THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931)
There is a lot of interesting information to be found about the film The Criminal Code. It was the second major film to be set in a jail, following the success of The Big House made in 1930 by MGM, one of the most affluent studios at the time in Hollywood. The Criminal Code was Columbia’s shot at filming a story in this genre—enough of a success for the studio to follow up with Hawks directing the alarming and astonishing Scarface.
In hindsight, they had ended up with a great director, Howard Hawks and the wonderful actor Boris Karloff, who will forever be known as the Monster in Frankenstein. But besides those two artists, it also featured the great Toronto-born actor Walter Huston, Constance Cummings in her film debut, the boyishly handsome Phillips Holmes—whom I always say is so nice to see in early films due to the fact he actually looks young and handsome without us having to pretend he is—and camerawork by the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. One further connection this film has to its prototype, The Big House, is that playwright Martin Flavin, who wrote the original stage play The Criminal Code also assisted with the dialogue for The Big House.
Howard Hawks didn’t much like the play’s ending as it was felt to be too depressing. So he did something rather unusual by hiring a dozen or so ex-convicts and asked them to come up with what they felt should be the “correct” ending to the film. He also used them as actors which he felt made the film appear more authentic.
Something that will jump out as uncommon in this film is the romance between Warden Brady’s daughter and inmate Robert Graham. Although there is an understandable explanation given for their contact with each other, in our day and age, it’s quite a baffling phenomenon. We don’t imagine wardens would allow convicts to work for their families, never mind have any interaction with their children, especially daughters! The first time I saw this type of a scene, though, was in both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart’s first feature film, the 1930 Up the River directed by John Ford. A portion of the film takes place in a jail and the warden’s young daughter saunters in and out, even at times, playing with some of the prisoners. Struck me as unusual that first time ‘round.
As for Phillips Holmes himself, he is often only mentioned in passing or as just an adequate actor. I don’t feel that way about him for the most part. I think he did a fine job portraying the character of a young man who meant to act nobly to a situation without thinking of the consequences to both the victim and to himself. His suffering is understated but understandable and you feel the pull it has on him, for his own anguish and those of others.
But what makes this film stand out for me, not to mention the person who suggested I watch it, is Walter Huston’s dialogue. If I remember correctly, the first word out of his mouth is “Yeah” and the last word he utters at the end of the film is the same. Between that first and last “yeahs” there must be about a thousand more. Perhaps I exaggerate, but trust me, there are a lot!
This is also Andy Devine’s last uncredited role, playing Cluck, a convict with a knife, before he finally started getting supporting and leading roles in films. In a small speaking role, he’s the guy with the husky voice, but it’s before he bulked up into the loveable but overweight man he was best known for in well over 150 film and TV roles.
So, yeah, I hope you enjoy this film. Caren
Saturday, April 2, 2016
Columbia Pictures Corporation. Directed by Howard Hawks. Produced by Harry Cohn, Frank Fouce and Howard Hawks. From the stage play by Martin Flavin. Adaptation by Seton I. Miller and Fred Niblo Jr. Cinematography by James Wong Howe and Ted Tetzlaff. Film Editing by Edward Curtiss. Art Direction by Edward C. Jewell. Music by Sam Perry. Released: October 5, 1931. 97 minutes.
Mark Brady……………………………………………………….. Walter Huston
Robert Graham…………………………………………………. Phillips Holmes
Mary Brady……………………………………………… Constance Cummings
Galloway…………………………………………………………….. Boris Karloff
Captain Gleason………………………………………………. DeWitt Jennings
Gertrude Williams…………………………………………………… Mary Doran
Katie…………………………………………………………………. Ethel Wales
Runch…………………………………………………………….. Clark Marshall
Leonard Nettleford………………………………………………….. Arthur Hoyt
Dr. Rinewulf………………………………………………………. John St. Polis
Tony Spelvin……………………………………………………….. Paul Porcasi
Jim Fales…………………………………………………………… Otto Hoffman
McManus…………………………………………………………. John Sheehan
Cluck, a Convict with Knife……………………………………….. Andy Devine
Grim and terrifying, an echo of The Big House, one of the most gripping pictures of the month is The Criminal Code, superbly acted by Walter Huston and Phillips Holmes, who is rapidly becoming that rara avis among juveniles—one who is manly, intelligent, and can act. Here you see him at his best as a convict who refuses to “squeal” on a friend who incites a prison outbreak. To make the situation more poignant, this occurs on the eve of Mr. Holmes’s parole and, in consequence of his silence, he is consigned to a dungeon where he suffers tortures at the hands of an inhuman guard. In all this Mr. Huston is the principal figure as the district attorney who becomes a warden. He is forceful, sympathetic and always true to the thought of the character—a splendid actor, of the best it is our privilege to enjoy.
There is love interest, too, a credible romance between Mr. Holmes and the daughter of the warden, played by a newcomer, Constance Cummings. So skillfully is this arranged that it doesn’t seem like an episode dragged in for the sake of love interest, but the natural development of a meeting between two mentally congenial persons. And that, my pupils, is rare. Mary Doran, who is quite a favorite of mine, is excellent in a minor role. But all the subordinate parts in this picture are so well played that one never feels that any actor is in the background. In short, a picture to see if you are not depressed and put on edge by the tragedy of life behind prison bars.
Picture Play Magazine: The Screen in Review by Norbert Lusk (Jan-June 1931)
THE CRIMINAL CODE STARRING WALTER HUSTON
Any talking picture in which you find Walter Huston is thereby distinguished. You may see, in pictures on page 124 something of his infinite variety as an actor. In this drama of prison life in America, Walter Huston is seen, first as a District Attorney and then as a prison warden who is concerned in the condemnation and in the salvation of a youth who is imprisoned on a charge of manslaughter.
Political circumstance compels the Attorney to prosecute the case with vindictiveness rather than vigour; so that a maximum sentence is imposed; but the warden make (sic) sample atonement. The film gets its title from the circumstance that the youth of the drama sees a murder committed in prison, but the stern code of the criminal keeps him quiet. The story ends in a tremendous climax with a riot within the prison, and a romantic “curtain.”
The Criminal Code is one of the most realistic talking pictures of American prison life yet seen on the screen. It has sufficient element of romance to yield a happy ending, but, for the greater part of its length, it is an uncompromising revelation of the savagery of prison life with many fine dramatic moments.
In this thrilling drama, Walter Huston, whom we have nominated as the finest character actor in talking pictures, is supported by a brilliant cast.
Phillips Holmes, who plays the part of the convicted youth, was intended by his father to have a life-long acquaintance with the law, and was sent to Princetown to study. But Taylor Holmes is one of the most distinguished actors in the United States and his son, Phillips, getting a taste of film work when Buddy Rogers went to Princetown for exteriors on Variety, forsook the law for Hollywood, and now at the age of twenty-three he has played prominent parts in such pictures as The Devil’s Holiday, Painted (sic) Heels, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Only the Brave and Grumpy. Phillips Holmes is a young man with a very great future in talking pictures.
De Witt Jennings, who plays the part of a brutal prison guard, is one of the most experienced actors of screen and stage in the United States. He has played many fine parts, notably in The Trial of Mary Dugan. He will be found in nearly every talking picture in which a police or prison officer is wanted! De Witt Jennings is a unique film character.
The Filmgoers’ Annual (1932)
BACHELOR OF HEARTS
Phil Holmes, the sought-after young man in the movies, explains why a screen contract is the only kind he’s signing, thank you!
Phillips Holmes said: “A male screen star has the same chance of finding happiness in married life that an extra girl has of picking up the Hope diamond under one of the tables at the Brown Derby Restaurant!”
None of your dreaming youths, yearning after the great ‘what-is-it,’ is this Holmes. Instead, under a perfectly arched cranium topped with hair that is the exact color of old-time molasses taffy, Phillips packs fifty ounces of gray matter which he has trained in twenty-four years to gauge the world clearly and expertly. That’s why, after less than twenty-four months in the bewildering talkie trade, he is one of the most popular juveniles and certainly the best dramatic actor among the screen’s masculine younger set.
“Why kid yourself about it?” this handsome youth continued. “In this generation, thank God, we don’t fool ourselves. I know a male screen star can’t be happily married—no matter if he tied up with the finest girl in the world. In fact, the finer the woman, the less she would be apt to understand him.”
