The Criminal Code

The Criminal Code is a 1931 American pre-Code romantic crime drama film directed by Howard Hawks, starring Walter Huston and Phillips Holmes. The screenplay, based on a 1929 play of the same name by Martin Flavin, was written by Fred Niblo Jr. and Seton I. Miller, who were nominated for Best Adaptation at the 4th Academy Awards.

The Criminal Code
theatrical poster
Directed byHoward Hawks
Produced byHarry Cohn
Frank Fouce
Screenplay byFred Niblo Jr.
Seton I. Miller
Based onThe Criminal Code
1929 play
by Martin Flavin
StarringWalter Huston
Phillips Holmes
Constance Cummings
Boris Karloff
Music bySam Perry
CinematographyJames Wong Howe
Ted Tetzlaff
Edited byEdward Curtiss
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • January 3, 1931 (1931-01-03)
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited States

The film is the first of three film adaptations of the play released by Columbia Pictures. It was followed by Penitentiary 1938) and Convicted (1950).


Six years of hard labor in the prison jute mill has taken its toll on young Graham, convicted of manslaughter after a drunken brawl. The penitentiary's doctor and psychiatrist recommends that he be offered a change of duties before psychological damage become irreversible. When the warden recalls that it was he, as district attorney, that helped put him behind bars, he makes him his valet. Graham enjoys the change, especially the company of the warden's pretty young daughter, Mary.

One of Graham's cellmates tries to escape with two others but one is a stool pigeon and inadvertently gives away the plan. The guards shoot dead one escapee. Ned Galloway, Graham's other cellmate, vows to avenge this death, planning to murder the informer and warning Graham to stay away from him. However, Graham walks in on the crime. Despite finding him with the body, the warden believes that Graham is not the murderer but knows who is. Promising him parole, the warden demands the name of the killer. Graham remains loyal to the Prisoner's Code of silence so the warden sends him to "the hole," hoping it will change his mind.

Mary returns from a trip and is shocked when she finds out Graham has been punished. She proclaims her love for him and urges his release. The warden promises to do so but meanwhile Captain Gleason is putting pressure on Graham to confess. Galloway is grateful that Graham has stayed true and arranges to be sent to the hole and protect him by killing Gleason, for whom he had a longstanding grudge.



The Criminal Code, based on a successful play by Martin Flavin.[1]:118-119 The Criminal Code was adapted for the screen by Seton I. Miller and Fred Niblo, Jr., son of director Fred Niblo. The original play by San Francisco Bay Area native author and playwright Martin Flavin was produced on Broadway in 1929 at the Belasco Theater. Boris Karloff, who delivered a strong performance in the stage play, is recast here as Galloway. This film accelerated his career: though appearing in dozens of pictures during the 1920s, he had mostly been cast in bit parts.

The Criminal Code was the first of Hawks' four collaborations with Harry Cohn, the others being Twentieth Century (1934), Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and His Girl Friday (1940). It is Hawks' only picture with Frank Fouce, who produced only five films, all released in 1931. Hawks worked with screenwriter Seton Miller several times in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This is the only occasion he worked with Niblo, Jr. Stock footage from the film was used by Columbia in the following year's Behind the Mask, which also featured Cummings and Karloff, but in different roles.


Though an early talkie, The Criminal Code makes a sophisticated use of sound. The intercourse is at times rapid and Hawks seems to be experimenting with overlapping dialogue.

Like other prison films of the 1930s, such as San Quentin (1937) and Each Dawn I Die (1939), The Criminal Code encouraged its viewers to question the contemporary American legal and penal systems.

Hawks exploits the prison genre to illustrate the male friendship and 'group as an organic force' themes often present in his works (cf. Only Angels Have Wings, Rio Bravo, 1959). This is most apparent in the scene in which Brady starts his first day of work as warden, greeted by a prison yard full of men booing him as if they were but one man. The warden (and the camera) peer down on them from the office window.

Constance Cummings is a far cry from, say Lauren Bacall, and has little to work with given a small part with lackluster lines. Nonetheless, she represents the typical Hawksian woman. Her character is strong and, to a certain degree, stoic. She inhabits an utterly masculine world, yet, prefers to stay and live at the penitentiary (cf. Mary Rutledge in Barbary Coast).



The Criminal Code was presented on Philip Morris Playhouse March 2, 1952. The 30-minute adaptation starred Dane Clark and University of Minnesota student Peggy Baskerville.[2]

Foreign language versions

A Spanish language version entitled El código penal was directed by Phil Rosen, which stars Barry Norton, María Alba, and Carlos Villarías. It had its world premiere in Mexico City on February 19 1931, followed by its American opening in San Juan, Puerto Rico on March 14, and the New York opening on April 14 1931.

A French version entitled Criminel was produced in 1932 by Forrester-Parant Productions, and directed by Jack Forrester. It stars Harry Baur and Jean Servais, and made use of certain scenes from the English-language version.[3]


Columbia Pictures remade the picture as Penitentiary (1938). It was directed by John Brahm starring Walter Connolly and John Howard.[4]

The film was remade again by Columbia as Convicted (1950), directed by Henry Levin, and starring Glenn Ford and Broderick Crawford.[5]


  1. McCarthy, Todd (1997). Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 0802137407. Retrieved October 31, 2018.
  2. Kirby, Walter (March 2, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 42. Retrieved May 28, 2015 via
  3. "El código penal". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on May 21, 2018. Retrieved May 21, 2018.
  4. "Penitentiary". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on May 21, 2018. Retrieved May 21, 2018.
  5. "Convicted". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on May 21, 2018. Retrieved May 21, 2018.
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