Thursday, March 8, 2012
Review – Mantrap
March 8, 2012
Mantrap – US, 1926
Were it 1926, I have no doubt that my wall would now be adorned with images of the young twenty-one-year-old female star of Victor Fleming’s aptly titled film, Mantrap, for there is just something incredibly likeable about Clara Bow. In the film, she plays a young manicurist named Alverna who seems completely comfortable with the attention that her good looks and slender figure brings her. In her first scene, we witness Alverna getting out of a wealthy man’s car and thanking him for the ride. At first, I expected the man to be one her many suitors, but judging from his reaction, it appears that he hardly knows her. So just why would someone like him give a ride to a perfect stranger? Probably because she asked him. Maybe it was her trendy look or her hip way of talking; perhaps it was the way she knows what she likes and isn’t afraid of making her feelings known. After all, few people can deny the attractiveness of confidence. To Alverna, it seems, life is a playground, and she means to have as much fun in it as she possibly can.
Mantrap first introduces us to two male characters that both desperately need a change of pace. First, we meet Ralph Preston (Percy Marmont), a lawyer who has had enough of women. Perhaps that’s an overstatement. It would be better to describe him as being fed up with city women, whom he sees as all being spoiled, flirtatious, and far too free-spirited. In one scene, we see throngs of women in his office waiting room, each one of them apparently seeking a divorce. It’s a sight that has started giving Ralph chest pains. One of his potential clients even attempts to play a game of footsies with him in order to gain his legal assistance. When that fails, she aims for his sympathy by claiming her husband was a bit rough with her. His response, however, is not what you would consider even remotely sympathetic. When a friend offers to take him to a Canadian town by the name of Mantrap, he figures it’s just what the doctor ordered – hunting, fishing, and, more importantly, no women for miles.
Contrasting Ralph nicely is Joe Easter (Ernest Torrence), an outwardly friendly man living in Canada who pines for the sight of beautiful women. To be more precise, he misses the sight of a woman’s ankles, which according to him, he hasn’t seen since around 1906. The implication is that modern women are not so interested in the great outdoors. One day, Joe is shown a picture of a woman in a one-piece bathing suit - highly risqué at that time - and told to go to Minnesota if he really wants to be surrounded by women like her. Joe begins packing almost immediately. And so these two men, Ralph and Joe, essentially trade places, each looking for the exact thing that the other is more than ready to get away from. One guess just which lucky lady Joe meets during his adventures in “the Great Indoors.”
One of the delightful aspects of Mantrap is its dialogue, which cackles with both energy and humor. I absolutely loved Joe’s awkward pursuit of Alverna at the salon where she words, especially the erroneous way in which he goes about indicating his attraction to her. For the record, it’s woo-woo, not koo-koo. In another particularly memorable moment, Joe’s mother gives him some rather humorous advice: Beware of “free and easy” city women because “they’re so free, and you’re so easy.” Later, we watch as Alverna, now bored with her life in Mantrap, flirts shamelessly with Ralph, using the age-old trick of feigning fear and helplessness. “It’s fierce to be dead before you die,” she tells him in her best sad voice. She even throws in a little shoulder action to make it harder for him to resist her. Frankly, how he holds out as long as he does is beyond me.
With a title like Mantrap, you’d expect Alverna to be a gold-digger because that would ultimately reinforce the words of Joe’s mother, and yet Alverna turns out to be another of the many trailblazing roles that silent films afforded women, albeit in a very non-traditional way. While other films, particularly those starring Lilian Gish and Mary Pickford, often extolled traditional virtues such as marriage, commitment, and innocence, Mantrap seems to be arguing that the changes that modernity brought to women and the family were not as horrific as some of the more conservative members of society made them out to be. Sure, Alverna is an unabashed flirt, but she is also headstrong, unafraid of hard work, and determined not to let others make decisions for her. In fact, instead of letting Joe and Ralph dictate her future, she commanders a rowboat and sails off without them, not even bothering to look back at their stunned faces. The message is clear: If anyone is going to decide her destiny, it is going to be her.
Mantrap remains a fun film, and Clara Bow’s performance retains its impressiveness. Mrs. Bow went on to make about fifty-five films over her eleven year career before both sound and controversy conspired to put an end to her days in front of the camera. It’s a shame really, for she was indeed a major talent, and I look forward to seeing more of this brave actress’s work. (on Disc 2 of Image-Entertainment’s Treasures 5: The West 1898 – 1938)