Six years of stress and hard labor working in the prison jute mill has taken its toll on young Robert Graham. The penitentiary's resident doctor and psychiatrist recommends that Warden Brady see him and proposes that he offer him a drastic change of environment and duties before his psychological damages become irreversible. When the warden realizes who the inmate is, or rather was, and recalls that it was he that helped put him behind bars (as with many of the prisoners), he agrees to give him a chance and offers him a job as his valet. Graham enjoys his new employment, especially since he is frequently in the company of the warden's pretty young daughter, Mary. He improves in general character and demeanor and regains his morale.
Meanwhile, one of Graham's cellmates tries to escape at night with two other prisoners. One turns out to be a stool pigeon, breaking the Prisoner's code of silence and lures the men into a death trap. The guards brutally shoot down and kill Graham's cellmate. Ned Galloway, Graham's other cellmate, vows to avenge this death and, more importantly, punish the violator of the unwritten code. He develops an elaborate plan secretly to murder the culprit and carefully warns Graham to stay away from the man. Ill-fated Graham, of course, walks in on the crime no one was supposed to witness.
Upon finding Graham with the dead body, the perspicacious warden again knows that Graham is not the murderer. He does however clearly see that Graham knows who committed the crime. Promising him a speedy parole, though his sincerity is somewhat doubtful, the warden pushes Graham to reveal the name of the killer. He is morally torn. Still an inmate, Graham cannot bring himself to go against the Prisoner's Code and remains loyal to Galloway and the other inmates, who in this case represent the Hawksian group, an ever-present theme in the director's films. The situation also deeply troubles Brady, who feels impelled to send Graham to "the hole," hoping it will change his mind.
A week or so later, after a short trip, Mary returns home to the penitentiary and is surprised not to see Graham working as valet. Her surprise turns to shock when she finds out where Graham has been sent. She urges her father to release him. The warden criticizes his daughter for her naïveté, but reconsiders her plea once she proclaims her love for Graham. Along with Gleason and a few guards, he descends into the prison dungeon to let out the devastated prisoner. The other inmates logically think that Graham has spoken the name of the killer. Having previously smuggled a pocket knife down to another man in the hole, they hope Graham will be punished for squealing.
Galloway, on the other hand, understands what is really happening. He purposely insults a guard in the jute mill and is promptly sent downstairs faithfully to protect his cellmate and loyal friend. Once in the dungeon, he kills the other prisoner and, in addition, cuts Gleason's throat. (The Yard Captain was, in fact, the man responsible for Galloway's lengthy incarceration). The other guards finally shoot him down. Graham, safe and unharmed, is immediately sent up to see Mary Brady. The two lovers embrace passionately for the first time.Walter Huston as Mark Brady
Phillips Holmes as Robert Graham
Constance Cummings as Mary Brady
Boris Karloff as Ned Galloway
DeWitt Jennings as Yard Captain Gleason
Mary Doran as Gertrude Williams
Ethel Wales as Katie Ryan
Clark Marshall as Runch
Arthur Hoyt as Leonard Nettleford
John St. Polis as Dr Rinewulf
Paul Porcasi as Tony Spelvin
Otto Hoffman as Jim Fales
John Sheehan as McManus
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 served as the vehicle which would essentially launch his career. Though appearing in dozens of pictures during the 1920s, he had mostly bit parts.
The Criminal Code was the first of Hawks' four collaborations with Harry Cohn, the others being Twentieth Century, Only Angels Have Wings and His Girl Friday. It is Hawks' only picture with Frank Fouce, who produced only five films, all 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 and Each Dawn I Die, The Criminal Code encouraged its viewers to question the contemporary American legal and penal systems.
Hawks easily 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). 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 here, a small part with lackluster lines. Nonetheless, she does not fail to represent the typical Hawksian woman. Her character is strong and, to a certain degree, stoic. She inhabits an utterly masculine world. Yet, although she can leave, she 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.