‘The Criminal Code’ on TCM

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.

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Plays on TCM on Thursday, July 17

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