I thought of Maurice Chevalier, Conrad Nagel, Richard Arlen, Harold Lloyd, and several other celebrated movie men and seemed to have found a reasonable amount of the illusive quantity better known as marital happiness—but nobody likes to contradict a screen star, so I didn’t put up an argument—just listened while Holmes’ deep, intense voice went on.
“Take a star’s life and examine it carefully,” he said. “He has to be made up and on the set by nine o’clock in the morning. That means getting up before his wife is thinking about turning over. Then the chances are he will never leave the studio until seven o’clock in the evening. Perhaps for two or three days a week he’ll have to be on the lot until eight or eight-thirty; sometimes even all night. And by the time he gets home and takes off his make-up, all he wants to do is roll into bed.
“Sometimes a screen player, because of sound recording conditions, may have to start work at nine o’clock at night and work until four in the morning—never seeing daylight for two weeks at a time. He has little energy left for reading or listening to music, for visiting or sports or the theater.
“It’s no use talking—no man or woman can keep regular hours in pictures. That’s why I never was awfully keen for a screen career. Although my father has been a well-known actor for years, and my mother, Edna Phillips, was leading lady at Daly’s Theater—which was the Theater Guild of its day-my leanings were all away from anything dramatic. I wanted to be a stock broker, and had had quite a good offer which I planned to accept after I finished at Princeton. But I had only been there one year when Frank Tuttle, the movie director, came to college to make Varsity with Buddy Rogers. They decided to get a college man to play Buddy’s roommate—just to give the right atmosphere. I was the lucky one selected, and in case people should say after the picture was released. ‘Such things never happen in a university,’ I was to be the living refutation.
“After the picture was over a couple of fellows in my group said: ‘Why don’t you go out to Hollywood during vacation and look ‘em over?’
“I thought that was an excellent idea and did go. Only when my vacation was over I couldn’t leave. I was badly bitten by the Hollywood bug. But for a year I could get nothing to do—just play bits here and there—until suddenly Devil’s Holiday came along. And what with Nancy Carroll, Edmund Goulding, and a good story, to say nothing of the fields of waving corn—I woke up one morning and found my name on the dotted line of a contract.
“From that moment on, every producer seemed to want me to work in a picture—after a year of nobly concealing their eagerness. I finished Devil’s Holiday one Saturday afternoon at five o’clock. Started another picture that same night at nine. Finished one for Fox at two o’clock one day, started at Warner’s the next morning. Worked there twenty days and began the next noon at Columbia on The Criminal Code. Remained until the picture was completed—eight-thirty one Tuesday night—and then dashed off the lot with a police escort to catch the eight-forty train for New York. Missed it. Didn’t reach New York until Saturday morning. Began work that afternoon and have been on the go ever since. So you can see how much good I’d be to a wife.
“The trouble is you get so wrapped up in your work you forget everything. It is the most selfish profession in the world for if you want to be any good you’ve got to give all of yourself to your films and if you do that—where does a wife or a family come in?
“I got so excited when I played the sailor in Her Man I could think of nothing else. It was my first tough part and I was crazy about it. Nobody believed I could do it. Everyone said: ‘Gee, Phil, you won’t be any good as a sailor.’ But it comes natural for even the most conservative person to have his tough moments! The chief difficulty I ha was to get my voice right. I had to have a certain tough tone which can only be gotten by adopting a peculiarly nasal quality. After I had that down, I enjoyed the picture more than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. Particularly the scrap which put twelve people in the hospital. That film was realistic, all right. But any good melodrama is, for it goes back to primitive living.
“It was sheer luck that got me into pictures, and looking back over my life I’ve been lucky all along except for one mishap which occurred the day I was born. My mother was on her way from the West back to New York where I was to have made my first personal appearance. But being a premature infant even then, I decided to come into the world in Grand Rapids, Michigan, instead. And you can imagine the blow that was to my Broadway Thespian parents! However, it was a great bit of luck being born into a stage family for, no matter what people say about talent not being inherited, after all there’s a certain sensitiveness which a son of artistic parents is bound to have handed down to him. He’s bound to be the same type of emotional being. But a son of an already famous actor has to work like the devil before people are willing to admit he can stand on his won.
“Although I had absorbed a certain amount of stage technique from watching my father all these years, when I went to Hollywood I had to learn that most important part of all screen acting—how to project myself. How much to give out—how much to hold in. When you’re before the mike you can’t tell if you’re any good. You have to see your scenes ‘played back’ first. When you’re actually before the cameras you get so tied up in your part that you’re apt to overdo it. It’s only by keeping a tight rein on your emotions that you can give a good performance. Which seems strange to outsiders since most of them think it’s by cutting loose and letting your emotions carry you along that you earn the great big villa in Beverly Hills and that large red roadster!”
O fall the women in screenland, Holmes likes Swanson best. “Gloria has a magnificent mind and she exudes a certain romantic flavor which is absolutely fascinating to me,” he explains.
Gary Cooper and Dick Arlen are his pick among the men. For sport he likes flying but doesn’t know one gadget from another. He’s not one bit mechanical. He has no hobbies. Doesn’t care to read. Doesn’t play the piano—or the zither. Can’t work himself into a froth of excitement over golf, tennis or polo. But he does like athletic girls with nice sun-tanned skin who don’t insist upon his being athletic! Nice, Good-natured girls whose idea of a swell afternoon is to sit by his side on the Pacific sand and listen to the rollers breaking on the more or less stern cinema coast.
Screenland by Rosa Reilly, April 1931
Screenland: Reviews of the Best Pictures by Delight Evans, April 1931
One man on the set of The Criminal Code was Edward Bernds, who spent 30 years on the Columbia lot—first as a sound technician, later as a sound effects man for the Three Stooges, and still later as a resourceful director. He recalled in an interview with the author:
I had observed Karloff on Columbia’s The Criminal Code, 1931, directed by Howard Hawks. We did something then, for a short while, that was unique: we did a complete Spanish version—photography, recording and all—on the more important Columbia pictures. I was assigned to the Spanish The Criminal Code. When Hawks shot during the day there was a script clerk who meticulously took down every camera move, diagrammed the staging so that when we, the Spanish crew, came in at night, all we had to do was follow exactly what Hawks had done with the actors. We were called in early, in case Hawks finished early, so we could pick right up, so I spent a lot of time on the English-speaking version of The Criminal Code.
So I saw Karloff in action, with no hint of the unique contributions to the horror films that were to come in the future. He struck me as a strong, dominating actor who played the killer Galloway with terrific menace.
Shooting the Spanish version of The Criminal Code was a pleasant enough job… One thing I remember is that the Spanish actor who played Karloff’s part spent time on the set, watching Karloff. And he succeeded in looking like and sounding like Karloff. A really great performance.
Hollywood Cauldron: Thirteen Horror Films from the Genre’s Golden Age by Gregory William Mank., 1994
In 1930, his (Karloff’s) career took a turn for the better when he began to receive larger film assignments.
This surge was created, in part, by his appearance in the Los Angeles production of Martin Flavin’s play The Criminal Code, in which he portrayed Ned Galloway, a prison trustee who becomes a murderer. Karloff’s performance in the play proved so effective that director Howard Hawks chose him to appear in the 1939 film adaptation for Columbia.
Although an important film in its day, The Criminal Code (1931) now appears extremely dated and static, with Karloff’s performance remaining its saving grace. In retrospect, his subtly malevolent portrayal of Ned Galloway in this film can be seen as a foreshadowing of his future performances. Critic David Thomson has commented that his work in The Criminal Code provides a look at “the sleepy rhythm that Karloff was to bring to horror.”
Thomson’s terminology is an apt way to describe Karloff’s subtle and imaginative approach to the genre. The high point of The Criminal Code, a scene in which Galloway stabs Runch (Clark Marshall), a fellow prison trustee, is a prime example of this “sleepy rhythm.” Framed within a single dolly shot, Karloff, with his back to the camera, slowly walks toward the victim, first trapping him with a single gesture (thrusting out his left arm, knife in hand) and then backing him into a closet, where the stabbing occurs, offscreen. In an April 18, 1936, article that he wrote for Film Weekly, Karloff elaborated upon the staging of this sequence.
