The Criminal Code (1931)
In the year that saw the long time supporting player Boris Karloff attain “overnight” stardom, he played far more diverse roles than just the Monster of Mary Shelley’s imagination by way of Jack Pierce and James Whale. Here Karloff appears in support of Walter Huston and Phillips Holmes as a lifer in the Big House, repeating the role of Galloway that he had attained success with on the stage. In just five short years, another actor named Bogart would do the same as Duke Mantee though Bogie would of course stay in the Big House film after film for Jack Warner while Boris would move into the horror genre for Uncle Carl Laemmle.
“Never mind that. Pull down the shade.”
I love this pre code line from Huston as a District Attorney questioning a witness to murder (prostitute) who is showing him a little much thigh as she sits in his office. Huston is investigating Phillips Holmes in what amounts to a manslaughter charge that Huston freely admits if he were defending the young man, he could easily get it thrown out of court. Still, that’s not his job, his is to see justice handed out and Holmes finds himself sentenced to a ten year stretch on the inside.
As the inmates march, time passes and our story moves ahead six years where Holmes is slowly losing his sanity and desire to go on living looking very much as if he is in a zombie like state. His cell mate is Karloff who has a hate on for anyone who rats out a fellow inmate and the head Bull who had him sent back to prison after a brief parole. Huston will come back into the story when he takes the job of Warden at the prison and recalling the Holmes case and seeing the state the young man is in, gives his life meaning and makes him his personal chauffeur with outside privileges. Holmes’ slowly gains the trust of Huston while at the same time secretly falling in love with his daughter played by the photogenic Constance Cummings.
When word circulates of an escape plan, Holmes’ isn’t interested and Karloff warns the others involved that they’ve included the wrong man in their scheme and it’s sure to fail. Clark Marshall stars as the informant Runch who Boris doesn’t trust and sure enough, when Marshall blows the whistle, one inmate is shot down and the other headed to solitary. Karloff will become the instrument of revenge on behalf of the prison population when an ingenious plot is hatched by the inmates to mete out their own brand of justice. Unfortunately for Holmes, Huston finds him with the body and demands to know who has committed the murder. Holmes refuses to turn stoolie, thus forcing Huston to hold back the young man’s parole.
When Huston learns of his daughter’s feelings for the young convict, he’ll have to decide how best to save his future son in law from a life time of incarceration and come up with the name of the man who murdered the informant.
Howard Hawks directed this tale of the Big House that gives it instant credibility as we look back from our vantage point. It’s gritty and predates many of the Warner Brothers product that would become a staple of that studios factory like line of productions in the latter half of the decade. This Hawks production came via Columbia Studios and proudly displays Harry Cohn’s name on screen as the credited producer.
This film is featured as part of a TCM trio of releases that focuses on Karloff the criminal. The other two titles being Behind the Mask and The Guilty Generation. Interestingly, Miss Cummings is in all three titles as well but of course, for sales purposes, Karloff is the marquee name here that collectors lean towards. I say this with all due respect to Walter Huston and Howard Hawks. Boris is extremely effective as the brutish Galloway who lives within a Criminal Code that he adheres too. Hawks brilliantly stages Karloff’s killing of the stoolie Runch, leaving the actual murder to one’s imagination and allowing Boris a fine exit down the stretch.
Walter Huston is one of those underrated actors in my books. Without the leading man looks of his contemporaries, he has that Spencer Tracy thing about him where in many cases he’s the best actor on the screen minus the Clark Gable good looks. Huston has a wonderful scene in this film where he realizes the convict giving him a straight razor shave was sent up for slitting a throat. The pause and look on his face is priceless as is the remark he’ll make soon after about a disposable type razor for his own use.
If Criminal Code looks and sounds a lot like the 1950 Glenn Ford film, you’d be correct as Columbia more or less remade the film with Ford in the Holmes role and Broderick Crawford taking on Huston’s while Dorothy Malone picked up the leading lady duties. A quick note on actor Holmes. He was killed as a member of the Canadian Air Force during WW2 in a mishap not far from my home here in Ontario, Canada.
This version of the Martin Flavin play is well done and offers us a chance to see Karloff in a pre Frankenstein role under the guidance of one of cinema’s most renowned directors. And yes that is a young Andy Devine mingling with the convicts on parade.