It can be difficult to fit into a short screening intro all the fascinating details our Research Associate, Mike Quintero, uncovers about the films we show — so we’ll be sharing some of his raw research notes here on the blog, in no particular order and without much editing, because it seems a shame to keep them to ourselves. Thanks Mike!
This week’s research notes are about: THE CRIMINAL CODE (Howard Hawks, 1930), screened on August 17, 2022 in a 35mm print from Sony Pictures Repertory as part of CFS Season 28.
★ Taglines ★
Editor’s note: you might want to sit down while reading these in case you pass out.
NUMBERED! — BRANDED! YET ROMANCE BURNED WHITE! / She saw their future bright with hope … but he knew that few escape the cruel claws of the criminal code.
A Tormenting, Profoundly MOVING DRAMA! / Her father could save her lover … she begged for help!
WHAT BROUGHT THIS BOY FROM THIS … TO THIS … / Yesterday an honored name … today he is known only by a number. He committed an act of impassioned gallantry to defend a woman … just as you hope your son would do. / An eloquent lawyer might have made him a hero … but the bloodless legal mill condemned. When romance touched him, he dared to hope for happiness … until he came to know that branded men seldom escape the clutch of the criminal code.
Two Burning Eyes — Two Lying Lips / brought this boy into the hands of unbending law that knows no mercy … and turned an honored name into a number. / But romance flared high in the house of tears — and love blossomed to heal a famished soul.
The Greatest of all Screen Dramas — A Living Breathing Thing — “IT’S LIFE ITSELF”
ASK ANYBODY! / Consult the critics … ask your neighbors … women, men … human beings with emotions to be touched … nerves to be thrilled … They’ll all agree that “Criminal Code” is the best picture of this year, last year and all the years! … SEE IT!
IT WILL TEAR AT YOUR HEART / LOVE LAUGHED AT LOCKSMITHS BUT WEPT BEFORE THE LAW OF THE LAWLESS / CRIMINAL CODE
ONCE IN A lifetime a play is written … a book is published … a picture is produced … touched with the magic of genius … marked by the acclaim of the crowd … it stirs to overflowing the well of every heart … it runs the gamut of all human emotions! / A MASTERPIECE! Tense in Drama …. tender in romance … thrilling in adventure … a lifetime lived in an hour … to be remembered always! / IT TEARS AT your heartstrings … it makes you sob … and smile … and thrill … you live and love its every moment … you sing its praises … and shout its name: / THE CRIMINAL CODE!
THE GREATER CODE: LOVE / What if passion racked her heart .. and grim walls crucified his soul? / THEY STILL HAD LOVE! / Suppose he broke the criminal code … and paid! And another trespassed the moral code … and suffered! / LOVE WAS THEIR NEW CODE! / What if their hearts were breaking … what if their world of joy trembled on the brink of despair? / LOVE WOULD WIN — SOMEHOW! / O, you’ll sob … you’ll smile … yes, and you’ll thrill–and live a lifetime in a never-to-be-forgotten hour.
IT TEARS AT YOUR HEART! / So Real — So True — You’ll Forget It’s a Picture! / You’ll Love It! You’ll Live! / LOVE! THE GREATER CODE! / Passion Racked Her Heart, Grim Walls Crucified His Soul! / But Their Great Love Conquered All! / KNOW THE THRILLS JOYS ROMANCE OF A LIFETIME IN THE FIRST GREAT PICTURE OF 1931
“SOMEBODY’S GOT TO PAY FOR BREAKING THE CRIMINAL CODE” / THAT’S THE LAW HE LIVED BY. BUT THEIRS WAS THE LOVE CODE. THEY PAID FOR TRESPASSING THE CRIMINAL CODE AND FOUND ENOUGH LEFT TO REDEEM THEIR SHATTERED LIVES AND WIN HAPPINESS. — THE DRAMA THAT TEARS AT YOUR HEART!
YOU’LL LIVE IT! / YOU’LL LOVE IT! / A Tremendous Drama That Tugs at Your Heart / Public and Critics Are Unanimous in Hailing / CRIMINAL CODE with WALTER HUSTON / THE FIRST GREAT PICTURE OF 1931 / Passion Racked Her Heart … Grim Walls Crucified His Soul … Dynamic … Thrilling … an Unforgettable Drama
REMEMBER — IN REAL LIFE OR ON THE SCREEN YOU CAN’T BEAT / THE CRIMINAL CODE
For Once — / ALL CRITICS AGREE! CROWDS ACCLAIM IT! / IT MAKES YOU SOB AND SMILE — AND THRILL — YOU LIVE AND LOVE ITS EVERY MOMENT!