The audience couldn’t see my face. But they were imagining the most terrifying expressions on it—far more spine-chilling expressions than I could possibly have achieved. I had simply provided the frame; they had filled in the picture. When we came to make the talkie, the director, Howard Hawks, asked me how that scene had been played on the stage. I told him and persuaded him to film it in exactly the same way. He wanted to take one or two close-ups of me as well, but I talked him out of the idea. I knew that a single shot showing my face would have spoilt the effect. Imagination alone proved those thrills.
Not only does (the 1968 film) Targets address increasing societal violence, but it also provides a semi-factual look at Karloff’s career, habits, and artistic philosophy. Sitting at the bar in his hotel room, Orlok (Karloff) mixes a martini while talking to Jenny (Nancy Hsueh)—this action may be viewed as a documentary image of Karloff himself, since he did enjoy this particular type of drink. When the drunken Sammy (Peter Bogdanovich) arrives later that evening, Orlok hears a knock. “Who is that tapping at my chamber door?” he asks, reflecting the actor’s past association with the works of Poe. Noticing that Orlok is watching The Criminal Code, Sammy confidently says, “Howard Hawks directed this.”
“Thanks to him, it was my first really important part,” Orlok replies—a remark that completely equates character and actor. Calling the film “a relic,” Orlok again draws attention to his age and style. The clip (which looks aged because of several prominent emulsion scratches) includes Galloway’s murder of Runch—an image that soon cuts to an advertisement for used cars (hear on the soundtrack, but not actually show).
Boris Karloff: A Critical Account of His Screen, Stage, Radio, Television, and Recording Work by Scott Allen Nollen, 1991
Karloff was now 42 and was still relegated to smaller parts. While making a chance stop one day in 1930 at Actor’s Equity to check for mail, Karloff was told that they were casting parts of The Criminal Code at the Belasco Theatre in Los Angeles. When he was offered the small but important part of Galloway, the trustee, in the play at a salary of $350 a week, he jumped at the chance. When the play was made into a film at Columbia Studios, Boris was cast in the same role. The film’s director, Howard Hawks, and Karloff worked well together, and when Hawks was casting Scarface, he called upon Karloff again, this time to play the mobster Gaffney.
Boris Karloff: A Bio-Bibliography by Beverley Bare Buehrer (1993)
The Criminal Code premiered at New York’s National Theatre on 2 October 1929 and ran for 174 performances. In the prologue, politically ambitious district attorney Martin Brady convicts Robert Graham on a charge of second-degree murder, although he could easily have pleaded mitigating circumstances if he were the defense lawyer. After six years in prison, Graham’s mental deterioration advances to dangerous levels, until Brady (now the prison warden) appoints him as his daughter’s chauffeur and they become romantically involved. However, after a failed prison break, the convicts seek revenge on an informer, and Graham becomes accused of a murder actually committed by Ned Galloway. Faithful to the criminal code of never informing, he is put in solitary confinement while Brady indirectly attempts to make him talk and give him parole. But Galloway sneaks a knife into Graham’s cell and kills brutal Captain Gleason with it. The play ends with the romance between Mary Brady and Graham over and the latter facing life imprisonment for murder. Although Hawks broadened the adaptation cinematically, The Criminal Code has not received much critical attention. The film’s prologue does not take place in Brady’s office as in the play but uses the mobile camera to introduce the nightclub scene of Graham’s accidental killing. When the convicts create a diversion, enabling Galloway to kill the informer, Hawks uses montage to build tension. Galloway’s killing of the informer behind a closed door is a fine example of how Hawks cinematically knows how to tell a story. However, such creative instances are few, and the film rarely transcends its theatrical origins. Hawks claimed that he changed the ending so that Galloway clears Graham and kills the sadistic Gleason before being shot himself. Mary and Graham can now live happily ever after. Film performances are generally perfunctory, with the exception of Boris Karloff as Galloway. As a paroled convict sentenced to twelve years for drinking one glass of beer, he nurtures his vengeance against Gleason for informing against him. Karloff’s performance is a masterpiece of cinematic menace. He had played the role Galloway for seven months in the West Coast production of the play. His acting combines the silent threat characteristic of his role in Frankenstein (1931) with the best qualities of understated, early sound acting, which contrast favorably with Walter Huston’s overbearing performance. Columbia later remade the film in two unsatisfactory versions as Penitentiary (1938) and Convicted (1950). (T.W.)
Resources: Martin Flavin, The Criminal Code (New York: Horace Liveright, 1929); James Robert Parish, Prison Pictures from Hollywood (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991).
Video Versions: Film Adaptations of Plays on Video edited by Thomas L. Erskine, James M. Welsh with John C. Tibbetts and Tony Williams (2000)
Martin Archer Flavin. Born: November 2, 1883, San Francisco, CA. Died: 1967. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1944 for Journey in the Dark.
The Criminal Code is about a hotshot district attorney who convicts a young man for a killing he knew was committed in self-defense. The DA then becomes the warden of the prison holding that convict, who subsequently becomes the warden’s driver. A murder occurs inside the prison, and the driver must decide whether to break the title code of silence to tell the truth. The 1929 play at Broadway’s National Theatre featured Arthur Byron.
…One of Hawks’s first sound pictures received first-rate work from the cast, and the director always said that Huston was his favorite actor.
“…the first major studio prison picture, George Hill’s The Big House, cowritten by Flavin, which had been released in June and to which The Criminal Code has always been compared. An exciting film until its copout ending, The Big House is impressive for its size and near-architectural qualities, but scenes from The Criminal Code stick in mind more indelibly: Huston’s repeated displays of arrogant confidence as he faces the prisoners in the yard, yells back at them in their own crude manner, and defiantly lights his cigar and stares down their hate for him; Karloff’s implacable stalk as he corners the sadistic guard for the kill while the other prisoners cover the act with their shouting, and the surprising humor Hawks draws from grim surroundings and character…The Criminal Code doesn’t seem as timeless or congenial as many of Hawks’s later films, and it is damaged by an uncharacteristic sappiness in the scenes with the romantic youngsters.” (Todd McCarthy, Howard Hawks)
The Great American Playwrights on the Screen: A Critical Guide to Film, TV, Video and DVD by Jerry Roberts, 2003
The same character types show up in a second prison film (the first being The Big House ) of the early 1930s, Howard Hawk’s The Criminal Code , which tells the tale of a fine young man who is mistakenly convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary. In prison Bob bonds with other prisoners, including Galloway (Boris Karloff), a hardened criminal plotting a revenge murder. One buddy plans an escape, only to be thwarted by a stool pigeon. “The years go on,” we are told by an intertitle, “drab—empty—hopeless years,” and indeed we do find that six years of hard labor in the prison’s jute mill have broken Bob spiritually and physically. Fortunately, the prison doctor realizes that Bob “isn’t a criminal at all.” “There is something there worth saving,” he informs the warden, “and it is almost gone.” The kindly warden reassigns Bob to work at his house, where the young man and the warden’s daughter fall in love. When Bob is erroneously blamed for a murder, he refuses to break the criminal code by squealing, even though this refusal may lead to the gallows. But the warden’s daughter save him, they embrace, and Bob is behind bars no longer.
Ingredients of these and other early prison films became staples of the genre: convict buddies, a paternalistic warden, a cruel assistant warden or guard, a craven snitch, a bloodthirsty convict, and the young hero, who is either absolutely innocent or at most guilty of a minor offense that does not warrant prison.
Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society by Nicole Rafter (2006)
Hawks’s new First National deal provided for him to be loaned out to other studios. Right after The Dawn Patrol opened, Universal crowed about how it had snared the town’s newest hot director to make an aviation picture. But Harry Cohn had already approached Hawks about doing a picture for his low-rent studio, Columbia. In terms of financing and prestige, Columbia was a significant cut below the true major studios, such as MGM and Paramount, but above some of the thinly capitalized companies that wouldn’t survive the Depression. Columbia couldn’t afford to sign major stars to long-term contracts, so Cohn instead sometimes placed his chips on directors he thought might bring in a good picture. He’d recently used Victor Fleming, who may well have recommended Hawks to him and did tell Hawks that Cohn was someone he might want to talk with. After initially trying to snare Lewis Milestone, at the moment one of the two or three most sought-after directors in town, something told Cohn that Hawks might be worth the gamble.
