Released in 1926, smack in the middle of the Jazz Age—the time of Bohemian free love and high-living, high-society flappers, of Bessie Smith’s earthy blues artistry, and the popular embrace of female suffrage—Mantrap celebrates woman’s sexuality as a life force. It also established its star Clara Bow as a sizzling embodiment of the Zeitgeist. When she died in 1965, the New York Times’s front-page obituary declared, “Clara Bow best personified the giddier aspects of an unreal era, The Roaring Twenties.”
Mantrap is named for a frontier town on the Mantrap River in Canada. The heroine is also a mantrap—the kind of woman who drives men crazy—mostly in a good way. As shaped by director Victor Fleming, the film doesn’t punish the character for her sexual independence. It salutes her for it.
Bow’s Alverna, a vivacious Minneapolis manicurist, marries a backwoods trader, Joe Easter (Ernest Torrence), and moves with him to frontier Canada. Ralph Prescott (Percy Marmont), a New York City divorce lawyer, shows up with Easter at his Mantrap River Trading Co. just when Alverna has come to realize that she misses city lights. Prescott seeks a nonsexual retreat; he gets anything but.
The movie was a breakthrough for two major movie artists, Bow and director Fleming, and a high point in the careers of all its players. Sinclair Lewis, just four years away from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote the original novel, published in 1926. Coming after his satire-tinged assaults on the American status quo in Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922), and his idealistic medical novel Arrowsmith (1925), Mantrap was a letdown, conventional and moralistic. But filming it was a grand opportunity for Fleming, who had garnered rave reviews for his 1925 adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. Fleming understood the film’s rural and urban characters better than small-town Midwesterner Lewis ever did. Fleming came from pioneer California stock and had already developed a rugged-elegant personal style. He turned the arch melodrama of Mantrap into a unique blend of rough-hewn and sophisticated farce. It became his best-loved movie since his first two films, the masterly Douglas Fairbanks vehicles, When the Clouds Roll By (1919) and The Mollycoddle (1920).
Filming mostly at Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains, Fleming breathed robust life into Lewis’s hackneyed plot. And he liberated his talented cast. “A temperament that responded like a great violin,” Fleming said of Bow. “Touch her and she responded with genius.” Bow had already made dozens of films, but Mantrap is the one that brought out her unique artistry.
Bow, like Alverna, was a spunky urban woman. She had scrambled out of Brooklyn tenements and onto the screen, escaping a sexually abusive father and an unbalanced mother. Working on ambition and street wit alone, she based a new acting grammar and vocabulary on uninhibited energy and movement, and she created a fresh persona: the girl next door with a sex drive.
Arthur Jacobson, second cameraman or assistant director on several Bow movies and her sometime lover, said, “she was what we call a freewheeling actress—the cameramen they put on her pictures got used to her. They knew how to light her and how to follow her with a camera because once she started to play a scene, you never knew where she was going to be.” Fleming, a former cameraman, knew how to mesh her vitality to his inventive filmmaking. He became her lover, too. From the moment she enters the picture, stepping out of a cab while batting her eyes at the sugar daddy inside, her energy is vibrant, her movements jazzy. When Alverna dresses for business as a manicurist, putting on an apron seems like part of a striptease. As she advances down a line of prospective customers, Alverna inspects the men instead of the other way around.
Torrence, who played Captain Hook in Peter Pan (1924) and Buster Keaton’s overbearing dad in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), could be terrific as a bad guy or a buffoon. As Mantrap’s Easter, who comes to the Big City to see a shapely ankle or two, he’s simultaneously funny and touching. As his rival for Alverna’s heart, Marmont is heartfelt and urbane. The British actor had been on stage since 1900 and in films for nearly a decade. He had won praise the previous year for the title role in Fleming’s Lord Jim, but Mantrap is the opposite of Lord Jim. Here irresistible impulses and ravages of conscience are played for comedy, not tragedy.
Cinematographer James Wong Howe said it was Fleming’s idea to start the movie with a woman cleverly “breaking down” in the office of the Manhattan divorce lawyer played by Marmont. When she puts her compact down, we get our first glimpse of Marmont’s Prescott. From the moment this latest client rubs her leg against his and he pulls away, Prescott is sick of dealing with all womanhood. This introductory essay on sexual disgust continues as Fleming emphasizes Prescott’s need to feel like a virile, courageous male animal. When Eugene Pallette enters the film as Wes Woodbury, owner of the Twinkletoes hosiery company, he ensnares Prescott in his man’s-man fantasy of traveling the Great North. Wagging his finger and slapping backs, Pallette redefined his career in Mantrap. He had been a lithe cowpoke in one- and two-reel westerns and got his first credit in 1913 at the Flying A Studios in Santa Barbara. By 1926, he was perfect for Woodbury; in Lewis’s words “a round, thick, self-satisfied man” with a laugh that “had all the horror of gears jammed by an unskilled driver.” Pallette makes you hear that laugh even in a silent.
In sequences that make up an anti-buddy film within the film, Fleming parodies Prescott and Woodbury’s not-so-grand illusions when they shop at an urban-cowboy showroom then etches their deteriorating friendship in the wild. Easter stumbles onto them, pries them apart, and takes Prescott home to Mantrap. Alverna is glad to see her husband but thrilled to meet a classy fellow like Prescott, who can really cut a rug. What ensues for the next 50 minutes is a battle of the sexes that ends in a delightful draw.
Mantrap was a creative win-win-win. Marmont, decades later, was “overcome with emotion,” a witness said, when seeing the film at a “nostalgia cinema” in England. On a packet of production stills, Bow wrote to her sons, “From Mantrap—the best silent picture I ever made.” The same year he made Mantrap, Fleming told a reporter that he doubted whether the legendary farceur Ernst Lubitsch “could make a good western production or a good sea picture.” By then, everyone knew Fleming could handle all genres. He had made popular Zane Grey westerns and hit sea adventures (Code of the Sea and Lord Jim), as well as his wild Fairbanks comedies. He went on to a career in talkies that included Red Dust, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But in 1926, he had a special reason to gloat. In Mantrap he’d pulled off a stunning raid on Lubitsch’s sly-comedy domain. This movie is as buoyant and seductive as Roaring ’20s jazz.
Resident film critic for the Baltimore Sun, Michael Sragow is also the author of the critical biography Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, co-winner of the 2008 National Arts Writing Award.
Presented at SFSFF 2012 with live music by Stephen Horne