Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tower of London (1939)

Director: Rowland V. Lee
USA 1939
92 min

Tower of London is an interesting film for several reasons. A) It's a good compilation of London's royal history and (mostly) myths, B) There are a heck of a lot of great actors, and C) The story is wildly entertaining, the action caught by a professional camera man. The fact that there are a lot of real life characters and historical facts (take that as you like - old myths and rumors are a kind of history too) is another great aspect of the film.

Sure, it's not perfect. As good as all actors are slightly overacting: rubbing their hands while making evil plans, villainous laughter in empty rooms and a young couple in love saying cheesy things like "Oh, my love! If only the King would allow us to get married!". But in a film like this, that only adds to the entertainment value. Except for Barbara O'Neil as King Richard IV's spouse, Queen Elizabeth Woodville. She is just terrible - repeatedly wide-open eyes staring in terror into the camera. Yuck. And I can't understand how Henry Tudor after several hours of torture still looks so clean? I need to know what kind of conditioner he uses.

As is the general opinion of the world, London has a filthy and bloody history behind its royal throne. Tower of London picks one of the most treacherous and evil parts of its history, where everyone in the game are able to commit any crime to be the ruler of England.

Our main character, and the one who's side you're probably on, is Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Rathbone with a most laughable fringe). He is the brother and right hand of King Edward IV (unibrow Ian Hunter), but his most faithful companion is the clubfoot Mord (Karloff) who is in command of the torture chamber. (Quite ironically, "mord" is the Swedish word for "murder".) Richard's goal is, of course, to become the King of England. But unfortunately there are persons ahead of him in succession of the throne, and must therefore be eliminated.

I won't reveal too much of the storyline (don't skip history classes), but it's a mish-mash of plotting, marrying, killing and even more plotting. The main theme is The Duke of Gloucester's plan to get to the throne - and after each murder he destroys a miniature doll of the victim he keeps in a little doll house. See film clip below.

Scene: Early in the film we witness an execution, something the filthy Londoners of course think of as everyday entertainment. The victim is Lord Devere, and who plays him? Basil Rathbone's own son, Rodion Rathbone (credited as John Rodion)! He had come to America in the late 1930's to improve his relationship with his father, and obviously jumped on the occasion to be in one of his father's movies. (He only appeared in two motion pictures.) With these facts in mind, it makes it even more bizarre to watch The Duke of Gloucester's pleased smile while seeing his son's head roll, don't you think?
And how lovely isn't the sentimental scene with Rathbone and Karloff?

Scene: I also cut out a short scene that entertained me a lot. The three brothers discuss private matters in a little room: King Edward IV (Hunter), George, Duke of Clarence (Price) and Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Rathbone). They are all excellent actors, especially Ian Hunter, in my opinion. We see a 28 year old Vincent Price in his third screen appearance ever, a very flattering role.

All in all, this is that kind of a movie you wish you grew up with. I always love to see a Basil Rathbone film I haven't seen before, and I was far away from disappointment - my favorite naughty parts of the British history were here - the disappearance of the two boy princes, and a fatal amount of wine in a barrel. I need to have this film on DVD, that's for sure.

No to some irrelevant stuff:
I usually find it entertaining when watching movies with real life characters in them, to look up how alike the actors are the original persons. I often get surprised at the effort put into their appearances, because the similarities are often obvious. I give you some examples below, and tell me what you think! (Unfortunately Mord was a made-up character. The only thing about the film that I'm disappointed with.)

Basil Rathbone vs. Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III of England:

Ian Hunter vs. Edward IV of England:

Vincent Price vs. Duke of Clarence:

Barbara O'Neil vs. Queen Elizabeth Woodville:

Ralph Forbes vs. Henry Tudor, later Henry VII of England:

And finally, Princes Edward and Richard aka "Princes in the Tower":

To finish this off, I will include a drooling Vincent Price from one of my favorite scenes - the drinking to death game between Duke of Clarence and Duke of Gloucester.



Kate Gabrielle said...

I've never seen this before, did you watch it on youtube?

Wow, Ian Hunter's unibrow is disturbing! I wonder why they made sure that was accurate but they didn't make Barbara O'Neil be partially bald :)

Matthew Coniam said...

oooh, now I'm jealous! I've never seen this one.
Yes, we filthy Londoners love a good execution!

Lolita said...

Kate Gabrielle:
No, I have it on the computer! Maybe I can split it up and add it on YouTube for you who want to see it!

Matthew Coniam:
You would like it, I think! As I said to KG, I can always upload it on YouTube in parts :)

Lolita said...

Kate Gabrielle:
About the unibrow - cave man! And I guess they couldn't have the female lead look like Boris Karloff, haha. She looks more like Dorothy, right?

Christopher said...

"Crookback and Dragfoot"..sounds like a 70's tv detective team if ever there was!..nothing like a good head chopping for a hangover..I like Richard's little King Playset!...Haven't seen this in ages..of course Price played Richard in the 1962 Corman re-make,which I've seen more than this one..the '39 version has rarely been shown..

Mikael said...

I haven't seen this but in general, Boris Karloff was marvellous as creepy characters. My favourite scene with him is the awakening of the mummy in - coincidentally - The Mummy from 1932. It's still a stunning scene and Karloff's make-up is spot on.

JDT said...

Great review for a great and underappreciated film. However, I do disagree on one point. Barbara O'neil, I feel that her performance only strengthens the film.

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Jeffrey Talbot said...

Lovely Lolita! You have misidentified actor John Sutton who portrayed the young romantic interest John Wyatt as Ralph Forbes the latter who was cast as the exiled Henry Tudor.

I only draw this to your thoughtful attention in the interests of correctiveness. Otherwise your website tribute to Rowland V. Lee's TOWER OF LONDON (1939) is marvellous.