The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

Tower of London (1939) Classic Movie Review 85

Tower of London (1939)

Tower of London (1939)

You're more than a king, more than a man. You're a god to me!

Today’s movie is Tower of London (1939). This movie was set in 15th Century England. It has a great cast featuring Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Barbara O’Neil.

This movie was made by Universal at the same time RKO was making the Hunchback of Norte Dame. It was one of the hottest years on record and the actors in full costumes suffered immensely.

Basil Rathbone plays the role of Richard – Duke of Gloucester. He is bent on killing his way to the English throne. Rathbone was covered in Episode 9 – Son of Frankenstein (1944).

Boris Karloff played the role of Mord the executioner. Karloff was first covered in Episode 7 – Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Barbara O’Neil was cast in the role of Queen Elyzabeth. O’Neil is known for playing Scarlett O’Hara’s mother in Gone with the Wind (1939) although she was only 28 at the time. Other important roles include The Nun’s Story (1959) and Stella Dallas (1937).

Ian Hunter played the role of King Edward IV. Hunter was covered in Episode 80 – The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Vincent Price played Clarence or the Duke of Clarence. Price was covered in Episode 45 – The Last Man on Earth (1964).

Tower of London (1939)

Tower of London (1939)


In 1471, Edward IV (Ian Hunter) deposed the elderly Henry VI to become King of England. Edward’s wife Queen Elyzabeth (Barbara O’Neil) is busy taking care of her three young children, two boys, and a girl.

The executions bell sounds and Mord (Boris Karloff) is busy sharpening his axe as a large raven sits upon his shoulder. As he leaves to conduct the execution, he casually stops to add more weight to a many being tortured. The club-footed executioner makes his way to the block where Lord DeVere is to be executed.

The old King Henry is being kept in the tower and he wears a paper crown and seems to not be in touch with reality. In a lucid moment, the old king says his son, the Prince of Wales, will return with an army from his exile in France.

Lady Alice Barton (Nan Grey) comes in to remind Elyzabeth that they have to attend the execution. Lord Hastings comes and finds King Edward fighting a practice match using halberds with his hunchbacked brother Richard – Duke of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone). Both Edward and Richard are champion fighters. There effete brother the Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price) looks on.

John Wyatt is the cousin of the man being executed and he says the man was betrayed by Richard. He asks the queen for permission to stand on the block with his condemned kinsman. John and Alice are in love and she feels that it will cause trouble for him.

A sweep and his child assistant are cleaning chimneys above the execution.

DeVere gives a speech before the execution and it puts John in an unfavorable light with the king. Mord removes the head with one stroke. Afterward, Richard pays Mord 5 pounds and Mord pledges his devotion to Richard. After Mord leaves Richard opens a locked cabinet where he has dolls of the king and everyone in line to be the king ending with himself in 6th position – old king Henry, the Prince of Wales, Edwards’s two sons, Clarence, and finally Richard. When he gets to the Prince of Wales says that the prince robbed him of the only woman he ever loved.

Alice and John lament that the king won’t give them permission to marry and that they stay for the queen. The child sweep falls into the queen’s apartment where Alice and John are talking.

John goes to wait for the king to ask permission to marry Alice. Richard comes by and then goes in to see his brother the king. The king wants Richard to marry an elder woman who is rich and well connected in the south. Clarence is already married to a rich woman. Richard says he only wants to marry the wife of the Prince of Wales and blames Clarence for the marriage of Ann Neville (Rose Hobart). Richard concocts a plan to make John marry the elderly woman. The king likes the idea and they order John to marry the woman. John refuses and the king has him delivered to Mord.

The queen is angry with the king about imprisoning her cousin John. The king agrees to exile John to France to calm his wife the queen. About this time, they find out that the Prince of Wales has landed with an army. Richard comes up with a plan to take the old king into battle to fight his own soon. Through Mord, Richard spreads the word that the old king has turned against his son and is working with the Edward side.

Alice sends a note from the queen with a page to have John dropped ashore in England but Mord intercepts the boy.

The Prince of Wales has left his wife, Ann Neville behind at a monastery.

The two armies meet at a bridge near Tewksbury and the fight begins. The old king moves around the field without knowing what is going on but he is not killed. Richard and the prince find each other on the field and prince is no match for Richard. Richard and King Edward are victorious.