Urgently searching for material that would be appropriate for sound pictures, Columbia bought the rights to Martin Flavin’s stage play The Criminal Code, which opened on Broadway on October 2, 1929. The grimly bitter drama, which was well received critically and ran for a respectable twenty-two weeks, was part of a new movement in theater and films keyed to exposing prison conditions and advocating penal reform. Centered on a reform-minded new warden and a young man doing time for an accidental killing, the play was designed to demonstrate how abhorrent conditions, along with a “code” that demanded prisoners not rat on each other, could drive an essentially decent man over the edge to become a killer. Hawks knew that the character of the warden “was based on a district attorney in California who was sentenced to prison, and they had to put him in the prison hospital to protect him because the place was full of men he had sent up—and I’m quite sure he’d framed a lot of them. Finally he said, ‘I can’t take this any longer. I want to g out into the yard.’ He went out into the yard, and the scene we did in the picture was just what had happened, except that [the actor Walter] Huston was the warden. He walked right out among them, daring them, and no one made a move.”
Flavin made four unsuccessful attempts to adapt his work to the screen for Columbia, but as soon as Hawks was signed (for thirty thousand dollars, compared to Walter Huston’s forty thousand), the director brought in his frequent collaborator Seton I. Miller, who helped Hawks turn the property around in less than a month. (Fred Niblo Jr. also received screenplay credit, but there is no record of his specific contributions to the picture.) Hawks and Miller felt that the play’s first two acts worked well but that the third act fell completely flat. For starters, they removed the prominent character of a prison doctor who becomes taken with the young prisoner’s case and argues for an improvement in his big-house job and conditions. But the most crucial change they made involved taking the murder weapon out of the hands of the young man (Phillips Holmes) and putting it into those of another prisoner, Galloway (played by Boris Karloff), thereby allowing for a happy ending (the young man is able to pursue his romance with the warden’s beautiful young daughter) but also effectively removing the pre-New Deal left-wing social determinism from the piece. This change, Hawks said, was not invented by him or his writers but by some actual convicts whom the director asked for advice; similarly, numerous ex-cons helped populate the prison for the movie. Hawks also strengthened the camaraderie of the prisoners, especially in his emphasis on “the convicts’ code of not squealing” and built up the comic elements. “I loved the scene with Walter in the barber chair staring at the fellow shaving him. ‘Don’t I know you?’ And the man said, ‘You do.’ ‘I sent you up, didn’t I?’ He said, ‘You did.’ Walter said, ‘I don’t remember what for.’ And as he lifted Walter’s chin, he said, ‘For cutting a guy’s throat.’ I liked that. I let the scene run a hundred feet—just watching Walter’s eyes. It was the first time I discovered almost any tragedy can also be very amusing.”
For Hawks, the greatest pleasure of making The Criminal Code was collaborating with Walter Huston, whom he said was “the greatest actor I ever worked with.” Constance Cummings, who was cast as his daughter at the last minute and was also terribly impressed with her costar, remembered Hawks spending most of his time with Huston, to the point where she felt left out of the otherwise virtually all-male cast and crew. Phillips Holmes, a young pretty boy who enjoyed a brief vogue in the early 1930s before vanishing from the scene, was as bland and ineffectual as ever, one of the few painfully sincere performances to have been allowed through in a Hawks film.
Beginning September 23, 1930, the film shot largely in sequence on six- and sometimes seven-day weeks through November 8. With rewrites continuing apace, Hawks worked for the first time with cinematographer James Wong Howe for the first three weeks, mostly on the early scenes in the warden’s and the D.A.’s offices, the police station, and Spelvin’s Café, a big scene shot on the Universal lot. When Howe left to shoot another picture, Ted Tetzlaff came in for the remaining four weeks to photograph all the prison scenes, including the five days spent on the spectacular prison-yard set, where Huston wades in amongst the convicts.
These scenes, which involved as many as eight hundred extras, were shot on the huge set on the MGM lot used just a few months before for the first major studio prison picture, George Hill’s The Big House, co-written by Flavin, which had been released in June and to which The Criminal Code has always been compared. An exciting film until its copout ending, The Big House is impressive for its size and near-architectural qualities, but scenes form The Criminal Code stick in the mind more indelibly: Huston’s repeated displays of arrogant confidence as he faces the prisoners in the yard, yells back at them in their own crude manner, and defiantly lights his cigar and stares down their hate for him; Karloff’s implacable stalk as he corners the sadistic guard for the kill while the other prisoners cover the act with their shouting, and the surprising humor Hawks draws from grim surroundings and characters. Hawks also dabbles in overlapping dialogue for the first time, in the opening scene in the police station, where one cop is on the phone while two other men are playing cards. The Criminal Code doesn’t seem as timeless or congenial as many of Hawks’s later films, and it is damaged by an uncharacteristic sappiness in the scenes with the romantic youngsters. Even here, however, Hawks softened the blow with his determinedly unsentimental treatment of a potentially predictable moment: when a cable arrives with the news that Phillips Holmes’s mother has died, he is playing checkers in his cell; the cable is passed around among the cons in silence, but before the expected reaction can set in, Holmes’s cellmate says, “Your move, kid,” nipping any overt emotionalism in the bud.
The Criminal Code opened in New York on January 3, 1931, less than two months after it wrapped, and did very good business, especially for a Columbia release. The film did encounter some problems because of its violent and potentially volatile content, particularly in Chicago, where its bookings were canceled after the local censor board demanded heavy cuts.
By the time Hawks finished up retakes and final work on The Criminal Code in mid-November, Howard Hughes’s relationship with Hawks had warmed considerably. Hughes’s next production was to be a gangster epic, and Hawks’s expression of interest in directing it had developed into a firm intention. Aside from liking the idea of making the ultimate gangster film, Hawks enjoyed the fact that everything the young Texan did represented a snub at the powers that be of the Hollywood establishment. To Hawks, aligning with the wealthy Hughes meant the possibility of real independence from the ruling nabobs. The only problem was his freshly minted contract to direct three pictures for First National, which had been patiently waiting since August for him to finish The Criminal Code. Determined not to miss his chance with Hughes, Hawks had to figure out a way to slither out of First National’s grasp in order to make the most explosive picture of gangland the world had ever seen.
Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood by Todd McCarthy (1997)
AN UNRESISTIBLE AD
The New Movie Magazine, September 1932
INTERVIEW WITH HOWARD HAWKS
PB: Could you say something abut the making of The Criminal Code?
HH: The Criminal Code was a play that had merit but had failed on Broadway because of the ending. I got together with ten convicts and said, “How should this end?” and they told me in no uncertain terms. They had a great deal to do with the formation of many scenes because it was built more or less on the convicts’ code of not squealing. I used ex-convicts as extra men all through the picture to give it authenticity. Of course, Huston was one of the greatest actors we’ve ever had. His character was based on a district attorney we had here in California who was finally tried and sentenced to prison, and they put him in the prison hospital to protect him because the place was full of men he had sent there. Finally, he said, “I can’t take this any longer. I want to go out into the yard.” He went out into the yard, and the scene we did in the picture was just what he did. Things like his being shaved by a man he had sent up for cutting somebody’s throat were all true. It was the first time that I discovered almost any tragedy can also be very amusing. In The Big Sky we made a comedy scene of Kirk Douglas getting his finger cut off and cauterized and it was very funny.
PB: How did the scene in which Phillips Holmes learns of his mother’s death evolve. Was it in the script originally?
HH: I don’t think so. It’s just that when I reach a scene that is too sentimental, I try to turn it and keep it f rom being sentimental. In Only Angels Have Wings, I had a man talking to his friend who’s been in an airplane wreck just say to him, “Your neck is broken, kid.” Just a flat statement; just try to keep things from becoming mawkish. Play against it completely.
Howard Hawks Interviews: Conversations with Filmmakers Series edited by Peter Brunette (2006)
Did you do the same kind of thing (taking liberties) when you were preparing The Criminal Code ?
