Tower of London (1939 film)

Tower of London is a 1939 black-and-white historical film and quasi-horror film released by Universal Pictures and directed by Rowland V. Lee. It stars Basil Rathbone as the future King Richard III of England, and Boris Karloff as his fictitious club-footed executioner Mord. Vincent Price, in only his third film, appears as George, Duke of Clarence. Actor John Rodion, who appears in a small role, is actually Rodion Rathbone, Basil's son.

Tower of London
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRowland V. Lee
Produced byRowland V. Lee
Written byRobert N. Lee
StarringBasil Rathbone
Boris Karloff
Barbara O'Neil
Ian Hunter
Vincent Price
Nan Grey
Music byRalph Freed
Hans J. Salter
Frank Skinner
CinematographyGeorge Robinson
Edited byEdward Curtiss
Release date
  • November 17, 1939 (1939-11-17)
Running time
92 minutes
CountryUnited States

The film is based on the traditional depiction of Richard rising to become King of England in 1483 by eliminating everyone ahead of him. Each time Richard accomplishes a murder, he removes one figurine from a dollhouse resembling a throneroom. Once he has completed his task, he now needs to defeat the exiled Henry Tudor to retain the throne.

The exterior castle sets constructed for this film became a staple of the Universal backlot and could be seen time and time again in subsequent films, prominently in The Black Castle (1952).[2]

A 1962 film, with Vincent Price now in the lead role, borrowed the title. The later film—not a remake—was made on an extremely low budget, with a small cast (and used stock footage from the 1939 version for the battle sequences), and placed far more of an emphasis on horror. Price later told Rathbone's biographer Michael Druxman that he felt Rathbone's performance as Richard was probably more historically genuine than either Laurence Olivier's or his own.


The plot was not derived from Shakespeare's Richard III, but rather was written by Robert N. Lee (director Rowland V. Lee's brother) after reading a great deal of British history. George, Duke of Clarence (one of Richard's brothers) is depicted as something less than the tragically noble figure found in Shakespeare. Ian Hunter portrays Edward IV, who is not depicted here as the feeble, dying King found in Laurence Olivier's 1955 film version of Shakespeare's play.



The film was budgeted at $500,000 but went $80,000 over budget.[2]

Vincent Price admitted that when his character got drunk with wine in the film, it was actually Coca-Cola. Price drank so much of it he nearly got sick, prompting Karloff and Rathbone to honor his dedication to his craft by presenting him with a gift: a case of Coca-Cola. Basil Rathbone was forced, due to scheduling conflicts, to simultaneously work on the film Rio during the first week of production. Rathbone's assignment on this film also effectively prevented him from being cast on the far more prestigious The Hunchback of Notre Dame at RKO.[3]

Preservation status

  • This film has been preserved in the Library of Congress collection.[4]

Home video release

This film, along with Night Key, The Climax, The Strange Door and The Black Castle, was released on DVD in 2006 by Universal Studios as part of The Boris Karloff Collection.

See also


  1. Michael Brunas, John Brunas & Tom Weaver, Universal Horrors: The Studios Classic Films, 1931-46, McFarland, 1990 p197
  2. Stephen Jacobs, Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster, Tomohawk Press 2011 p 248-254
  3. Internet Movie Database Trivia
  4. Catalog of Holdings The American Film Institute Collection and The United Artists Collection at The Library of Congress, (<-book title) p.187 c.1978 by The American Film Institute
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