the criminal code
Opinion Pieces/Other Writing

Movie Anniversary: The Criminal Code Turns 90 Today!

That’s as ancient as you!

The unfortunate by-product of running a movie site means that one must try to stay on top of the newest releases. It’s not a bad problem to have because so many great flicks are released each year, but it does make me yearn for a period of my life when I had the time to sit down and watch older films whenever I liked.

Well, 2021 is going to be different! This year I endeavor to stay on top of some films that are celebrating anniversaries. I will, by no means, be able to cover that many–but I’ll do what I can. These won’t be reviews with final scores but something more akin to what I achieve with Saturday Night Short Film. They won’t be lengthy posts and they won’t even necessarily be for good films–I’ve never seen the movies I will cover so the quality will be up in the air–but they will commemorate the art of the past.

Source: Vindobona Awstriae

The Criminal Code was released in 1931, although IMDB lists one single showing in 1930 in Boston. It’s a pre-Code film, which to the uninitiated just means that it was before the “Hay’s Code” was fully regulating the industry. What this means is that these older films could get away with all sorts of stuff deemed controversial at the time, and this remained until religious and government meddling altered everything, thus changing the course of film forever.

Phillips Holmes stars as Robert “Anyone Ever Call You Bob?” Graham, a man who is imprisoned because of a very unfortunate night that leads to the death of a man. In jail he befriends a rowdy bunch of characters but longs to get back outside. When something happens that could bury his chances at parole, his loyalty to his friends on the inside is put to the test.

The Criminal Code uses sound in an inspired way, being an early film that adopted overlapping dialogue. While this is taken for granted today, this crude version of it caused me great distress. Why? Because I find muddled, loud talking to be very frustrating when it’s in groups. The director, Howard Hawks, layers it so thick that it’s inaudible–which in turn makes it very annoying. It both enhances the experience and disorients the viewer. Back in 1931 Hawks was using sound better than Christopher Nolan (I’m always going to poke fun at Nolan for this).

Holmes is a solid performer here but there are two standouts above him. The first is Boris Karloff, who plays Galloway. Galloway is an unhinged inmate with a massive grudge towards Captain Gleason, who did him wrong. Karloff was meant for this kind of role, given his notoriety within horror, and while he’s a secondary character in terms of time on-screen, he’s hugely important to how the film unfolds.

The second is Walter Huston, who plays Mark Brady, a district attorney turned prison warden. You can probably see where this is going: this is a man who put away many of these people and now he has to rule over them. Brady is entrancing, but there’s a particular scene when he first arrives at the prison that is truly tense. It’s also the most brilliant usage of sound that I was describing earlier.

The flick starts off a little slow but once it gets to the prison it’s engrossing. It takes a few unexpected twists but shines its light firmly on the characters. One might see it as rather conventional these days since society is ripe with prison dramas, but this is an older film that–like many at the time–was critical of the penal system… and did it quite well.

The Criminal Code was nominated for the “Best Adaptation” Oscar at the 4th Academy Awards. The fourth! Doesn’t that make you feel old? It ultimately lost to Cimarron, which itself went on to win the “Best Picture” award.

He can’t even comprehend being 90. Just kidding, he will live forever.

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