Clarence’s wife is Ann’s sister. They try to help her get out of the country but fail. Since the old king did not die in the battle, Richard has Mord murder the man as he prays. Richard opens his cabinet and throws the old King Henry and Prince of Wales dolls into the fire. He moves the four remaining figures up the line towards the king’s throne.

Mord finds where Ann is hiding and Richard orders him to arrest her. She is taken to a cell and Richard comes and pretends to rescue her and says he will stand for her before the king. The king acts like he is enraged. The king says he will release her only if she marries Richard. Richard pretends that it is too much to ask, but Ann says she willingly marry him.

The next day, the king’s youngest son, the Duke of York is being married to a royal child his own age. After the marriage, they announce the engagement of Richard and Ann. Clarence storms out but the king gives most of his father-in-law’s wealth to Richard. Clarence threatens the king and begins talking treason to the other lords. Mord’s spies overhear and Clarence is arrested.

Richard goes to Clarence’s cell and then tricks him into accepting a drinking contest. Clarence thinks he had got it made. They go to the cellar and start drinking and it seems to be the precursor of the Raiders of the Lost Ark drinking contest. Richard seems to pass out and Clarence celebrates until Richard gets back up. Mord comes in and true to his word they stuff Clarence in a vat of wine, staying true to his word that he would only use wine as a weapon. When the king is told that Clarence is dead, he says to wait until the morning.

Richard goes to his cabinet and removes the Clarence doll. Now all that remains between him and the throne are his two nephews.

Tower of London (1939)

Tower of London (1939)

The years pass and it’s 1483. John is in France with Henry Tudor. They reveal that the king is ill and they worry what Richard will do. Just before the king dies he pardons John and says he and Alice can marry. He appoints Richard protector of his two sons until the oldest comes of age to be the king.

In his cabinet, Richard moves the young Edward to the throne and moves himself one step closer to the chair. Richard does a good job helping the young king and then he has young Edwards brother Richard come to live in the tower. Elyzabeth knows it is the wrong thing to do but she cannot stop it from happening.

When the young Richard arrives at the tower, young Edward is dueling with his uncle as his uncle and father used too. There is word in the city calling for the older Richard to be king. It comes from Mord and gang. The mob comes to the tower and calls for old Richard to take the crown. He says he will need time to consider.

John makes his way back to England and Alice. They meet with Elyzabeth and she asks John to help protect her sons. She wants him to steal the royal treasury and fund Henry Tudor’s army to fight old Richard. Elyzabeth gives them the location and they go and retrieve the treasure. Mord is investigating and finds that only John has left the castle recently with a cart.

Old Richard tells the council of the robbery and accuses Elyzabeth as John is brought into the chamber wearing chains. Old Richard tries to bribe John to find the location of the treasure. Richard turns John over to Mord for a torture session. Mord throws the whole dungeon at John but they can’t break him. The abbey where Elyzabeth is hiding is guarded by Richards’s men. They make arrangements to have Alice smuggled out.

Alice meets with a chimney sweep and sneaks Alice into the tower disguised as a helper. She is lowered into John’s cell. She gives him a file and leaves a rope hanging down the chimney. He gives her the location of the treasure. John escapes and makes it to the moat where the sweep is waiting to take him away. John makes it to the boat where Alice and the treasure are waiting to go to France.

Richard has Mord take his nephews to the bloody Tower. Young Edward is deposed as king by old Richard. Mord comes into the room of the two royals and he and his henchmen murder the two boys.

Old Richard moves his doll to the throne. In France Alice and John present Henry Tudor with the money.

When Richard says there will be war, Mord begs to come along. Henry Tudor and his army arrive in England. The two armies meet at Bosworth. Mord does well in battle, fighting like 10 men. Old Richard and Henry Tudor find each other on the battlefield. But this time, Richard is struck down. Mord flees the battle with John in pursuit. John stabs Mord with a sword and he falls down the hill. The unceremoniously drag old Richards body away.

Alice and John are married under the watchful eye of Elyzabeth.

World-Famous Short Summary – Couple has a few bumps before they can wed.

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Beware the moors

Tower of London (1939)

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