My Day at Cinecon 2023
September 13, 2023
As mentioned in my fest preview, I only spent one day at Cinecon this year: Sunday. There were several movies I would’ve liked to catch throughout the festival (cough, 1928’s Forgotten Faces, cough), but Sunday’s schedule boasted the largest number of titles that interested me—and it didn’t disappoint! Here’s a quick recap of the five features I saw at Cinecon 2023.
I'm a tad obsessed with this Saturday Night poster art, and I think I need to own it.
Saturday Night (1922)
Sunday’s first showing, Saturday Night, turned out to be one of my favorites of the day; I found the writing, performances and direction a delight. Cecil B. DeMille‘s comedy played with class consciousness and expectations, with a laundress, Shamrock (Edith Roberts), marrying above her class into the family she works for (Richard, played by Conrad Nagel), and a socialite, Iris (Leatrice Joy), marrying below hers (chauffeur Tom, played by Jack Mower). This feature was a bit of a rollercoaster—and indeed, an actual coaster factors into the plot—and I wasn’t quite sure how it would end until about three quarters of the way through.
I particularly like how the film subverted some of the expected takes on relationships between partners from different social classes. For instance, I thought it interesting that the rich man and formerly rich woman who gave up wealth for love, Richard and Iris, were the ones who were originally so intent on affirming their love and holding on to their spouses; that played as a bit of a twist on what you normally expect. Shamrock, the newly rich woman, who was so excited to experience all that high society life offered her, was more than happy to give it up for Tom, because he understood where she came from and liked the same things she liked. Brief yet direct episodes—fissures with Shamrock and Tom's spouses and how well they started getting along—made the ending more obvious, but it wasn't as predictable from the outset as one may think. (And the end is... quite dramatic!) Ultimately, I found it intriguing and timely seeing some of these discussions and clashes regarding class play out—what worked and what didn’t—101 years ago.
Submarine Command (1951)
Submarine Command, a standard war drama bolstered by a strong cast that included William Holden, Nancy Olson and William Bendix, would not normally pique my interest. But because not one but two of the cast members were present at Cinecon to speak about the film, I knew I had to see it and hear from them.
Peggy Webber, who appeared in a supporting role, spoke for almost 30 minutes before the movie screened. I knew absolutely nothing about her career or life, so it was a joy to learn about Webber’s start in radio and hear her recount the phone calls she received from none other than Orson Welles. Unfortunately, because things were running a bit late and the theater had another non-Cinecon screening in the middle of the day that we had to be out for, Nancy Olson only spoke for about five minutes after the movie. (I did learn something in those five minutes, though: I didn’t know she made four films with Holden!) The conversation was supposed to continue over a buffet lunch, but I don't believe it did. Luckily, I caught an hour-long conversation with her at the Hollywood Heritage Museum in June that was absolutely brimming with stories. I hope to share more from that discussion soon!
The Mantrap (1943)
After two 90-minute movies and a three-hour long break, I was very happy to watch this B-movie that clocked in under one hour. In his intro, Jeremy Arnold told us that The Mantrap was Henry Stephenson’s only starring role, which astounded me, but it made sense; he seemed to pop up in a supporting role in just about every movie during the 30s and 40s!
The film has an interesting set-up: Stephenson’s character, a retired Scotland Yard chief, finds himself at the scene of a car accident that may or may not involve a murder. When the police find out he’s a retired detective AND it’s his 70th birthday, they decide to give him a present: they’ll drop the case in his lap to give him something to do. (And it’s OK if he screws it up, because they already figured it all out.) A weird premise, yes, and of course Stephenson shows everyone up, proving the police wrong and solving the case in A DAY! It’s all a bit outrageous, and also a little convoluted and slow in parts, but I found The Mantrap enjoyable. It was particularly fun to see this distinguished and prolific character actor take center stage and have a ball doing so.
I almost gasped when Jean Harlow walked onscreen in this outfit in Iron Man. I love it!
Iron Man (1931)
I was extremely excited for this pre-Code and hoped for something saucy considering it’s a boxing drama starring Lew Ayres and Jean Harlow. That said, I am sad to say that Iron Man was not as thrilling as I hoped for. (We were warned beforehand that it’s not a great movie!)
On one level, the film is very disjointed; there are numerous missing frames and jump cuts, so I assume those were either damaged or censored areas (or both). Given the rough shape the film was in, I expected some salacious material, but save for some of Harlow‘s outfits and a few other pieces of dialogue, Iron Man didn’t offer that much in the way of pre-Code goodies. (Perhaps all of the suggestive bits were cut? Could be, but usually some things passed by the censors.) I also found it odd that the film was rather lethargic—we didn’t really get much from the story or actors. With that, though, Harlow got to wear some absolutely stunning pieces, including a very modern skirt and blouse combo that I would love to have (see above). She also dons a somewhat famous sheer, low cut dress that I’ve seen pictures of, but ironically, you don’t really see how risqué it is in the movie. Perhaps the studio knew it would be censored and were careful how they photographed Harlow in it.
I ended up being more interested in seeing part of the silent version of Iron Man that survives, which was screened after the sound feature. I had no idea a silent version was produced; apparently, it was one of the last films made for silent and sound theaters. (The studio's nonchalance in producing the silent cut showed in that there was zero effort put into the title cards; they were just pieces of dialogue typed on a white background.)
What survives of the silent picture was even more cut up, jumping between different scenes and even missing chunks of action within scenes. However, it was fascinating to see alternative takes and some footage that doesn't survive in the sound feature. Examples of the latter included a scene with Ayres where he plays with a small toy that’s silhouetted against the wall, which was totally “new,” and an extended scene with John Miljan where he knocks Harlow out. The second example I assume was excised by censors, but what about the first? Though I didn’t particularly care for the film, it was a treat to compare and contrast the two versions, as not many examples of this sort of dual filmmaking survive today. What made it all the more exciting was the fact that we were apparently the first audience to view the silent material since 1931!
Over the Hill (1931)
Two pre-Codes in one night?! This is why I chose Sunday to attend the fest. However, after reading the synopsis for Over the Hill, I knew I wouldn’t be getting a risqué pre-Code. This family drama starring James Dunn and Sally Eilers, filmed before their other 1931 collaboration, the gem Bad Girl, but released after, is actually a very sweet, emotional film. In fact, it ended up being one of my favorites of the day.
Mae Marsh, who was only 37 during filming (!!!) turned in a heart-wrenching performance as the mother of four children who sacrifices everything for them and her husband. The movie spends a lot of time with the young kids; in fact, I was beginning to wonder when they’d grow up! But that was very much on purpose, so you can witness the familial tensions and character development, showcasing where some of the traits we see in the adults emanated from. Dunn plays one of the kids who frequently got in trouble, but he has a loving heart, saving his dad from jail and being the only child who cares enough to look after his mom. Eilers, who eventually becomes his wife, is a good egg, too. But the other kids... aren't the best. There are some parts that are hard to watch—like Marsh being tossed around between households and eventually shuffled off to a “poor farm.” Overall, though, Over the Hill is a touching film, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I anticipated. Plus, it boasts an uplifting, triumphant ending. A truly happy way for me to end my Cinecon 2023 experience, I must say!
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