The Criminal Code (romantic drama crime film, 1931) with Boris Karloff

The Criminal Code is a 1931 American pre-Code romantic crime drama film directed by Howard Hawks and starring Walter Huston and Phillips Holmes. The screenplay, based on a 1929 play of the same name by Martin Flavin, was written by Fred Niblo Jr. and Seton I. Miller, who were nominated for Best Adaptation at the 4th Academy Awards but the award went to Howard Estabrook for Cimarron.

The film is the first of three film adaptations of the play released by Columbia Pictures. It was followed by Penitentiary (1938) and Convicted (1950).

Plot :
Six years of hard labor in the prison jute mill has taken its toll on young Graham, convicted of manslaughter after a drunken brawl. The penitentiary’s doctor and psychiatrist recommends that he be offered a change of duties before psychological damage become irreversible. When the warden recalls that it was he, as district attorney, that helped put him behind bars, he makes him his valet. Graham enjoys the change, especially the company of the warden’s pretty young daughter, Mary.

One of Graham’s cellmates tries to escape with two others but one is a stool pigeon and inadvertently gives away the plan. The guards shoot dead one escapee. Ned Galloway, Graham’s other cellmate, vows to avenge this death, planning to murder the informer and warning Graham to stay away from him. However, Graham walks in on the crime. Despite finding him with the body, the warden believes that Graham is not the murderer but knows who is. Promising him parole, the warden demands the name of the killer. Graham remains loyal to the Prisoner’s Code of silence so the warden sends him to “the hole,” hoping it will change his mind.

Mary returns from a trip and is shocked when she finds out Graham has been punished. She proclaims her love for him and urges his release. The warden promises to do so but meanwhile Captain Gleason is putting pressure on Graham to confess. Galloway is grateful that Graham has stayed true and arranges to be sent to the hole and protect him by killing Gleason, for whom he had a longstanding grudge.

Though an early talkie, The Criminal Code makes a sophisticated use of sound. The intercourse is at times rapid and Hawks uses the emerging technique of overlapping dialogue.

Like other prison films of the 1930s, such as San Quentin (1937) and Each Dawn I Die (1939), The Criminal Code encouraged its viewers to question the contemporary American legal and penal systems.

Hawks exploits the prison genre to illustrate the male friendship and ‘group as an organic force’ themes often present in his works (cf. Only Angels Have Wings, Rio Bravo, 1959). This is most apparent in the scene in which Brady starts his first day of work as warden, greeted by a prison yard full of men booing him as if they were but one man. The warden (and the camera) peer down on them from the office window.

Constance Cummings represents the typical strong and stoic Hawksian woman. She inhabits a masculine world yet prefers to stay and live at the penitentiary.


The Criminal Code 1931 also on some other YouTube channels: , (both up to 1080p)


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