Heavy Sentences

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Fiona just read Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster, The Authorized Biography by Stephen Jacobs and pronounced it good. “You really feel like you’re being taken day by day through his entire life,” she said. So I was charged with inserting some Karloffiana in the Panasonic. It had been probably ten years since we’d watched THE CRIMINAL CODE, which has dual interest as its sampled in TARGETS…

Boris rocks in this one. If it had been made at Warners it would have been crusading — but it’s a Columbia picture from Howard Hawks and so the tone is breezily cynical but disinterested in political analysis — DA Walter Huston jails juvenile Adonis Phillips Holmes and then becomes prison warden at the jug he’s banged up in, where he tortures him in solitary — and yet Huston is positioned as the film’s hero. In fact, if we disregard the appeals to sentiment and use of physiognomy-as-character, Huston can be seen as the bad guy (but with a mildly vicious guard inserted to soak up the audience’s hostility) while Karloff is the hero’s best pal who saves the day. The remaining weirdness is the inert hero, whose one self-determined act, refusing to snitch, is presented in passive terms. He’s a ping-pong ball batted about between Boris and Walter.

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The script forges a fascinating connection between two meanings of the title — the criminal code Huston lives by is the law of the land, which “Someone’s gotta pay!” for murder. The criminal code Holmes and Karloff must obey is the law that says No Snitching — and if somebody does snitch, then, well, “Someone’s gotta pay!”

In this fashion, the writers throw up felicities and clunkers in equal measure — Huston’s rat-a-tat delivery at times overemphasises the fact that much of his speechifying consists of a single, on-the-nose pronouncement of his position, followed by twenty or so paraphrases of the same statement. One gets the impression that his character is trying to persuade himself of something — maybe that he deserves the role of hero in this picture. When in doubt, he snarls “Yeah?” at anyone who’ll listen. A bit like Eddie G. Robinson’s “See?”

Karloff has to deliver American vernacular dialogue in a middle-class English accent, but mostly gets away with it. Though his face and sinister haircut suggest pure villainy — and he does kill a couple of people, even stalking one around a room in an exact preview of FRANKENSTEIN  — his character is actually pretty complicated. While Huston, in order to “save” Holmes, tortures him, Karloff refuses to let the young man take the rap for him. His malevolent activities are strictly for revenge, and you can understand his rage at the screw who grassed him up for taking a single drink while on parole.

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In the end, Karloff and Huston are both extremists, devoted to their own particular criminal codes at the expense of humanity. Holmes and romantic interest Constance Cummings are simple humanists, who don’t understand much about codes and things but know what decency is. Young Holmes, whose every appearance caused Fiona to swoon away (“And I don’t normally care for conventionally handsome men”), does eventually put forth a more sophisticated interpretation of the code — “It’s right for them.”

Features some great yegg types and as fine a display of yammering as you’re likely to encounter.

“You don’t get yammering like that any more,” said Fiona.

“No. It’s gone the way of the rumble seat.”

UK purchasers:

Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster
THE CRIMINAL CODE (Walter Huston, Boris Karloff) Region 2

US purchasers:

Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster

Karloff: Criminal Kind DVD

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19 Responses to “Heavy Sentences”

  1. I said, “Phillips Holmes is so ridiculously handsome he looks like a drawing,” and you said, “Yes. Like a Disney prince.” (We’re talking days of yore Disney princes of course)

  2. La Faustin Says:

    Fiona, I’m happy to share Phillips with you — he’s plural! But if you REALLY want to swoon, you could make a double bill of two features in which he plays a dashing/drunken Hungarian officer: CARAVAN and STORM AT DAYBREAK.

  3. Sounds good to me! Here’s a chiseled profile – http://chiseler.org/post/73728526247/phillips-holmes-too-beautiful

  4. Woops! Just realised that the author may be known to you.

  5. People have been recommending Caravan to me for ages, I really must succumb.

    Theory: two actors called Phillip Holme, who bore a close facial resemblance but have very different acting styles, turn up in Hollywood at the same time. Each refuses to change his name, so they join forces as Phillips Holmes. The rugged one stars in Her Man, the diffident one does everything else.

    Having joined the Canadian airforce, they both die in 1942 in a mid-air collision with each other.

  6. La Faustin Says:

    DC: I wish he’d done more shady characters, like the playboy in BEAUTY FOR SALE. Or F. Scott Fitzgerald doomed golden boys.

    FW: What an intriguing writer! Why isn’t she more widely known?

    I first watched THE CRIMINAL CODE with my brother, who referred to PH throughout, balefully, as “that Aryan guy.” When Karloff showed up as his cellmate, we chorused “Friend … GOOD!” and spent an unseemly amount of time rolling around on the floor.

  7. David Boxwell Says:

    Curiously enough, his father Taylor Holmes, was nothing special to look at, or much remember (although he was in a lot of movies as a nothing-special, easy to forget middle-aged man).

    In reality, PH’s dewy freshness would last exactly 3 minutes once he stepped inside an American prison, even in 1931.

    (He was the protagonist of Von Sternberg’s almost completely unknown version of AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY). His beauty was archetypally late 20s, just as Monty’s was in the late 40s.

  8. Phillip Holmes and Davis Manners were the two most ridiculously handsome leading men of the 1930s.

  9. David Manners.

    Gloria Stuart liked him a lot.

  10. La Faustin Says:

    I want a pre-Code IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, with Clive Brooks as John Worthing and Phillips Holmes as Algernon.

  11. David Boxwell Says:

    With Helen Chandler as Gwendolen and Edna May Oliver as Lady Bracknell. Directed by George Cukor.

  12. Or a pre-code set on Mount Olympus with Phillips as Apollo and Eugene Pallette as Zeus. Myrna Loy as Aphrodite. Lionel Atwill Hades.

  13. Pallette would make an amazing Hephaestus.

  14. I toyed with him as Hephaestus, but then who do you get as Zeus? Lee Tracy???

  15. Zeus has a weird sexuality, I could see Edward Arnold as a solid choice. Less coarse than Pallette. Plus, blonder, so fits well with Holmes.

  16. La Faustin Says:

    Lee Tracy is Hermes. Charles Laughton is Hephaestus, and steals every scene he’s in.

  17. La Faustin Says:

    Hera: if Edward Arnold is Zeus, Kay Francis. If Eugene Pallette, Marjorie Main. With Clarence Muse going on diplomatic missions between their clouds.

  18. Wouldn’t that make Muse Hermes? I think that could work — he’d look great in winged sandals, but then, everybody does.

    Edward G Robinson as Cronos.

  19. La Faustin Says:

    HA!

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