Part of the Vincent Price Blogathon hosted by Nitrate Diva
We have a lot of Vincent Price fans as regulars here on The Baz. I’m one myself in fact, so it seems appropriate to take part in the VP blogathon and celebrate Vincent’s talent. I thought about looking at A COMEDY OF TERRORS, a movie I actually like quite a lot (though many deplore it), but I want to leave that to a more general consideration of Basil’s later movies. So, today I’m talking about that strange hybrid film, TOWER OF LONDON.
Part faithful historical exploration. Part Universal Horror. Featuring fine nuanced performances from the likes of Price, Basil Rathbone and Ian Hunter on the one hand, and Karloff with a club foot and a bald wig on the other, TOWER OF LONDON covers the life of Richard III, from the second accession to the throne of his brother Edward IV in 1471 to his own death at Bosworth in 1485.
Much as I love it, I have to concede it’s a car crash of a film that never seems to know what it’s trying to do. Director Rowland V. Lee and scriptwriter brother Robert seem to have set out at some point to create a serious movie. The events of the later part of the Wars of the Roses are fairly accurately portrayed. Universal too seems to have been on board with this as an extravaganza. The costumes are sumptuous. The sets massive. The attention to detail notewothy. Art Director Jack Otterson, an architect who had apparently worked on the Empire State Building, created very accurate facsimiles of the Tower of London, including Traitor’s Gate and the White Tower. Matte paintings by Jack Cosgrove, and Russell Lawson completed the illusion.
Maybe unsurprisingly the finished movie came in $80,000 over budget.
There was even a plan to score the film with period music, though this was later abandoned and replaced with second hand cues from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, which certainly helped to up the horror element, while lowering the general tone.
So what, you might wonder, is Karloff doing here, playing a bald clubfooted entirely fictional executioner called “Mord”(first time I saw this movie I thought they were calling him Maud, which caused some cognitive dissonance)?
Was he a later addition, to try and pull the rambling historical epic back into the familiar Horror genre the Universal executives felt safe with? Or was he actually a part of Lee’s original plan? And is that scene where he kisses Rathbone’s hand and tells him he’s a god, intended to convey muffled homo-eroticism?
I can enjoy the many anomalies and weirdnesses in this hugely atypical movie, but What makes me love it as much as I do is the fact that, if you cut out “Mord” and the utterly forgettable and also entirely fictional, afterthought hero, “John Wyatt” (played by John Sutton as one step up from talking wallpaper), you would be left with a much better and curiously modern movie, devoid of moral absolutes, featuring not just one but three ambiguous anti-heroes. It’s these three and their interactions and implied deeply complex relationships that make this film something really unusual.
Ian Hunter as Edward IV, Richard’s oldest brother, is a revelation. Watch him in most of his films, and he passes you by in amiably anonymity. “Everyone’s favorite father-hero” as he is described on IMDB. He’s a vaguely smiling block of wood in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and THE LITTLE PRINCESS. A vaguely sanctimonious block of wood in CONFESSION. But in TOWER OF LONDON, he suddenly gets animated. He’s subtle, morally questionable, roguish, affable and ruthless. He plays his two younger brothers off each other and enjoys the mayhem it creates. He happily enables Clarence to commit treason as a means of getting rid of him, and is amiably unfazed when told of his “accidental” death. He’s not just interesting, he’s also authentic. You can easily imagine the real Edward was pretty much like this. In his scenes with both Rathbone and Price he does more than hold his own. He’s awesome.
As Richard, Basil is fantastic. BR was fond of pointing out that there are few real heroes and villains, just people doing their own confused thing. Richard, with his ambiguous reputation would have been a great challenge for him. Sadly, he has to spend quite a lot of the plot telling Mord to murder people (I think he basically is responsible directly or indirectly for every death in the film), so we are not left in much doubt about the extent of his villainy. Yet even so, in his scenes with Price and Hunter, we get a very different, much more subtle interpretation of his character. He seems to genuinely love and respect his older brother Edward. The chemistry between them, their history is almost palpable. They know each other so well sometimes a look between them is all it needs for them both to know what each other is thinking. Richard’s relationship with his middle brother Clarence is equally shaded in gray. They dislike each other, distrust each other, but there’s not much to tell us who is the worse for it. Through much of the film, if he didn’t have Mord and his “box of dollies” (as BR termed them) to confide in we wouldn’t really be sure what Richard’s plans were or where on the relative scale of good or evil he might belong.
Vincent Price as George Duke of Clarence, the third part of the triple act, is in many ways the most interesting of all. Price was only 28 years old, and this was just his third or fourth film. He was 19 years younger than Basil, though playing his older brother, and his movie technique was still developing, but he more than holds his own. His fey, sullen childlike Clarence is unforgettable, and still lives for me as my image of the historical character. Whenever Clarence comes up for mention, I think of Vincent, clutching that little lapdog, drooping in his seat, scowling resentfully at his older brothers, cackling like a man deranged when he thinks he’s won the drinking contest. I want Clarence to have been like that. I hope he was.
And that death scene. When I first watched it, aged about 12, it shocked me with its unexpected and authentic brutality. And it’s Price’s acting that does most of that. The fear in his face and in his voice as he realizes Richard isn’t going to be defeated. He knows what’s coming and is terrified by it. In my 12 year old mind I wondered if he woke up once he was inside that wine barrel. Imagined how his final moments would have been. Poor Clarence. However selfish and greedy he was, he didn’t deserve that.
For those who haven’t seen the film – see it! Even if Karloff seems to be in a different movie, Nan Grey’s headdress seems to be wearing her, Barbara O’Neil plays Elizabeth Woodville like a kindly headmistress from an Enid Blyton novel, Miles Mander is WAY too old for Henry VI and Donnie Dunagan WAY too Texan for…well, for being in this film at all. Watch it. For Otterson’s great sets, for the curious vein of historical fidelity that runs true all the way through, and – above all – for that Triumverate of great acting from Ian, Basil and Vincent.
Here’s that famous and amazing drinking contest, just to give you all a taste…
And here for those with the time and inclination is the full movie. Watch the opening titles and imagine what it would have been like with Charles Previn’s period music rather than that warmed over Son Of Frankenstein stuff.
Please visit NitrateDiva’s blog where you can see links to all the other posts in Vincent’s blogathon…
- Son of Frankenstein & Tower of London
- What If Richard III Did It? (mattlewisauthor.wordpress.com)
- Horror On The Lens: Tower of London (dir by Rowland V. Lee) (unobtainium13.com)