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Examining The Criminal Code in Pre-Code Hollywood

September 20, 2014

This month, TCM has been devoting every Friday to one of my favorite eras in film history, Pre-Code Hollywood. The peculiar and intriguing 4-5 years that represent the roughly defined period, beginning around 1929-1930 and ending in the summer of 1934 when the Production Code Administration (PCA) announced that all films released after July 1, 1934 required a seal of approval, were highlighted by movies that pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on-screen entertainment for the masses in regards to sex, nudity, violence, and other potentially objectionable ideas and themes.   

The official looking 1934 Code.

Ironically, the term 'Pre-Code' is technically a misnomer. In actuality, attempts to wrangle regulations in one place to assure morality, as opposed to each state censor board making different cuts to every film released in each state, stretched back a few years. In 1927, a list that would become referred to as the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" was written in collaboration with Will Hays, who was hired by the studios to help with Hollywood's image, and studio employees. Two years later, Martin Quigley, editor of the Motion Picture Herald, and Jesuit priest Daniel Lord devised a set of rules which was actually signed and agreed upon in 1930 after revisions by studio heads. However, despite the earnest attempts and existence of these documents, studios basically ignored the suggestions (as they saw them at the time); furthermore, inadequate power and authority hindered actual enforcement.  


Though Pre-Code Hollywood is one of my favorite eras, it's not often that I get to watch movies from the period on the big screen. Personally, I'm drawn to the racier dramas, which are always fun to watch with an audience, and I've seen a few over the years, including The Story of Temple Drake (1933) at MoMA, Tarnished Lady (1931) at Lincoln Center, and Bed of Roses (1933) and The Age of Consent (1932) at UCLA. (Note: What great Pre-Code titles!). 

Perhaps the most unattractively painted/drawn image of Miriam Hopkins ever.

Though the subject of sex saturates a large sampling of Pre-Code pictures, the period was also well-known for a stark, rampant representation of violence, and most people today remember the classic gangster movies produced during this time, including Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932). Sharing the same rebellious nature as gangster films and reflecting a "wary attention to the mechanisms of social control" in "a nation on the brink of chaos," according to Thomas Doherty, was the prison picture, a visual collision of violence and social themes which manifested heavily as a result of the hardest years of the Great Depression (158).


Represented first by The Big House (1930) and further exemplified in movies such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), the prison genre solicited mixed emotions and varying levels of appeal from different parts of the public. On one hand, Doherty observed that life within prison walls wielded a "certain perverse appeal for free men facing an open-ended term of economic entrapment. Viewed from environment with commodious shelter, three squares, and no breadwinner responsibilities might be worth going over the wall into" (158).  


On the other hand, certain types of patrons were rather turned off by the genre, including those who represented law and order and many women. The former were fearful of potential uprisings in reaction to these pictures (whether in anger or imitation) and naturally showed some restraint, while the latter simply weren't as attracted to these films, which Doherty characterized as "male-dominated" and "so casually cruel, so bereft of boy-girl romance" (170). To many exhibitors who complained of this lopsided appeal and the lack of female attendees at these movies, their reception served to show the industry that "social conscience cinema didn't pay the bills as handily as social forgetfulness cinema" (170). 

I can see why Wardens didn't like prison pictures.

The Criminal Code (1931)

The UCLA Film and Television Archive, in conjunction with the Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film Program, presented a program of 11 recent restorations from Columbia in the 1930s during January and February 2014, 1931's The Criminal Code being one of them.  

Ironically, the posters for The Criminal Code played up the female character and romance, neither of which is a large part of the film (though they needed female audiences somehow...)

An early Howard Hawks film, The Criminal Code opens with Robert Graham (Phillip Holmes) accidently killing another man at a night club. DA Mark Brady (Walter Huston) feels for Graham and knows that if he were representing him he could successfully secure an acquittal; however, as a representative of the state he must stick to the law and gets Graham a 10 year prison sentence.


Brady eventually runs for governor, but after his attempt fails he becomes warden of the prison Graham and many other men he sent up reside in. Meanwhile, Graham's sentence begins to wear on him, and one day during his work in the prison mill he collapses, at the end of his rope mentally and physically. Brady recognizes Graham from his conviction and takes pity on him, giving him a new position as valet to his household ajoining the prison, which includes face time with Brady's daughter, Mary (Constance Cummings) and the opportunity to leave the premises to take care of groceries or to drive Mary around (one time dropping her off at a train station, no less!).

Graham (Phillip Holmes) dropping Mary (Constance Cummings) at the train station. Yes, that's right. How easy would it be to hop the train with her...

With Graham doing well at his new job, Brady gets the ball rolling on granting him parole. However, after one prisoner squeals on an escape attempt, the rest of the convicts plot revenge, and Graham accidently witnesses his cellmate, Ned Galloway (a disturbingly bleak Boris Karloff), who also works in the Warden's household, murder the informer in Brady's office. Graham is found at the scene after the killing, and with the potential to be a free man around the corner, he must decide whether or not to abide by the unspoken criminal code and remain silent or turn Galloway in.


