Tower of London (1939)


*. Shakespeare didn’t invent the monstrous, Machiavellian, hunchback figure of Richard III. By the time he got to telling the story there was a long tradition going back at least to Sir Thomas More of presenting him as a stock villain.
*. So Shakespeare didn’t mess with the formula but exploited it. For some reason it took Hollywood, no enemy to formulaic crowd-pleasers, to make a hash of it.
*. I think they were too literal. Screenwriter Robert N. Lee (brother of director Rowland V. Lee, an interesting sibling collaboration repeated in the 1962 version produced by Gene Corman and directed by his brother Roger), read up on the history of the period and the resulting script is in some ways a more faithful account than Shakespeare. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it a better drama.
*. The thing is, the history of this period is incredibly complex. Whenever I go back to read Richard III I find myself having to go over a lot of introductory material first just so I can keep the various players straight. That confusion isn’t sorted out here, though the business of Richard’s dollhouse is a nice visual aide.
*. It’s not a horror film or melodrama, though there are glances in this direction. Boris Karloff as the executioner/dungeonkeeper Mord belongs in this other world, a clubfooted figure whose hair has all slid down to his eyebrows. But Basil Rathbone is positively restrained as Richard of Gloucester, and the part really demands a ham.
*. Instead of being determined to play the villain, Richard ends up being just another figure in a historical costume drama and the story has no real focus. I guess the young lovers are the heroes, but I had trouble even remembering their names. I also found it surprising that the climactic death on the battlefield at Bosworth was not Richard’s but that of Mord.
*. Is that the world’s fasted hourglass? It’s huge, but empties in about five seconds.
*. I like the historical detail of the soldiers carrying pikes. It might even be historically accurate. The grunts in olden times tended to use whatever was at hand that could serve the function of a weapon, so if they were being drawn from a mining district it would make sense.


*. Another interesting connection to the later Corman version is the presence of Vincent Price as the Duke of Clarence (he would play Richard in 1962). This was back in the day when Price was still more a foppish heel than a bad guy, and it’s an interesting take on Clarence, who we’re almost glad to see get stuffed in the butt of malmsey.
*. Universal spent some money on this one, but despite the talented cast it really doesn’t work. Taking a higher road for this sort of material was a mistake.

13 thoughts on “Tower of London (1939)

  1. Bookstooge

    I think that money would have been better spent being given to my grandparents so that I could have been a spoiled Trust Kid. I’m wondering if this is actionable? Could I sue Universal? Is Universal even still around to BE sued?

    Your reviews always raise the most interesting questions.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        I think your odds would be slightly better at building a time machine and going back and giving your grandparents some hot stock tips. Tell them that there’s this thing called the Internets coming and it’s going to be as big as the daguerreotype.

      2. Bookstooge

        So just to be clear, you think my chances are pretty good, right?
        That’s how I’m reading this comment.
        Because I’m going to represent myself and man, do I charge a LOT! I need a big win just to pay myself off.

        But if you have any spare time machines, I’d be glad to swap it for something you could use, like maple syrup. or chips.

      3. Alex Good Post author

        You’re representing yourself, up against the big corporate firm of Dewey, Cheatem & Howe? I still think the time machine is the way to go. So far I’ve only got a prototype ready and it’s unlikely to get you back in a recognizable form. But I could use some of that syrup on the big stack of pancakes I’m whomping up for breakfast tomorrow.

      4. Bookstooge

        I thought D,C&H only dealt in automobile cases? Have they branched out into time machines and movie studios now?

        But if I get turned into a big pile of goo, feel free to put me on your pancakes. Don’t say I never did anything for you….

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