HH: Oh, yeah, we wrote a whole bunch of stuff for that because the last act was absolutely no good. But I liked the beginning, I liked the story. So I got twenty convicts, got ‘em a room, gave ‘em a lunch, gave ‘em a drink. I sat down and said, “I’m going to tell you guys a story, and I want you to decide how it ends. I’ll go off until you decide.” I went off, and they talked for about an hour, and I came in and said, “Are you ready to talk?” and they told me the whole ending, the whole last act. Then I had convicts working for me. One time they got bored with what they were doing, so I put ‘em on a dog trot, and I said, “You’re going to keep trotting until you decide to behave, and anybody who stops is automatically fired.” So they made a couple of rounds of this place until they yelled out, “Hey, mister, we’ll be good!” I said, “OK, let’s hear it from everybody whether they’ll be good.” And they would go by me saying, “We’ll be good, we’ll be good.” So Is stopped them, and we became pretty good friends.
Hawks on Hawks by Joseph McBride (2013)
HE ROLES HIS OWN!
“I’m an actor,” says Walter Huston—but he doesn’t ‘act’
“I’m an actor,” Walter Huston says. “Not a matinee idol. I’m a business man and acting is my business. I’m a craftsman and interested in my craft. I’m not a movie hero.”
Well, he isn’t handsome. He isn’t ostentatious. He doesn’t exude personality and temperament. He doesn’t make a noise like a movie star at all. But he’s tall and lean and brown, with quizzical eyes and a nice smile.
He’s just an actor.
And yet he doesn’t ‘act.’ Nor interpret a part. Nor live a character. He doesn’t study mannerisms that go with a role. Nor the voice. Nor the posture. None of these things.
A part plays itself. That is, to Walter Huston it does. Acting is a simple thing, one of the simplest things, the way Walter Huston does it. But that isn’t ‘acting,’ really.
And yet you’d think if anyone in the talking picture world had to act it would be this same Huston. He’d have to. What of all the diverse roles he has played: in Gentlemen of the Press, The Virginian, Abraham Lincoln, The Bad Man; not mention his parts on the stage in Congo, The Barker, Zander The Great, The Commodore Marries, Desire Under the Elms, all these couldn’t be himself. He’d have to ‘act’.
There’s such a fine shading between ‘acting’ and what Walter Huston does!
The way he explains it: picture a long Spanish room with two steps at the end that leads to the foyer. Picture the tall Mr. Huston ambling to the end of the room and up the steps to the natural stage it makes there. We, in the meantime, of course, are at the far end of the room by the window and the view of Hollywood.
“Now,” says Walter Huston. “I’m going to act Lincoln. Everyone knows that Abe was tall, lanky, and walked with a slouching gait, used casual awkward gestures. All right. I’ll do all of these things. Now, I’m acting Lincoln,” he slouches down the steps, gives an awkward salute with the arm, says ‘Howdy, folks,’ and ables down the room. “Well, everyone would recognize that as Lincoln. ‘Sure,’ they’d say, ‘he’s acting Lincoln.’ Exactly. But that’s not the way Lincoln himself would have walked.
“This is the way Lincoln himself would do.” He goes again to the impromptu stage at the end of the room, and with just the slightest shade, just the merest difference in exaggeration of gesture and speech, he repeats the action and comes down the room. That was Lincoln!
Now you know the difference between acting and what Walter Huston does. But he spent months studying Lincoln, reading everything he could find about him, until he knew him, backwards and forwards. Knew how he felt in different situations. He could be that man. But what about another role, something you couldn’t read about and study?
“The key to every character you play is in the words he says,” Huston explains. “You don’t have to interpret it. It’s there. Just as the author planned it. The man’s personality is sketched for you. So there’s only one way to do a role, the way it’s written. Sometimes just a bit of a conversation will give you a clue to the kind of person you are to be. Then it’s the simplest matter to play it. The words really say themselves. They couldn’t be expressed any other way.”
He picks up a book, The Criminal Code by Martin Flavin. This is to be his next talkie, he tells you. He takes the part of the district attorney, Brady, who is later made warden of a prison. He leafs through the pages.
“Here, for instance,” he goes on, “a kid has been mixed up in a brawl in a speakeasy and has killed another boy. He was drunk and the boy wasn’t bad. It was just a tough break for him. When he comes in to see the district attorney, Brady questions him. He says:
“’What’s your name, kid?’
“’Bob, huh? Well, what’s it all about, Bob? Tell me about it.’
“Right away you sense the kind of man that Brady is. He isn’t hard-boiled, nor tough. He doesn’t start in to bulldoze the youngster. He’s human and kindly. He’s sorry for the kid. If he’d been hard-boiled he wouldn’t have asked the kid his name in that way. So there’s only one way to say those lines. Any other way would sound wrong. So it doesn’t take imagination nor interpretation to do a role. The part plays itself.”
“But The Bad Man. Surely that takes—a little—well, imagination?” I asked.
“Even The Bad Man is a part you can thoroughly understand,” insists Huston. “Perhaps it does take a little imagination. But here is a man who would take the law into his own hands. We all would like to, if we had the nerve. He says: ‘I keel mans, evil mans, I feel good.’ Well, I might see a man strike a kid out here on the street and if I went out and knocked him down I’d feel better about it. So I can understand how the ‘bad man’ felt about a ‘good deed well done’.”
The talkies to Walter Huston are fascinating. But he feels they are still handicapped by their mechanics. Perhaps because the sound men are mechanics first, and stage men afterwards. They are more interested in the words as words that five thousand people in a theater in Peoria will hear—than in words that mean something.
He hopes still to play parts on the stage. He feels that on the stage you can get little nuances that you miss entirely in the talkies; and yet in the talkies you act more naturally, for the microphone is right there beside you. In a way the audience is right there with you. On the stage you can have an intimate conversation with someone else in a low key and get the audience’s keen attention, make them lean forward in their seats to hear you—but not in the talkies.
He feels the public wants human, real stories. That this change in taste has come about by the talkies. Just movies won’t do anymore. He believes the talkies have brought more spontaneity to acting. He believes it best, and there need be but few rehearsals, if everyone knew his part and its relation to the play as a whole. When Griffith was directing Abraham Lincoln he used to gather the cast together and just talk to them for five minutes about the scene and generally there were only two or three ‘takes.’
Acting to Huston is an art, yet a business. He fails to understand those who would make a display of fame and stardom. In New York an actor was just like someone who sold bonds. He wasn’t a goldfish. Fan letters he thinks are fun—at first. Some of them are of interest to him, but many of them want to know if Mr. Huston will correspond with them and that amazes him.
He’s had a long career on the stage. At the age of eighteen he first started his Thespian carer, left for matrimony and the business world, but was later lured back and for fifteen years was an entertainer on the vaudeville circuit. His first starring role was in a play called Mr. Pitt, and since then life has been just one role after another.
When not acting he is sailing in the yacht he owns with Richard Arlen. It is the apple of his eye, and the slightest excuse will start him talking about it. He can talk about art and artists too, but that is something else again.
Screenland by Marie House, January 1931
Blogs written by other classic film enthusiasts:
Only the Cinema, January 14, 2009
Immortal Ephemera by Cliff Aliperti, April 5, 2011
Shadows and Satin, July 17, 2011
Acidemic by Erich Kuersten, May 18, 2013
Howard Hawks Movies by Hollywood’s Grey Fox, 2014
The E List ` classic film reviews by Newslowe, August 31, 2014
The Man on the Flying Trapeze by David, August 20, 2015
THE EARL OF CHICAGO (1940)
One day I was visiting a friend in Ottawa and while she was busy doing something else I decided to watch one of the films on the Robert Montgomery box set that was not a pre-Code. I chose The Earl of Chicago, I guess because it sounded interesting. Well, it certainly was.
I came to the conclusion, and it appears that a lot of the write ups starting back in 1940 agree, that it’s hard to pin point what type of film this actually is. It begins as somewhat of a comedy and by the end, it has become a tragedy. The producer and uncredited co-director, Victor Saville, felt that it was a black comedy, and if so, it was certainly one of the earliest made.
