Today is the birthday of my (16th) great grandfather, Richard III of England. (Lest this raise a skeptical eyebrow, an important factor is that, so many generations back, one has thousands of ancestors in a single generation. One has enough 16th great grandparents to occupy all the school desks at a medium sized midwestern college).
Still, it captures my imagination to think some miniscule part of me is him. It is without a doubt the Shakespearean role I have most wanted to play, although when I confront the reality of it, it’s just the opening scenes I’m interested in. Just thinking about the battle scenes makes me exhausted. I have seen four Richards, I think: Olivier’s and McKellan’s screen versions of course, as well as a stage version at the Public Theater starring Denzel Washington in 1990, and another one at the Lantern Theatre in Philadelphia in 2006. I confess that if I ever got to play the part I have no new ideas for a portrayal that would be any different from anything those four gentlemen did. I just want to have good melodramatic fun.
It being the Halloween season, I thought it would be a gas to take a look at two other versions of Richard’s campaign of scheming and murder, ones that fall entirely outside the Shakespearean canon, aspiring to go — if anything — darker. And both have the same title. I visited the historic location after which they are named in the early ’90s. Just thinking about it makes me want to go back. It’s time to go back.
Tower of London (1939)
A fascinating hybrid, mixing the medieval historical epics then in vogue (Mary of Scotland, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) and Universal Horror, which was at that stage in a fallow period between the glory days of the early ’30s and the resurgence of the early ’40s. Basil Rathbone plays the Crookback, in what may be one of his best performances. The world around him is wonderfully macabre. When we first meet the executioner (a bald, club-footed Boris Karloff) he is sharpening his beheading ax. On the way out of the room he honors a parched prisoner’s request for water by throwing some on him. Many torture devices in the film and some of the same sort of gallows humor with Karloff. Vincent Price plays Richard’s younger brother Clarence, whom we just know is going to get it, on account of his twitchy, cowardly manner. (He is eventually drowned in his favorite wine). The plot is essentially the same as the Shakespeare play: Richard’s various schemes and murders. A great gimmick: he makes his plans and measures his success with a little dollhouse with little figures representing those at court who block his way, almost like voodoo. In the end, he is defeated the honest, wholesome way—in open battle.
Tower of London (1962)
Roger Corman’s own version of the Richard III story, this time promoting Price himself to the bloody role of Richard. The script has little to do with the historical facts, with Shakespeare’s version or the earlier one (above) in which Price had a smaller part. Plus, it has ghosts, an idea more derived from Hamlet and MacBeth. But it is a most enjoyable watch, with Price camping it up in a manner scarcely more restrained than that he would employ in Theatre of Blood.