MOVIES, Son of Frankenstein (1939), Tower of London (1939)
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Son of Frankenstein and Tower of London

I thought I’d talk briefly about two movies – SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and TOWER OF LONDON – the Baz made for Universal between November 1938 and October 1939. The quotations are courtesy of Cinegeek.

In contrast to many of the episodes and events we’ve been looking at here, this seems to have been quite a busy and fun time for him. In fact it was in many ways his creative peek, or at least his most prolific period as a movie actor.

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN was filmed almost alongside THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, and Basil must have gone straight into HOUND from completing SON just after Christmas 1938. TOWER OF LONDON started filming August 1939, a month after THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES wrapped, and somehow he had also found time to fit in the dreadful RIO in between.

Both the Universal films we are looking at were directed by the slightly eccentric Rowland V. Lee, who was apparently prone to writing his scripts as he filmed, and who drove his bosses at Universal mad by consistently failing to give them a finished text they could budget for. Why they kept employing him I’m not sure. Maybe they liked him. Maybe he was curiously persuasive. Like Orson Welles, without the corrosive ego.

And – it has to be admitted – much of the talent.

Lee had a bit of a repertory company he tended to re-use in his films. Karloff was in both SON and TOWER, so was Donnie Dunagan, four-year-old acting prodigy extraordinaire. Barbara O’Neil was in TOWER and another ouvrage of Lee’s called THE SUN NEVER SETS, which also starred Rathbone and Lionel Atwill.

It seems to have been a reasonably friendly sort of gang. Everyone liked Lee; Karloff and Basil were already friends; Atwill and Basil knew each other from theatre in New York. Were they friends? Dunagan implies Rathbone cooled towards Atwill when – during the filming of SoF – he found out Atwill had sexually propositioned the little boy when his mother left him unattended. If that’s true then Atwill wasn’t a nice man at all, and was guilty of more than just doing embarrassing orgies in his own home. Dunagan however spoke with incredible warmth about Karloff and Rathbone, both of whom he seems to have admired and loved, and he had immensely fond memories of both the films he was in with them.

It’s painfully obvious when you watch Rathbone in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN that he has little respect for the movie and is basically playing it in a state of hysterical disbelief. You can almost see him thinking “I might have to be in this crap but they can’t make me take it seriously,” and he tears around the place like Basil Fawlty on a bad day, getting steadily more manic and implausible (“Will you have a DRINK? or wouldya like to play DAAHTS?”).

In their shared scenes he and Atwill seem to be trying to outdo each other in shameless parody. So much so that when Gene Wilder and Kenneth Mars try to send up this movie in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN they end up looking only slightly more insane than the original. I’m willing to bet Atwill was making up a lot of those moves with his fake arm on the spur of the moment. You can almost see him daring BR to lose it completely.


“I haven’t the slightest idea what it’s all about. For all I know they may send Deanna Durbin in to bat for Boris in the ninth!” – Basil Rathbone


…”I did like him. He was so charming and very lovable sometimes. But he didn’t really want to be in [SON OF FRANKENSTEIN]; he didn’t particularly like horror movies, you see. And it affected the atmosphere on the set. I think he was bored and compensated for it by playing, as they say these days, over the top. Pinky Atwill as well. They were terrible, working off one another. And Basil would come to do the scenes with me in this frantic keyed up state, fighting to keep a straight face. It was a riot really…” Boris Karloff

Tower of London 012

“…Karloff in a bald wig talking to the axes on the wall about the beauty of death. I think he has a raven somewhere, and talks to that too. I have a box full of dollies and I say cruel things to them when no one is looking. It’s all very serious and historically accurate as you can tell…” – Basil Rathbone

Tower of London 260

“…I played the Duke of Clarence, Basil played Richard III, and Boris played the executioner (Mord). We had this scene where Basil and I had to drink for the kingdom of England. Rowland Lee, who directed the picture didn’t like the dialogue, so he had us improvise a virtually silent drinking scene, and we drank pints while the cameras rolled on. It was only watered down Coca-Cola, but pretty disgusting.

Well over in one corner was a huge vat of Malmsey wine, in which I was to be drowned. Boris and Basil, knowing I was new to the business, thought it was great fun to tease me and throw everything they could into that vat of wine. You know, cigarette butts, anything they could find to dirty it up, because they knew at the end of the scene I had to get into it! There was a handrail at the bottom of it, so I could dive down and hang onto it. I had to stay under for a full ten counts, and then when I came up the lid was still down (laughs). Then I heard all this crashing and I was yanked out by my hair. Apparently the lid had stuck and they couldn’t get it off.

