The Criminal Code
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The Criminal Code (1931) refers to the unwritten law of prison: a convict never rats out a fellow convict. They have their own rules of justice behind bars. It's both the title and the defining premise of a 1929 Broadway drama, a socially-relevant play that makes a case of prison reform, and it became an accepted convention for all subsequent prison films.
Harry Cohn bought the play for Columbia, a small studio that competed with the major Hollywood players with its relatively meager resources. Columbia didn't have a stable of bankable stars under contract or the money for a big slate of expensive pictures but Cohn had big ambitions and he produced a couple of major pictures every year, usually with talent hired from other studios on a per-picture basis. He signed up-and-coming Howard Hawks for a picture and he offered him the project. "It had a great first two acts, then a bad third act," explained Hawks to Peter Bogdanovich, and he brought in screenwriter Seton I. Miller (who had scripted the 1928 A Girl in Every Port and Hawks' 1930 sound debut The Dawn Patrol) to rework the drafts penned by the original playwright, Martin Flavin. Hawks didn't like sentiment in his films and had Miller play against the overtly sentimental scenes with brusque dialogue, a kind of tough-guy shorthand that acknowledges the emotion without making a show of it. And Hawks experimented with overlapping dialogue to give an early scene in a police station an immediacy and realism, a technique that became a signature in his films. To crack the third act, however, Hawks turned not to Miller but to experts on the real criminal code. Hawks had hired ex-convicts to play extras to give the film authenticity and he asked them how they thought it should end. Their suggestions were incorporated into the rewrite.
The story revolves around two central characters: a tough district attorney who is made warden of a high-security prison filled with men he put away and a young man he convicted on a murder charge for a self-defense killing. For the part of the warden, Hawks cast Walter Huston, who he called "the greatest actor I ever worked with." According to Hawks, the warden in the picture was based on a real California attorney who was convicted of corruption and sent to prison. Since the facility was full of men he had put away, he was put under protection in the prison hospital but became fed up with his isolation and walked out into the yard to face down the inmates. "The scene we did in the picture is just what had happened, except that Huston was the warden, rather than a prisoner," described Hawks. "He walked right among them, daring them, and no one made a move."
Apart from Huston, the most memorable character in the film was a prisoner named Galway, played by a journeyman actor who had been working in films and on stage for years but had yet to make an impression: Boris Karloff. "Boris had played the part on stage and knew what he was doing, but he had no form," Hawks told Karloff biographer Cynthia Lindsay. "In The Criminal Code I gave Boris stance. I wanted that huge menacing figure, and Boris wasn't really tall, as you know, so... because I wanted him to appear so huge, I ended up shooting a part of the scene through his legs." Most historians agree that this is the role that brought Karloff to the attention of James Whale, who cast him as Frankenstein's Monster in Frankenstein.
When Peter Bogdanovich made Targets (1968) with Boris Karloff, who played an aging horror movie star nearing the end of his career, he included a clip from The Criminal Code featuring Karloff, using it to springboard into a discussion of Howard Hawks movies. Karloff had told Bogdanovich that it was his first really important part, a line that he put in the dialogue, and when Bogdanovich (who cast himself in a small role) says of Hawks, "He really knows how to tell a story," Karloff sincerely and appreciatively ad-libbed, "Indeed he does." Bogdanovich kept the line in the film.
By Sean Axmaker
Who the Devil Made It?, Peter Bogdanovich. Knopf, 1997.
Who the Hell's In It?, Peter Bogdanovich. Knopf, 2004.
Howard Hawks, American Artist, ed. Jim Hillier and Peter Wollen. BFI, 1996.
Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt, a.k.a. Boris Karloff, Cynthia Lindsay. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1995.
Hawks on Hawks, Joseph McBride. University of California Press, 1982.
Howard Hawks, Todd McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.