Pre-Code Classics on DVD and Blu-ray with Boris Karloff, Bette Davis, Warren William and Gloria Swanson

Boris Karloff had appeared in something like 60 movies over 11 years before his first important part in Howard Hawks’ “The Criminal Code,” the first of his 13 film appearances in 1931, the year that ended with his breakthrough in “Frankenstein.” The Hawks film — his first release that year — is the centerpiece of “Karloff: The Criminal Kind,” a trio of pre-code crime dramas from the TCM Vault Collection featuring Karloff at his most malevolent.Karloff reprises his stage role as a violent killer who becomes the cellmate and mentor of a young lawyer (Phillip Holmes) who ends up in the Big House after killing somebody during a drunken brawl. Top-billed Walter Huston plays the warden, who as a by-the-book district attorney sent Holmes up four years earlier, but decies to give the young man a chance at reformation as his chauffeur. Hawks is in his element with his archetypical prison movie, which includes a romance between Holmes and the warden’s daughter (Constance Cummings in her screen debut). Karlofff makes the most of his limited screen time, and benefits from Hawks’ decision to have the ending of Martin Flavin’s original play rewritten.
Karloff is more prominently featured in “The Guilty Generation,” another 1931 release, as an English-accented Mafioso whose son (Robert Young with moustache) is so ashamed of dad that he’s changed his name. The “Romeo and Juliet” twist is that in Florida, Young falls in love with Constance Cummings (again), who just happens to be the daughter of Karloff’s most bitter gangland rival (top-billed Leo Carrillo). Director Rowland V. Lee (a silent who would later direct Karloff in “Son of Frankenstein” and “Tower of London”) has limited success with the talky script by western specialist Jack Cunningham, but there are moments of interest here and there. Top-billed Carrillo, whose character was clearly inspired by Al Capone, has a publicist (Ruth Warren) who also appears to be his mistress. There’s also a WTF ending centering around Emma Dunn, cast wildly against type as Carrillo’s long-suffering wife.
“Behind the Mask,” made before “Frankenstein” but released in early 1932 after the later film’s tremendous success, played up Karloff’s limited participation in its advertising campaign. He’s back in prison (with stock footage from “The Criminal Code”) in the opening scenes, sharing a cell with an FBI undercover agent (top-billed Jack Holt) who’s been assigned to infilitrate a narcotics ring. Karloff is a soldier in the employ of the mysterious Mr. X, whose identity will probably easily be guessed by any 21st-century viewer. This is much closer to a horror film than the other two films in the collection, including a creepy scene where a body is exhumed in the middle of the night and delivered to a doctor’s home for an impromptu autopsy. The doctor is played with lip-smacking glee by genre great Edward Van Sloan, who appeared with Karloff in “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy,” as well as portraying Van Helsing in Lugosi’s “Dracula.” Snappily directed by John Francis Dillon (who would helm the jaw-dropping Clara Bow pre-code vehicle “Call Her Savage” that same year), it’s great fun. Holt’s romantic interest is the busy Constance Cummings, who despite appearing in several high-profile films (“Movie Crazy” with Harold Lloyd, Capra’s “American Madness” and Whale’s “Remember Last Night?”) never achieved Hollywood stardom. She moved to England the mid-1930s to England, where she returned to the stage and occasionally appeared in movies, most notably David Lean’s adapation of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”

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