"It was the first time I discovered almost any tragedy can also be very amusing." - Howard Hawks on The Criminal Code
The Criminal Code (1931) Full Movie
The Criminal Code - 1931 (Original Poster)
Released: January 3, 1931 Running time 97 minutes
Columbia Pictures was born in 1924 when Joe Brandt sold his interest in Cohn-Brandt-Cohn Film Sales to Harry Cohn. Six years later, as the Great Depression deepened; Harry was struggling to keep his fledgling studio afloat.
Lacking the financial resources and prestige to hire the biggest box office attractions, Cohn had to rely on directors who could craft films that might interest a movie audience. Having experienced some success with a recent effort by Victor Fleming, he developed an interest in working with one of Fleming’s closest friends; Howard Hawks.
With the success of “The Dawn Patrol,” Hawks was a hot property in Hollywood. Universal was already knocking on his door, asking him to make another aviation picture. When Hawks asked Fleming for his advice, Fleming told him he might enjoy working with Harry Cohn. That endorsement was good enough for Howard.
Director: Howard Hawks
Producers: Harry Cohn and Frank Fouce
Screenplay: Fred Niblo, Jr. and Seton I. Miller, (based on the novel The Criminal Code by Martin Flavin)
Music: Sam Perry
Cinematography: James Wong Howe and Ted Tetzlaff
Editor: Edward Curtiss
Art Director: Edward C. Jewell
Columbia had recently purchased the rights to a Martin Flavin play called “The Criminal Code.” It had opened on Broadway on October 2, 1929 and ran straight through the stock market crash until March of 1930. By this point, the author had made four attempts to turn his play into a viable picture screenplay and failed to please Cohn with each attempt.
Hawks brought in writer Seton I. Miller. Working together, they churned out a workable script in about a month. The story they developed turned into an uneven effort. Later in his life, Hawks would describe a good movie as “three good scenes and no bad scenes.” In making “The Criminal Code,” he redeemed himself with at least three good scenes. Unfortunately, the young director failed to avoid the trap of filming bland, lifeless scenes which fall into the bad category. The romance between the warden’s daughter (played by Constance Cummings) and the young, wrongly sentenced prisoner (played by Phillips Holmes) falls flat and some of the prison scenes feel like padding to stretch the thin plot out to feature film length.
The opening scene with the cops arguing about their card game while responding to the call about a possible murder, however, is classic Hawks. We see the beginning of the overlapping dialogue that he would use so effectively in the future and catch a glimpse of his ability to combine comic touches with grim circumstances.
Two performances save “The Criminal Code” from being a run-of-the-mill prison drama. Walter Huston owns the role of former D.A. turned prison warden, Mark Brady. The scene where Brady takes a long slow walk through the prison yard, walking among hundreds of men he helped place there, has a feeling of conviction and inner power that only an accomplished actor could achieve. Talking about “The Criminal Code” with interviewer Scott Breivold, Hawks would remark, “I liked that picture because I liked Huston. I thought he was the greatest actor I ever worked with.”
Although Boris Karloff had only appeared in minor screen roles prior to his work in “The Criminal Code,” he dominates just about every scene in which he appears. His revenge driven Galloway projects steely-eyed menace in a slow moving but determined form that demands your attention while making your blood run cold. Karloff had developed the role on the stage and truly took it to new levels on the screen. The following year, the actor would turn more blood corpuscles into ice cubes when he portrayed the Monster in Universal’s classic version of Frankenstein.
While it will never be found on any lists of Howard Hawks’ greatest films, “The Criminal Code” did good business for a Columbia release of the time. It also served as a good warm up for the director’s first masterpiece, “Scarface.”
By following the life and art of Howard Hawks one can capture the true essence of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as if slipping on special lenses that suddenly pull away the grain and glare to reveal an unforgettable time of Movie Magic.