Mantrap (1926)

Film Review

MANTRAP

Release Date: 24 July, 1926

Studio: Paramount

Director: Victor Fleming

Starring: Clara Bow, Ernest Torrence, Percy Marmot

Synopsis

The film opens on a pair of shapely, nylon-clad legs and opens to a view of the woman, Mrs Barker (Miss DuPont), who is consulting her divorce lawyer, Ralph Prescott (Percy Marmont). Prescott draws back from his rather aggressive client and finally gets rid of her. When he goes out to welcome his next client, a group of women press forward, and the half-collapsed Prescott retreats out the back door of his office.

In the hallway, he meets E. Wesson Woodbury (Eugene Pallette) whose office is nearby. Woodbury invites Prescott into his office for a drink. Apparently, Woodbury sells ladies garments, the wall displays a line of nylon-covered legs. Woodbury invites Prescott to vacation with him in the North Woods where he will get away from work. Prescott has never been camping, but accepts anyway.

Meanwhile, in Mantrap, Manitoba, Joe Easter (Ernest Torrence) is modeling hats for a group of Indian women, who leave without buying. Mounted Policeman Curly Evans (Tom Kennedy) enters, and Joe laments the isolation of Mantrap. The Mountie suggests a visit to Minneapolis where Joe will see women dressed in the latest styles.

In Minneapolis, Joe flirts with a pretty young woman. Nearby, Joe enters a barbershop for a shave and haircut. The pretty young woman, Alverna (Clara Bow), is the manicurist. As she does his nails, he asks her out for dinner, and she accepts.

Several weeks later, Prescott and Woodbury, camped in the woods, are surly and discontented. Prescott accidentally spills the stewpot into the camp fire, and they get into a wrestling match. Joe Easter arrives in a boat, breaks up the fight, and takes Prescott back to Mantrap. A pretty young woman is waiting at the dock, Joe’s wife, Alverna.

Fun-loving and flirty, Alverna has enthralled the men of Mantrap. At first, Prescott reacts stiffly to Alverna’s flirting, but after a month in Mantrap, fishing and hunting, he, too, has become enthralled with her. Concerned about his feelings, Prescott decides to leave, but Alverna insists on going with him. After a couple of days, their Indian guide takes off with the supplies and boat. They proceed on foot.

They flag down a patrol plane; the pilot leaves supplies and promises to report their plight at the next town. Alverna has fixed up her face and hair and flirted with the pilot in hopes he will take them in his plane. Prescott is vexed that, although tired and hungry, Alverna flirts with any passing man. They are arguing when Joe, who has followed in a boat, arrives and confronts them. The men discuss what to do about Alverna. Annoyed and tired of Prescott and Joe, Alverna departs in Joe’s boat.

Alverna goes back to Minneapolis, Joe goes back to Mantrap, and Prescott goes back to his legal practice in New York.

Missing Joe, Alverna returns to him. Even as they are hugging, Alverna, unable to stop herself, flirts with a newly arrived Mountie. Sorry for her weakness, she begs Joe to hold her close.

Prescott returns to his office a changed man. Mrs Barker is waiting for him. No longer pulling away from her, he leans forward, pats her arm, and begins a chummy conversation.

Discussion

One of Clara Bow's best films, Mantrap features amusing situations, solid acting, witty intertitles, and fine cinematography of scenic locations (Big Bear Lake and the San Bernardino National Forest in the mountains near Los Angeles).

The film's title has a double meaning. The principal meaning and the thrust of the film are made explicit in the title frame, the word, "Mantrap", is backed by a pair of attractive, nylon-clad legs, a symbol of the allurement of the modern woman. The secondary meaning, the town where Joe lives, is revealed subsequently. The motif of captivating female legs continues through the film. At their first interview, Mrs. Barker's legs discomfit Prescott; Woodbury's showroom is lined by legs; and Bow frequently displays hers, usually while adjusting her stockings.

Although Bow, the epitome of the modern woman, is the centerpiece of the film, the plot arc deals with the changes that interaction with this enticing and flirtatious young woman brings about in each man.

The lawyer undergoes a major transformation after his experiences with Alverna. Staid and flustered, he draws away from the warmly confiding Mrs. Barker during their first meeting. At their next meeting, after his return from the woods, he greets Mrs. Barker affectionately, pats her arm, and moves his chair closer to her.

Alverna has been a revelation for Joe Easter. After years of isolation in remote Mantrap, seeing only traditionally dressed Native women and older, conservative white women, Joe visits Minneapolis and immediately meets a flapper. Joe appreciates this short-haired, well-made up, short-skirted woman so much he marries her and brings her to Mantrap.

Alverna changes little. At home in Mantrap, she looks and acts the same as she did in the city. She smiles and flirts, and all the men fall at her feet. She becomes bored with Mantrap, thinks the lawyer would be fun, flirts with the airplane pilot, leaves Joe and Prescott in the woods, and returns to Minneapolis. Ultimately, she goes back to Joe, and her concession to marriage is a wish to constrain her flirting. The high spirited flapper may have to go back and forth to Minneapolis if Joe is going to keep her happy in Mantrap.

Older social norms contrast with modern behavior. A party for Prescott is constrained by the presence of the minister and an older, conservative couple. After this group leaves, alcoholic drinks are poured, the phonograph goes on, and Alverna dances with everybody (all men). The transformation of the lawyer exemplifies the ongoing social transformations that were far advanced by 1926 and epitomized by Clara Bow.

The modern woman maintains her style and can attract men in any setting. Mantrap (the town) is located among the pine trees and lakes of the north woods. Against the grand setting of wild nature, Alverna retains her fascination for the men who live or visit there.

Clara Bow's popularity was rising rapidly in 1926, and this film helped make her a top star. Her personality, full of energy and sex appeal, jumps off the screen. The simple actions of fluffing her hair and adjusting her clothes have appeal. She is full of life and fun, and can "trap" almost any man who comes along.

Ernest Torrence, a versatile actor, has a surprisingly felicitous pairing with Bow, despite the difference in their ages and his homely looks. An outstanding character actor of the silent era, Torrence was equally at home in comedy and drama. Among his many outstanding characterizations are the bestial villain in Tol'able David (1921), the comically villainous Captain Hook in Peter Pan (1924), and Steamboat Bill Sr., Buster Keaton's exasperated father in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

Born in London, Percy Marmont's British accent was not audible during the silent era when he lived in Hollywood and appeared in nearly fifty American films. In 1928, Marmont returned to England and continued his career as a busy character actor for many years.

Mantrap was Victor Fleming's 18th film as a director. He had started as a cinematographer in 1915 and had been working with Douglas Fairbanks for three years before he switched from photographer to director. His first directorial assignment was on one of Fairbanks' best early films, When the Clouds Roll By (1919).

The film is based on a Sinclair Lewis novel of the same title published shortly before the film was made. The scenario writers followed the central plot line of the novel and used the same names for the characters, but altered both the ending and, more importantly, the moral of the story. In Lewis' novel, the men learn that marriage is an unpleasant trap.

Rolfe Sedan (1896-1982), who plays a harried barber, had a long career with over 300 credited appearances from 1921-1979. Mantrap was his 30th film, and the barber is representative of the type of parts he would play for the next fifty years. One of those players who occupied a small niche, his typical role added a moment of comic interplay between the characters.

Another bit player, Charles Stevens, who plays an Indian guide, also had a long career. He had an uncredited role in The Birth of a Nation (1915), and that same year appeared in The Lamb, Douglas Fairbanks' first film. Stevens appeared in most of Fairbank' silents, usually in small parts but with the occasional larger role, as in The Americano (1916). His career continued into talkies and television.