As everyone knows, most Hollywood stars aren’t born overnight. They had to work really hard for several years before finally getting that breakout role. For Boris Karloff, it was over a decade of hard work before 1931 changed his life. He had been making movies since 1919 (just look at his insane IMDb profile) before Universal Studios cast him as Frankenstein’s Monster in Frankenstein. From that point onward, Karloff became a horror icon until his death in 1969.
Before 1931, Karloff was typecast as the random bad guy, thanks to his gaunt looks and quirky British accent. During the early 1930s, he had a contract at Columbia and the movies he made during that period provide the well for the 2013 TCM Vault box set Karloff: Criminal Kind. With just three movies in it and only one movie worth revisiting, it is a mixed bag.
Anyone buying the set should do so mostly to see The Criminal Code, a 1931 Howard Hawks film that stars Walter Huston. It was based on a Martin Flavin stage play that Karloff had performed in, and he reprises his role in the film. The film is an exciting indictment on the prison system and politics, with poor Robert Graham (Phillips Holmes) stuck in the middle. Huston plays the prison warden, stuck with that job after losing in the election for Governor. Huston was always underrated – it seemed like talkies came in too late for him to be seen as a romantic hero, but he always found interesting roles. (He’s really great in the early Frank Capra movie American Madness.)
At least in The Criminal Code, Karloff has a major supporting role. But in the next two films in the set – Rowland V. Lee’s The Guilty Generation (1931) and John Francis Dillon’s Behind The Mask (1932) – Karloff is probably on screen for a combined 10 minutes, if that. So are these films still worth watching? Well, if you bought the set, you might as well check them out.
The Guilty Generation is a nice curiosity as a punchy, 80-minute gangster epic that wasn’t made at Warner Bros. Leo Carrillo is really the standout as the patriarch of the Palmero family. Karloff has a bit part as the patriarch of the Ricco family and a super young Robert Young is incredibly miscast as Karloff’s son.
However, Behind The Mask is a weird movie that you’ll watch once and never again. At least it’s only 68 minutes. This one finds Karloff teamed up with Edward Van Sloan (who was in Frankenstein, too) in a narcotics ring. It actually has a faint hint of early noir, with double-crosses left and right, but the story (written by future Capra collaborator Jo Swerling of all people) moves too fast to be effective or memorable.
While Karloff’s name is on the cover, I found the set to be a better presentation for Constance Cummings, who would go on to star in David Lean’s Blithe Spirit. She stars in all three of these films and is not only gorgeous, but surprisingly good. If only her leading men were better.
The only bonus feature on the set is an overall introduction by Robert Osbourne on The Criminal Code‘s disc. There aren’t even individual TCMdb articles for the other films. There are galleries, but nothing too exciting.
You really have to be into Karloff to want this set. If you are a Hawks fan though, I would recommend getting it cheap for The Criminal Code. It’s an important and good look at his early sound career, around the time he made Scarface (which included Karloff).