Sixth in line for the English throne, the conniving Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone) sets out to eliminate all those who stand in his way, aided by his loyal executioner Mord (Boris Karloff). But once he is crowned king, Richard must then defeat the exiled Henry Tudor (Ralph Forbes) to retain the throne…


The 1939 historical drama Tower of London was Shakespearean tragedy re-envisioned as a Universal horror film. The screenplay, written by the director’s brother, Robert, is based not on the Bard’s play as one might expect, but on ‘350 volumes of British history’, with a passing romantic story thrown in between Nan Grey and John Sutton as Lady Alice and John Wyatt.

Heavy on atmosphere and Grand Guignol histrionics, thanks mainly to Karloff’s club-footed Mord lumbering about the tower’s cobwebbed corridors, the brothers Lee used the traditional depiction of the much-maligned monarch to move their murderous monochrome drama along. It’s a creaky classic of the old Hollywood variety that’s well worth a revisit.


Having had his first brush with British royalty on screen in 1938’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Vincent Price returned to merrie old England (well, the Universal backlot) to play King Edward IV’s younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, who gets a most memorable death scene: being drowned in a butt of malmsey wine.

screengrabs courtesy of Marie Jose Vahe

Price (who was still many years from becoming the master of menace) plays his effete whiney rake to the hilt, while also sharing screen time with cinema’s current kings of horror, Karloff and Rathbone (the three would later reunite – and for a last time – in 1963’s The Comedy of Terrors), who would also be seen in Son of Frankenstein the same year of this release.

Now here’s a bit of trivia for you: Barbara O’Neil (who plays Queen Elyzabeth) was Vincent Price’s former St Louis school chum and first love who he said he was ‘engaged’ to from the age of eight and thirty-eight.

On recounting his big scene, Price later said: ‘They fixed a handrail at the bottom of the barrel so that I could dive down and hang on to it. The liquid was water (mixed with Coca-Cola), but Basil and Boris had used the barrel to deposit cigarette butts and old bottles. I had to hold on to the rail for a full ten counts, which seemed endless, and then a couple of hefty lads opened this damp tomb and yanked me out by the heels. I got a round of applause from the crew, but I was disappointed to find my two co-stars, who had been very nice to me so far, not on the set. I thought the least they could do was lead the applause. But they appeared a few moments later with a beautifully wrapped gift – a carton of Cokes.’

Tower of London is available on DVD in the UK from Fabulous Films

Tower of London 1939 UK DVD


In this episode of the video review series, Dr Gangrene revisits The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Tower of London.

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