I am definitely a Robert Montgomery fan and enjoy him in most every role I have seen him in. In this film he plays a Brooklynese gangster and he speaks with what is suppose to pass as the dialect for that region of the world. I always feel he somehow fails, but it doesn’t really spoil the performance for me because Montgomery has a lot of acting talent and charm that can easily make you forget whatever inadequacies you feel he may have in the role. He reprises the accent in the popular and delightful 1941 film Here Comes Mr. Jordan (which I wrote about on January 9 in Short Reviews 2014) where again, I don’t 100% believe he truly is from Brooklyn—or even, in this case, that he is a boxer! But neither of these little inconsequential technicalities can spoil the film.
In the notes I’ve collected for The Earl of Chicago, there is a fair amount of comparing Montgomery’s role in this film to an earlier role as a psychopath in the 1937 film, Night Must Fall. I think the journalists and writers may believe this but are also making a point of comparison, possibly, for reasons of film promotion. I don’t believe a psychopath can change and from my point of view, Montgomery’s character does go through some sort of eureka moment where he starts to begin to understand that everything isn’t about him. To me, there is little comparison of these two characters as that Night Must Fall was a serious film with no humorous moments to be found. In The Earl of Chicago, I don’t think I can call the character Montgomery plays a psychopath but from the little we learn of his upbringing, self-serving for sure, which is not a surprise. And a gangster with a somewhat ludicrous phobia to boot. Certainly other than being successful in business, he wasn’t particularly clever when it came to understanding people. And his downfall was that he was clueless that loyalty must be reciprocated.
Edward Arnold, who plays Montgomery’s lawyer, is always an entertaining character actor. He can play a lead as well as he can play a supporting role, but there is something about Edward Arnold that makes you know it’s him. He can be kind; he can be nasty; he can be a drunk; he’s very emotive, but he’s always Edward Arnold.
But the actor who is so fascinating because he is so able to disappear into his role is the remarkable Edmund Gwenn. Most of you know him as Kris Kringle in the, dare I say, sappy 1947 Miracle on 34th Street but if you ever have the opportunity to see him in Thunder in the Valley made the same year about a Scottish sheep farmer, you won’t be disappointed. (I wrote about it under Cinevent in Columbus, Ohio.)
One quick observation is that there are no women in a leading role in this film. We get a peek at one that we can only assume is quite sexy as we only are able to see a limited part of her anatomy. I think it’s rather inventive the way the director has us almost tilting our heads to gander a look at something we’re not given the opportunity to see.
There are a lot of ways to program double bills. The Earl of Chicago made me think of tonight’s earlier film after hearing Robert Montgomery “yeah-ing” for the dozenth or so time. So that’s why I decided tonight’s films needed to be screened together. I can only image that some of us may not want to hear the word for a while after tonight’s last film.
Knowing where it all leads, I have to say that it’s rather sad on second viewing, this story of an idiot savant. Enjoy the crisp cinematography, shadows and lighting, which possibly have some underlying meaning—or not! Caren
Metro-Goldwyn Mayer. Directed by Richard Thorpe and Victor Saville (uncredited). Produced by Victor Saville. Based on the book by Brock Williams. Story developed for the screen by Gene Fowler, Lesser Samuels and Charles de Grandcourt. Cinematography by Ray June and Karl Freund (uncredited). Music by Werner R. Heymann. Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons. Film Editing by Frank Sullivan. Set Decoration by Edwin B. Willis. Released: January 5, 1940. 87 minutes.
Robert Kilmount aka Silky……………………………….. Robert Montgomery
Quentin ‘Doc’ Ramsey…………………………………………. Edward Arnold
Gervase Gonwell………………………………………………. Reginald Owen
Munsey, the Butler……………………………………………. Edmund Gwenn
Mr. Redwood………………………………………………………….. E.E. Clive
Master Gerald Kilmount……………………………………….. Ronald Sinclair
Maureen Kilmount………………………………………………. Norma Varden
Lord Chancellor………………………………………………. Halliwell Hobbes
Reading Clerk………………………………………………………….. Ian Wolfe
Judson…………………………………………………………….. Peter Godfrey
Castle Guide…………………………………………………………. Billy Bevan
Attorney General…………………………………………………. Miles Mander
Townsman………………………………………………………… ‘Snub’ Pollard
The Earl of Chicago was originally planned by Metro as a British production last summer but outbreak of the war chased Robert Montgomery and others of the contingent back to Hollywood for the making. Story, which reports state Montgomery persuaded the studio to purchase after he made Night Must Fall, is decidedly unusual in texture—a comedy drama up to a point, and then a sudden swing into ironic tragedy. As was the case with Night Must Fall, it carries a psychopathic tone which is present, but not too apparent, until the latter portion of the tale. At the boxoffice Earl of Chicago will enjoy a spotty reception.
For audiences looking for the unusual in screen fare, picture will be thoroughly enjoyable. Critics will also point to it with confidence that the producers can turn out the type of pictures they have been requesting, but for general appeal, patrons will generate mixed reactions.
The plot, in introducing Montgomery as a former Chicago bootlegger gone straight in the legit liquor biz, has numerous surprise twists. Montgomery, allergic to guns, tax raps and double-crossing associates is sought out as the missing heir to the Earldom of Gorley. Taking along Edward Arnold, supposedly an honest lawyer, Montgomery goes to England to collect his estate. Slow procedure of British law, and final realization that he cannot sell his heritage, is a blow to the mobster. But while he is succumbing to the traditions of his position as lord and master of his estates and tenants, Montgomery discovers that the honest man he trusted, Arnold, has scuttled his Chicago enterprise for personal revenge. Gone berserk, Montgomery shoots Arnold, and is tried and convicted for murder before his peers in the House of Lords. But he walks courageously to the scaffold to uphold tradition of his rank.
Montgomery, in handling the title role, turns in a fine performance, although it seems in many spots he endeavors to carry over the moronic grimaces and expressions from his characterization in Night Must Fall. This is particularly true in the early Chicago sequences, where he should have been a definitely suave and dominating character. Montgomery also essays a frequent cackle which could have been eliminated.
Edward Arnold, as the honest lawyer who stood a prison stretch on a frame during prohibition, provides a substantial supporting characterization, and adds much to the picture’s strength. Edmund Gwenn is neatly grooved as Montgomery’s English butler and counsellor. Balance of support is excellently set up.
Picture has a neat mixture of comedy and dramatic suspense in the first half, but gets into heavy tragedy when the Earl, who finally catches audience sympathy through his interest and sympathy for his tenants and traditions of his family, commits murder and finally faces the death penalty. It’s an unusual twist in dramatic motivation, far off the beaten path of accepted formula.
The trial in the House of Lords is dramatic in its presentation, and still brief enough to prevent sagging of pace at an important stage of the picture. Setting for the trial is impressive and true to tradition and procedure. Photography by Ray June is of exceptional merit, and settings of English countryside and castles carry authentic mounting.
Richard Thorpe’s direction is workmanlike from every angle, keeping the picture moving at a steady pace, despite several sidelight detours of brief footage that might have detracted attention from the main line if they had been more extended.
The Earl of Chicago is the first productional effort in Hollywood for Metro by Victor Saville, who produced The Citadel and Goodbye, Mr. Chips in London. This is Saville’s second trip to Hollywood—first occurred 10 years ago when he made one feature for Tiffany.
Variety, January (1940)
THE EARL OF CHICAGO
ITS UNUSUAL STORY FORMULA DEMANDS SELLING SLANTS THAT GET AWAY FROM BEATEN PATH
A playboy becomes a gangster! This is the novel twist in Robert Montgomery’s newest picture, The Earl of Chicago. In this picture, Montgomery departs from his usual role of a wise-cracking playboy to become a tough, hardboiled gangster.
One of the most unusual situations in the picture concerns Montgomery’s leading lady. All that is ever seen of her is her legs. Known as “Silken Legs” this idea can be developed into several different stunts. One of them would be to send a ballyhoo girl out at a certain hour, clad in a pair of red silk (or some distinctive color) stockings. Either by means of a newspaper tieup or by a herald announce that the lucky finders of “Silken Legs” will be awarded prizes or guest tickets. As a ballyhoo send out a girl completely masked, with copy reading, “I’m Silken Legs. ‘The Earl of Chicago’ loves me. Find out why I’m masked by seeing Robert Montgomery in The Earl of Chicago.”