Walter Huston and Phillip Holmes stand out in their respective roles as DA/Warden and prisoner, and both do a wonderful job juggling the diverse emotional ranges each character demands. Huston, as Mark Brady, has the ethical responsibilities of both his jobs as DA and Warden to handle, as we see when he grapples with the burden of Graham's conviction early in the film and later when he witnesses firsthand the consequences of his actions in the prison yard. Though his obligation to uphold the law may cause some grief for his conscience, Brady stands strong with the prisoners, as seen in the excellent scene in which he takes his first stroll as Warden through the courtyard; his powerful presence and confidence alone quells whatever potential outburst may have occurred, with nary a word from him. 

Warden Brady (Walter Huston) commanding respect, or something that resembles it, walking among the convicts, many of them sent there by him.

Though he exudes a strong and secure manner publicly, Brady continues to grapple with himself, especially after the escape plan is uncovered and one of the escapees is killed in the process: how should he protect the informer from the rest of the cons, who are sure to make him pay for turning his back on his fellow men? Brady deals with this disturbing situation in a way that is selfish yet realistic, as one murder, and the potential for another, won't look good on his record.


On the other side of the story is Graham, played by Phillip Holmes, who seamlessly transitions from naive young man to emotionally wrought inmate to diligent worker in love to silent, beaten down protector. He grows to acknowledge the prison family he has formed, especially after he witnesses the terrifying effect the prisoner's collective force has on the inmate who botched the escape plan. That man's fanatical, and completely legitimate, fear for his life obviously stuck with Graham, and it is that anxiety, in addition to his regard for Galloway as his cellmate, that prompts Graham to keep his mouth shut after the murder. Of course, Brady knows Graham is innocent, and luckily, Graham's actions in the murder's aftermath earn him respect among his fellow convicts, which actually leads to the truth being revealed in another surprising way.

Graham, during his 'on the brink of losing it' phase.

Speaking of Galloway, Boris Karloff, whose facial expressions alone chill to the bone, undeniably steals the 2nd half of the film after he also lands a job in Brady's house, which provides him a chance to plot revenge on the informer on behalf of the prison population by drugging the Warden's aunt so he can slip away to commit the crime and count on her as his alibi. Karloff's devilish role here feels similar in vein to his famous monster movies, except for the fact that he looks somewhat normal (key word: somewhat). Even so, I would never want to cross him, in this or any other film!

Ned Galloway (Boris Karloff). Man or monster?

Writers Fred Niblo Jr. and Seton I. Miller, along with director Howard Hawks, masterfully captured the rough, no-nonsense atmosphere of the prison setting during this time period and all the apprehension that existed between the characters, particularly Brady, Graham, and Galloway. In regards to Hawks' direction, The New York Times review lauded it as being "for the most part intelligent and firm."


In an interview years later with Peter Bogdanovich reprinted in Howard Hawks: American Artist, Hawks revealed that many of the characters and situations found in the film were inspired by real life, which explains the feeling of authenticity found throughout the picture. In particular, Huston's character was based on a DA in California who was sentenced to a prison full of men placed there by him. Though in this film Huston's character wasn't put in prison but rather named Warden, it was the closeness to those he sent up that was the same, and several of Brady's actions were directly influenced by real events from the DA's time in jail. For example, the DA Brady's character was based on was housed in the prison hospital to ensure his protection, but he finally got sick of the isolation and decided to take a stroll through the yard, a scene Hawks famously replicated in The Criminal Code when Brady shows the convicts that he's not afraid of them. Another scene that stemmed from a true occurrence was played for laughs: Brady receives a shave from an inmate...who just so happened to be in jail for slitting someone's throat! 

Not sure you want a con with a razor that close to your neck, Warden.

Hawks told Bogdanovich that in addition to using prisoners as extras throughout the picture, he also sat down with 10 real life convicts to discuss the ending; he disclosed that the men played a large part in shaping several scenes that were structured around the "convicts' code of not squealing" (51). The prisoner's stories appear to be quite accurate, at least according to observances by Donald Clemmer, who spent time as a Staff Sociologist at Menard State Penitentiary in Illinois during the 1930s. Clemmer published his findings in a work entitled The Prison Community in 1940, detailing Menard State prisoners' intricate subculture of habits and history "glued together by unwritten law, the inmate code, which existed beside and in opposition to the institution's official rules," as Scott Christianson pointed out in his book With Liberty for Some (234). In particular, Clemmer observed that "[i]nmates are to refrain from helping prison or government officials in matters of discipline, and should never give them information of any kind, and especially the kind which may work harm of a fellow prisoner," which perfectly describes the attitude and actions of the inmates in The Criminal Code (234).


In addition to the performances, story, and the direction, I also must briefly touch upon the visual look of the film, as cinematographer James Wong Howe skillfully captured the contrast between the bleakness of Graham's world inside the prison walls and the hope that exists just steps away in the Warden's quarters. The new restoration screened at UCLA, courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment, beautifully let the grittiness of the picture shine. 


I enjoyed watching this film on the big screen at UCLA; for me, the moral tug of war the characters go through and the suspense of the 2nd half played wonderfully with a crowd (and I even found myself questioning what I would do if I were the Warden in this picture). Unfortunately, The Criminal Code only appears to be available from third party sellers on VHS on Amazon (or a pretty horrible Youtube version which is a pity considering the new restoration looks marvelous). If you still own a VCR, I'd say it's worth the current $9.99 price to buy it! 

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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