TOWER OF LONDON (1939). Director: Rowland V. Lee.
The story of Richard III, the little princes in the tower, and all the skulduggery that went on in those long-ago days is good movie fodder, although both film versions (including the 1962 remake) take a great deal of dramatic license, especially the latter. The one thing both movies have in common is Vincent Price, who gives good performances in both versions. In this, the 1939 version, he is cast in a supporting, but pivotal, part as the Duke of Clarence, the half-brother of King Edward and Richard. In the 1962 remake he is no less than Richard III himself and the star. Although the first version has many macabre touches and was released by Universal, with Boris Karloff in a supporting role, it is not really a horror flick.
This first Tower of London, is entertaining, fast-paced, and well-produced. Basil Rathbone is as superb as ever as Richard III. Although not in the same league, Ian Hunter is fine as King Edward, whose philosophy is "marry your enemies and behead your friends." As the spoiled, petulant, whiny Duke of Clarence, Price offers a simpering and superior portrait. One of the best – and best-acted – scenes in the movie is when Price and Rathbone engage in a drinking contest with malmsy wine, a contest Price seems to win, although he winds up being killed by Rathbone and his body dumped in a wine vat. "He asked for Malmsy," Rathbone shrugs. An early scene detailing an execution (the beheading is off-screen, although we see reactions to it) is very well done. Although he has little dialogue, Karloff is excellent as the skulking, club-footed headsman, Mort, who measures the little princes for coffins as they sleep. The murder of the princes (young Edward is actually king at this point) is another good scene, both horrifying and heartbreaking. Young Edward’s brother, a mere child, cries out, "Kill me! Kill me! Let Edward live!" [This is one of the most notorious and loathsome crimes in the history of humanity.] As the boys die they squeal in much the same manner as one of them does very early in the film when he is just a squawling baby, a horrifying touch of pathos.
Verdict: A near-classic. ***1/2.