Have a local shoe shop display the foot and leg measurements of a girl—foot, ankle, calf and thigh dimensions. Invite your women patrons to enter a contest whereby a pair of free silk stockings will be given to each girl whose measurements exactly correspond. Definitely limit the number of silk stockings which will be awarded. Girls buy stockings on the basis of shoe size, but the store could not afford to make the contest as simple as that. That is the reason for the suggested measurements of the whole leg.
Arrange a tieup with a store, either a silk stocking shop or a shoe store. Curtain off half the window so all that can be seen are the legs of the model. Have her walk around, change her stockings or do anything to attract attention. As soon as a crowd has gathered, have her place a series of signs on an easel in the window advertising the picture and the theatre.
Stage a beautiful leg contest in your theatre. Award prizes to the girl whose legs are judged to be the most perfect. The press book has a series of four one-column teaser ads. These should be run well in advance of your regular advertising. It would be wise to make up a teaser throwaway, too.
The press book offers an illustration for a newspaper or throwaway contest. This is the outline figure of a girl. Offer prizes for the best conception of what Montgomery’s girl friend really looks like. A contest for art classes is contained in one of the incidents of the picture. As the 12th Lord of Gorley, Montgomery discovers a picture of an ancestor of his who lived in 1645; the amazing thing is that they look exactly alike. Secure star photos of Montgomery and offer prizes or guest tickets for the best conception of the star as a pirate or a gladiator and the like. Practically every school has a complete file of the costumes of the past.
An interesting suggestion for a newspaper tieup is contained in the idea of giving guest tickets to those readers whose names suggest royalty such as “Earl,” “King,” etc. This is a particular effective tieup for the classified section as that would allow the names to be scattered throughout the entire page. Use the first, middle or last name, for then you will be able to reach a much larger proportion of the readers.
Give guest tickets or prizes for the best letters written by radio listeners, newspaper readers or patrons in which they observe the social formalities attendant upon inviting a royal person to an imaginary social affair. Another contest suggestion consists of offering prizes for the best design of a Coat-of-Arms or Crest which Robert Montgomery could use if he were actually an Earl.
When you have as unusual and impressive a title as “The Earl of Chicago,” a good stunt is to imprint an impressive looking invitation to meet royalty on such and such a date at your theatre. These can either be mailed out or given out by a ballyhoo man dressed in evening clothes complete with the symbolical colored sash that denotes honors as given out by a foreign government.
Another distinctive novelty for a ballyhoo girl or man to distribute is a card with a real nail in a slit. The copy should read: “He was as hard as nails—as a gangster; but he was as soft as putty when he became a lord! See, etc…” You’ll find this illustrated in the press book.
A high hat or a topper is one of the emblems of class distinction or social aristocracy. Manufacture a big one from compo board, painted black, with cut-in title letters, illuminated by a flasher-light. Use it as a teaser idea in your lobby a week in advance of play dates.
Shields, banner, flag and pennant designs have been created which can be employed inside and outside your theatre. Make them both atmospheric and decorative and show them in various combinations of colors so that they will give the picture stronger appeal.
The trial by the House of Lords, shown in the picture is authentic in every detail. It is one of the few times it ever has been presented on the screen. Members of the legal profession and law school students will be more than interested in it. Let them know about it by means of personally-written letters.
Try to promote a small quantity of colored feathers. Perhaps there is a local novelty manufacturer who will make them to order for you at a low price. Affix a small picture and theatre billing stickers to them and pass them out as a novelty to the younger generation.
In all your advertising, drive “home” that this is Montgomery’s most unusual role.
Showmen’s Trade Review: An STR Showmanalysis, January 6, 1940
Plot: Robert Montgomery, an ignorant Chicago gangster, finds himself by heritage, heir to an English title with all its land and traditions. He takes with him to England, to claim the estate, his attorney, Edward Arnold, a man he framed and had sent to prison and then hired because he believed in his honesty. Arnold keeps from him the fact that he cannot sell his English land, and while in England uses his power of attorney to ruin Montgomery’s business in America. This strange revenge forces Montgomery to live in England, so he kills Arnold and is himself hanged.
Comment: Totally different from the usual run of pictures is this strange, fascinating film; one that will prove a rare treat for those theatregoers looking for something quite different in motion picture entertainment. There’s also enough broad satire combined with the gripping story to make it appeal to the average crowd looking for a good laugh and Robert Montgomery’s startling role will cause plenty of comment. Here again Montgomery gives you a brilliant interpretation of a psychopathic individual, another “different” role similar to the one that made his Night Must Fall such an outstanding character study. Remarkably fine are the supporting players, particularly Edward Arnold and Edmund Gwenn. The direction of Richard Thorpe is an expert job and Victor Saville deserves credit for an unusual production. For exploitation see Showmanalysis on page 11 of this issue.
Catchline: “From Chicago gangster to English Earl and the traditions of his ancestors.”
AUDIENCE SLANT: STRANGE, FASCINATING FILM THAT IS TOTALLY DIFFERENT AND RARE ENTERTAINMENT.
BOX OFFICE SLANT: SHOULD APPEAL TO THE AVERAGE CROWD LOOKING FOR LAUGHS.
Showmen’s Trade Review: The Box Office Slant, January 6, 1940
WHAT THE PICTURE DID FOR ME
Earl of Chicago: Robert Montgomery, Edward Arnold, Reginald Owen:
Most of the reviews I have read on this feature have nothing but praise for Robert Montgomery’s performance as the gangster who inherits a castle and all the intangible millions that go with it. Our reaction to the picture and the many dissatisfied remarks from the customers would indicate that this picture is not for small towns. And I have a sneaking feeling that many of the larger towns will find this feature a bit tiresome and over-acted. It is hard to imagine Robert Montgomery as the tough mug he pretends to e, and his voice and manner are to obviously affected to be convincing. His laugh, which amounts to nothing more than a “cackle,” is unconvincing, terribly annoying and ridiculously funny. The whole picture jumps from scene to scene, with nothing but conversation and not one ounce of action. I could not begin to list the unfavorable remarks heard after each showing, nor can I find one person who found Robert Montgomery pleasing in his role. The picture is slow and drags to a noticeable degree, and it is our opinion that one more such opus will do him more harm than good. There is no doubt that the book made interesting and convincing reading, but its adoption to the screen leaves much to be desired. Our audience reaction was “null” and the box office was “void,” so draw your own conclusions. – Mrs. W.A. Wight, Rex Theatre, Konawa, Okla. Small town and rural patronage.
It is different. Montgomery makes a comeback, according to our fans. Arnold is excellent, and Edmund Gwenn got a big hand. Business normal to good. They’ll go out talking about this picture. – W.C. Lewellen, Uptown Theatre, Pueblo, Col. General patronage.
This is the first piece of MGM product in years that we would advise cancelling. Well, they all make mistakes and this is one of them. Just nothing to run. – A.J. Inks, Crystal Theatre, Ligonier, Ind. Small town patronage.
Many unfavorable comments on this picture. Poor part for Montgomery. – Leon C. Bolduc, Majestic Theatre, Conway, N.H. General patronage.
The picture failed to please and business was only fair. – E.M. Freiburger, Paramount Theatre, Dewey, Okla. Small town patronage.
Pass this one up if possible. No drawing power. – H.L. Capers, New Deal Theatre, Gorman, Texas. Rural patronage
Swell entertainment if you like this kind but only about 10 per cent of our regular patrons do. If we hadn’t played this on a Giveaway Night, there wouldn’t have been a handful there to see Montgomery do his stuff. He is a swell actor but the people just don’t like this kind. – Horn and Morgan, Inc., Star Theatre, Hay Springs, Neb. Small town patronage.
This may be class but failed to please here. Small towns, screen it before playing. No romance. Business second day below average. – C.W. Davis, Rockingham Theatre, Reidsville, N.C. Small town and rural patronage.
Some like this one and some didn’t. They can’t seem to see Montgomery in this sort of a role. Average business. – Roy Heffner, Jr., Key Theatre, Middleboro, Mass. General patronage.
Failed to please. Montgomery cast in wrong type of picture. – Charles E. Myers, Jr. Myers Theatre, Nashville, N.C. General patronage.
