1939 saw Boris Karloff return to prominence at Universal Studios by playing the Monster one more time in Son of Frankenstein. This would turn out to be the first of two pairings alongside Basil Rathbone. Rathbone was coming off the success of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and was cast as the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939). While Rathbone would soon become typecast in the Sherlock Holmes series, he was still in high demand in 1939 and in both films with Karloff, he received top billing. However, just as Karloff stole the show in Son of Frankenstein, he would do so again in Tower of London.
Tower of London is a period piece revolving around Richard Duke of Glouchester (Basil Rathbone) and his plan to eliminate those ahead of him in succession to the throne of England. Rathbone portrays the evil Richard with charm and glee. His scenes where he eliminates figurines representing those ahead of him for the throne are chilling and clearly shows he is not of sound mind. One by one they fall and all with the help of Mord, the club-footed executioner (Boris Karloff).
Karloff was in expert hands under make-up legend Jack Pierce. Although Pierce originally wanted Mord to have a full beard, they eventually went with a clean shaven look. Karloff had his eyebrows enhanced, a larger fake nose and his ears taped back. But it was the club foot that gave Mord his true terrifying appearance. As the evil Mord traveled around the castle doing the bidding for Richard, he would drag his foot while adding anticipation to the evil acts that would follow.
The horror of Tower of London is intertwined with the political intrigue of the throne. However, just as one starts to get immersed into the time period, we are shocked back to reality as Mord commits another murder. Scenes of the torture room are particularly intense as are the moments Mord is near any of the children. Despite a large budget and impressive sets, the movie’s only slight drawback is its’ use of familiar music. In early viewings, Tower of London had an original score with tones related to that of the period. But Universal wanted something more Hollywood and, as time did not permit a new score to be written, they used much of what had just been previously used in Son of Frankenstein. While an original score would have elevated the movie, the familiar music is like that of a warm blanket which makes the viewer feel at home with a good friend.
Familiar faces also add to the fun of Tower of London. While not familiar at first glance, many will recognize the voice of the young chimney sweep as that of Walter Tetley, Leroy from the popular radio series The Great Gildersleeve. Donnie Dunagan, fresh off his role of Peter Von Frankenstein in Son of Frankenstein plays the young prince here. Leo G. Carroll, the future Alexander Waverly from television’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is almost unrecognizable as Lord Hastings while many will remember Lionel Belmore, playing the Beacon here, as the Burgomaster from Frankenstein (1931). And of course, we would be remiss without mentioning the legendary Vincent Price. While not very menacing here as the foppish Duke of Clarence, it is quite fun to see him be the victim for once.
Tower of London is not a perfect film. The script needed work to help tighten the story and the production, which went over budget, suffered from many deleted scenes, including some with Donnie Dunagan. Those points aside, Tower of London is a lot of fun and one of my personal favorites from this time period for Karloff. It is available both as part of the Boris Karloff Collection and individually in the Universal Vault Series. For some additional fun, watch Dr. Gangrene as he covers the film from Vincent Price as part of his ongoing Fantastic Films of Vincent Price video series.