Well, when I came out I got a round of applause from the crew, but was disappointed not to see Boris and Basil. Then a few minutes later they re-appeared and congratulated me on playing the scene so well for a newcomer, and then presented me with a case of Coca-Cola!…” – Vincent Price


  1. Genetlmanly or not. Both Boris and Basil had children.So I cant see either of them ignoreing child molesting if they knew about it. After all Donnie DID say Basil ran the photographer off. So it leads me to belive neither actuly ‘knew’ that Atwill had made an advance on lil Donnie,or perhaps if one or both did they felt they needed,but never got, some form of proof.How sad that Donnie was either to young or to scared to actuly take this to any of the grownups around him.It sadly makes you wonder how often ‘AtSwill’ tryed and got away with this on other children. There are agencys now a days to deal with people like him.What ever sexual preversions an adult has with another consenting adult are one thing, but what Donnie is discribeing is child molesting pure and simple.No rightminded adult would or should look the other way.


    • Ellen Foley says

      If any of those child molesters got their own back when the kids grew up,I’m sure Atwill would’ve had his hands full from the Marines like DD.Sad to hear of Deanna Durbin’s passing.RIP.Love your Atswill,sure he prob didn’t have it easy in prison after his conviction,even for perjury.Weedy once represented him?Too bad he didn’t scratch his eyes out w/prosthesis.


      • Ellen Foley says

        Too bad Atwill wasn’t beaten w/his own prosthesis while scratching himself.Never had anything but the creeps from him,even in his earlier pics.And he was homophobic?


        • Basil says

          AND Atwill was meant to have a lot of……THOSE Parties if you know what I mean…. *Raises eyebrows*


  2. Love this on SOF!Had a Universal book with original script and photos at one time,but unfort gave it away.Had bios,descriptions of main actors,ht,wt,color eyes,pertinent info!The dart scene always makes me laugh cuz I can hear the mania in BR and see him barely able to suppress laughing with the “arm” used as a serving tray for darts.And when he’s pacing,and throws the glass of whiskey.Don’t know how much of the rescue of Peter he actually had to perform,but like to think some of the climbing was our Baz.Except for the bugs in The Sun Never Sets,love that movie.RIO,saw it once,would love to again,maybe it’ll play on his b’day!Love pic w/Livvy,and I prefer him w/tache! It looks even more impressive than that almost totally unclad pic w/Marlene.I’d read Atwill was supposedly homophobic,so still surprised what he did to Donnie,no wonder he became a Marine.Glad he didn’t beef about how BR did publicity photos during filming,then forgot about Donnie after like Freddie B did to TCM.Maybe his homelife dictated he didn’t have time for Hollywood’s kids,esp one’s exploited by parents like Freddie’s who only remembered him when he raked in the bucks.


    • Heard Vinnys other version..the one that goes, he could’nt get out..due to the fact that Basil and Boris were sitting on top of the lid holding it down. Love Love Love Basil raceing around like a manic in SOF.Long befor VCRs hit the world my sis and I had this on a casset tape [ditto TOL] and going back and listing to it now the thing that strikes me most is how much snickering and giggling we were doing while trying to be quite.How just totaly wonderfuul of Basil to rescue Donnie like that. What kind of a sick press photog wants a publicity pic of a naked 6 year old sure couldnt publish it back in 39 TOL still remains my fave Basil movie. If for no other reason then how good he looks in those tights.I much prefer the tash to, but will make exception in that case.Fave sceen is where He and Edward sre talking to Ann the looks on his face behind her back are so presisus. “pinky” Atwill..sick waste of skin..air theife!Haveing read that he ‘advanced’ on little Donnie,my opnion of him went from bad actor to bad human in a nano second.It’s beyond me why Basil and Boris didnt take “pinky” out behind the back lot and give him a talking to,with there fists!


      • Ellen Foley says

        Read about Atwill’s purchase of a car riddled w/bullets,loved to tool around in it,maybe someone took shots at him,too.Worked again with Baz on SH & Secret Weapon.Maybe Baz enjoyed him falling thru trapdoor.Always thought Atwill strange,but didn’t think he’d stoop to boys.Must be what they meant when the ex-Mrs MacArthur divorced him,after the sex scandal.Can’t pic Boris using his fists on anyone,always seemed as gentlemanly as our Baz.


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