I lost my shirt on this one. If you must play it, double it. – Louis Perretta, Crescent Theatre, Mahoningtown, Pa. General patronage.
Motion Picture Herald, March 2-April 20, 1940
It took me little time to settle into the regular pattern of Culver City. I did not even move from the elegant suite of offices that had been allotted to me for temporary use originally. The first picture that I had intended to make on my return to England was a Dorothy Sayers-Peter Wimsey detective story; it was to star Robert Montgomery. Montgomery was not only a fine actor but he was intellectually ahead of most of his contemporaries, with an intense dislike for the cliché or banal. Therefore, I was a little surprised when he came to me with a novel, The Earl of Chicago—the rights belonged to David Selznick. It was the story of an American, a distant cousin of an English earl, who inherited the title, and it followed the usual lines of the gauche American entering the English aristocracy and committing all the gaffes possible. This type of story was passé even by 1939, but Montgomery had a different angle. His Earl was an ex-rum runner, who at the end of Prohibition, had, as he put it, gone legit—strictly on the up and up, still selling hooch, but now of top quality. Montgomery had worked out a wealth of detail for his character; he was a sybarite, liking everything smooth and round, and hence his name, Silky. He was cruel and expressed his cruelty and contempt with a giggle. Richard Widmark copied this trick most effectively years later. This ex-hood of Montgomery’s creation had a phobia. He hated guns—even the sight of one was enough.
I was intrigued by the thought of this character taking his place in the House of Lords, so I telephoned my friend Lesser Samuels, who, at the outbreak of war, had returned to his native city, New York. I told him the idea and asked him to come to California to develop the story. His knowledge and respect of English tradition, plus his sharp wit, made him an ideal choice.
It all started with a very unbending English lawyer coming to Chicago to tell Silky Kilmount of his social elevation, which held little attraction for Silky:
“Any dough in it?”
“About tow million.”
“Gee, two million dollars.”
“Er, pounds, me Lord.”
Much against his will, Silky is forced to go to England and collect his inheritance and, as he thinks, a quick return to Chicago. What he does not know is that, under the Law of Entitlement, whilst he may enjoy the income and the comfort of his many elegant and art-laden establishments, he cannot sell a single teaspoon. He is purposely kept in ignorance of the facts of life by his own attorney, whom he takes with him. His mouthpiece is only too willing to go along, because he is seeking revenge for a double-cross that Silky had played on him and that had landed him in the penitentiary for a couple of years. Silky and his mouthpiece set off for England to strip all the assets from the estate, turn them into cash, and return to Chicago and the prosperous liquor racket.
Every time Silky inquires about the value of a piece of bric-a-brac or picture, the answer is always “It’s priceless, my Lord.” Visitors to Gorley Castle are admitted every second Tuesday of the month, and in desperation and seeking information Silky follows one of the conducted tours. When the guide points out a Cellini Salt, from the back of the crowd comes Silky’s “What’s it worth?” and back comes the contemptuous reply, “It’s priceless.”
Arriving in the Long Gallery, the guide standing at the foot of the stairs pompously proclaims, “The great Robert Kilmount, Second Earl of Gorley, defending King Charles’ retreat, died gloriously on the very spot where the stout gentleman is standing [the stout gentleman moves away self-consciously] in the year 1643.”
Silky, annoyed: “He was bumped off in 1645.”
The guide, ruffled: “Sir, are you trying to tell me I don’t know my own business?”
Silky, mockingly: “Sir, are you trying to tell me I don’t know my own family?”
Like most directors who squirrel away incidents for further use, the scene at the foot of the stairs in the Long Gallery was born of a personal experience. Anxious to make another film with Madeleine Carroll, I thought that Mary, Queen of Scots would fit the bill. I read a lot and did a deal of research on t he subject and when Madeleine and I were in Edinburgh for the opening of I Was a Spy we naturally decided to visit Holyrood Castle. We dutifully followed the crowd listening to the guide and when we arrived at the bottom of the main staircase the guide announced with a dramatic pause, “On this spot Rizzio was murdered. If you look carefully you can see the bloodstains.” (I suppose they were renewed from time to time!) Heaven only knows what made me speak, but I found myself saying “But Rizzio was murdered at the top of the stairs.” I could have bitten my tongue off. Madeleine and I sneaked away to our waiting car but before we could make our getaway the guide, with book in hand, was on us. He told us that his authority on Mary, Queen of Scots had never been doubted and to prove it he held up the book. It was The Four Marys by Hector Bolitho, and to rub it in, he pointed out that it was dedicated to him. I didn’t have the heart to tell the guide he had not read the book. My outburst was occasioned from information I had learned from that very book.
Silky was shaken to the core for the first time in his life when he had to attend the House of Lords for the awe-inspiring ceremony of his induction. As he and his mouthpiece leave Westminster to drive back to Gorley Castle, the perspiring Silky loosens his stiff collar and inquires in a shaking voice, “What’s it all about, Doc?”
The Doc tells him, “It’s tradition.”
“Hey—what’s with this tradition?”
“It’s just the stories and legends of great men and great deeds of the past that makes an Englishman glad he’s an Englishman.”
“Ain’t we got none of this tradition in America, Doc?”
“Of course, there’s the Mayflower.”
The mouthpiece tells Silky about the Pilgrim Fathers seeking a new home because they had no freedom. The scene dissolves and the car drives up to the front of Gorley Castle. Silky is the first one to get out. He is s till a child hearing a wonderful fairy story; he turns back to the attorney and reflectively says, “And that guy plugged him while he was watching the show in the theatre—ain’t that a shame, Doc.” It will always be my favorite dissolve—most of the history of America in ten seconds.
Gorley Castle had a butler whose father and father’s father and for generations back and butlered at Gorley. His name was Munsey, and although Silky Kilmount had not an ounce of affection in him, in some strange way he becomes conscious of the quality of Munsey. It is the butler who instructs him, with perfect understanding, in the meaning of “noblesse oblige.”
Silky eventually discovers that his attorney has revenged himself and has double-crossed the double-crosser. Silky overcomes his phobia and shoots his mouthpiece. Tried by his Peers in the House of Lords, death by hanging with a silken rope in the Tower of London ends the life of the Earl of Chicago. But Munsey had done a good job, for this craven hoodlum walks the last steps to the gallows with head held high, like a real earl.
The cast was a perfect one; Montgomery’s Silky, Edward Arnold as the crooked mouthpiece, and a delightful performance by Edmund Gwenn as the butler, Munsey. The entire script, even though it had a tragic ending, sparkled with wit. Richard Thorpe, an MGM staff director, did a workmanlike job. He had never seen England, but I had and so had all the actors who played the English roles.
I was well pleased with the finished film, so you can imagine my disappointment when the New York executives, on one of their periodical trips to the coast to view the coming films, clearly disliked it. I was amazed that the wit and uniqueness of the picture had failed to impress a man like Howard Dietz, who was a successful lyricist of some sophistication. I suddenly realized that no one had ever made a black comedy. I had transgressed every line of conventional picture making that MGM was so comfortably satisfied with. Here was a matinee idol like Montgomery playing a hoodlum, the only female in evidence was Silky’s girlfriend, but we never showed more than her stockinged legs, and despite his moral conversion, our star finished at the end of a rope. This was a fairly sad beginning to my Hollywood career, and as they say in show business, “a man is no better than his last picture.” The Earl of Chicago, in spite of its opulent backgrounds—Gorley Castle, House of Lords, trial in Westminster Hall, and the Tower of London—was not a costly film, so the selling side were not prepared to spend time or money on trying to make it a successful venture. They did not release the picture, they let it escape. Eventually it reached New York and was shown in a minor cinema off Broadway. The New York critics, who were normally quite cool to MGM product, threw their hats in the air and their superlatives shook the MGM executives from coast to coast.
Only a short time ago, the glamorous magazine Esquire, in reviewing Hollywood of the past, put The Earl of Chicago amongst the ten best pictures to have come from there.
Evergreen: Victor Saville in His Own Words by Roy Moseley (2000)
Joining me for the evening were Ronda, Betsy, Sandy, Shaun, Hanna, Arny, Tim, Deb, Susan and Peggy.