The play on which THE CRIMINAL CODE was based opened in New York at the National Theater on October 2, 1929, and ran for 173 performances, closing on March 1st. (At one point during that run, the play’s author (former Chicagoan Martin Flavin) was described as “the most prolific playwright of Broadway” since three of his plays were running simultaneously.)
The Broadway close was to be followed by a touring production featuring the New York cast. The tour was originally scheduled for Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Boston, with a West Coast production scheduled to follow in June. But on March 11th, it was announced that the tour would be cut short after just two weeks in Philadelphia, and that the West Coast production of the play (Los Angeles and San Francisco) would be moved up instead.
On March 26th, it was announced that Columbia had acquired the “audible film rights” to the play, and that production would start immediately, with Arthur Byron (who played Martin Brady, the district attorney) and other members of the stage cast reprising their roles on film. (However, by October, it was announced that the district attorney would be played instead by Walter Huston. The finished film wouldn’t feature any of the lead actors from the Broadway cast.)
W.A. Whitney’s review in the Washington Post of the New Year’s Eve world premiere of THE CRIMINAL CODE called the film a “powerful plea … for a saner and more intelligent application of criminal justice and penal rectitude” and praised it as a “relatively quiet, smooth-running production wonderfully acted and staged, with a dramatic content more stark and tense than that of ‘The Big House,’ though not so melodramatically spectacular.” He praised Walter Huston’s “convincing realism” in the difficult task of depicting his character’s change in perspective through the film, but also noted the “vivid portrayals” of the rest of the cast.
In the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall also praised Walter Huston’s “sure and strong” performance. While noting Howard Hawks’ generally “intelligent and firm direction,” Hall wished the director might have followed Huston’s “fine example of restraint” entirely instead of occasionally indulging in “extravagant ideas” or “leaving too little to the imagination.”
R. G. in the Wall Street Journal was a bit more circumspect in its praise, calling it a “satisfactory film version” of the original play. While he claimed that “it will undoubtedly seem to many who saw the original play on Broadway” that Arthur Byron was better suited to the lead role than Walter Huston (despite a “distinguished performance”), R. G. praised Phillips Holmes’ performance, calling it “the best he has yet given on the screen and one which compares favorably with the finest characterizations of the talkies for many weeks”, as well as Boris Karloff’s “exceedingly effective” performance in a minor role.
Mae Tinee in the Tribune declared that the film illustrates the “eye for an eye” ethos of the criminal code “in a manner grim, forbidding, sinister; cruel, sickening and relentless” and would “go down in cinema history as a searching, bitterly informative chronicle of prisons, the men in them and the men and laws that govern them.” (She also comments offhandedly that the film “would have been shown here weeks ago only the censors have been gnawing on it.”)
She also named it to her top six films of January, concluding that “the film is electric with tense moments. The observer feels from start to finish as might a visitor atop Vesuvius at a moment set for eruption.”
THE CRIMINAL CODE debuted in Washington DC on December 31st, 1930 at the RKO Keith’s Theater (approximately 1,850). This presentation was a special “all seats reserved world premiere preview” for the theater’s New Year’s Eve show, and was sandwiched within the theater’s run of the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy HOOK LINE AND SINKER.
The film would start its normal run at Keith’s on January 2nd.
In New York, the film would debut on January 3rd at the 2,300-seat Mayfair (and also replacing HOOK LINE AND SINKER).
In Chicago, the film debuted at the 2,600-seat State-Lake (their motto at the time: “Our Business is Your Pleasure”) on January 14th, replacing CHARLEY’S AUNT.
Other films in Chicago theaters around the same time included Joe E. Brown in GOING WILD at the Capitol, Marlene Dietrich in MOROCCO at the McVickers, Marion Davies in THE BACHELOR FATHER at the Chicago, THE BAT WHISPERS at the United Artists, El Brendel in JUST IMAGINE at the Granada and Marbro, Joan Crawford in PAID at the Paradise, Uptown, and Tivoli, and — perhaps most salaciously — Conrad Nagel and Genevieve Tobin in FREE LOVE at the Woods (“Adults Only! / If you are easily shocked -STAY AWAY! / She Wanted Other Men, He Wanted a Home — AND HE WON HER HEART BY KNOCKING HER COLD!”)
THE CRIMINAL CODE would run at the State-Lake until January 23rd, when it was replaced by John Boles and Lupe Velez in the “adults-only” RESURRECTION (“Lost in Passion — Redeemed in Love! / She tasted the brimming cup of happiness. She knew the bitter dregs of the world’s scorn and shame! … Glamorous as life itself! Tender as a lover’s kiss! A sweeping tide of passion!”)