Rowland V. Lee’s Tower of London (1939) is something of a curiosity. It’s essentially an historical drama, but has long been lumped in with what are known as “the Universal Horrors.” I suspect that this is partly the result of the film being used as part of the “Shock Theater” TV packages — and certainly the very presence of Boris Karloff in the cast plays a role. But if you look at the original advertising — with Karloff (tinted green) prominently displayed, often brandishing his headsman’s axe — it’s clear that Universal was always courting the horror crowd with the film. Still, it’s a stretch — even with Karloff and Frank Skinner’s score for Son of Frankenstein booming on the soundtrack — to call it a horror picture. Rather, think of it as having horror movie elements — Karloff in a fairly disturbing makeup, the score, Basil Rathbone as the hunchbacked Richard III, torture chambers, beheadings and Vincent Price being drowned in a vat of wine. From the standpoint of history, it probably comes off no better or worse than most such — at least in terms of Mr. Shakespeare’s take on the subject. Of course, old Will was less interested in history than he was in pleasing Elizabeth I. We now know that what that meant was that he was engaged in painting the blackest possible picture of Richard — and roughly translated that means that almost none of the stuff pinned on Richard was even remotely true. But it makes for one hell of a story. And here, it makes for pretty compelling entertainment. Just don’t take it for anything like historically accurate.
For Universal (never the most prestigious or lavish of studios) Tower of London was an ambitious undertaking. (So what if their first attempt at a big battle scene came to ruin when they learned that their cardboard props fell apart in the rain?) It was also their third film from director Rowland V. Lee in one year (Son of Frankenstein and The Sun Never Sets came just before it) and it seems they had it in their minds to make Lee their new big director (James Whale being clearly on the way out). It probably sounded a better bet than it was. Lee was an interesting director, but he always lacked whatever it takes to be a great filmmaker, He did have certain peculiar traits that made him far from a faceless workman. His films — and this is no exception — lean heavily on architeture to convey the tone of the proceedings. The sets often seem to be bearing down on, overwhelming the characters. And then there’s his obsession with lists of victims for his villains to take out. That dates back at least to his early talkie Fu Manchu pictures. It’s certainly evident in Son of Frankenstein with Ygor’s list of jurors to be killed off. Here, it reaches its most bizarre expression in Richard’s little dollhouse of figures needing killing on his path to the throne. I’m not sure it means anything, but it’s certainly a curious footnote to his career.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Tower of London Sunday, March 10 at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.