Penitentiary was the first of two remakes of Howard Hawks' 1931 prison flick The Criminal Code (the second remake was 1950's Convicted). Sent to prison on a manslaughter charge, young William Jordan (John Howard) is befriended by the man who sent him up, Judge Mathews (Walter Connolly). The judge sees to it that Jordan is given every opportunity to rehabilitate himself, though he's a bit uncomfortable when his own daughter Elizabeth (Jean Parker) falls in love with the young convict. All of this extra effort goes out the window when Jordan, adhering to the "criminal code" of never snitching on a fellow con, allows himself to be implicated in the murder of a stoolie. Jordan is saved from the hot seat by the last-minute confession from the real killer, a hard-bitten but honorable "lifer" named Finch (Arthur Hohl). In the original Criminal Code, Walter Huston, Philips Holmes, Constance Cummings and Boris Karloff essayed the roles played in Penitentiary by Connolly, Howard, Parker and Hohl.
by Hal Erickson synopsis