ‘Tower of London’ was re-released on DVD by Fabulous Films on 21 August, 2017.

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