Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Really free… Mantrap (1926

"Well well - a big boy from Away Back!"
There are no rules for this blog but if there were, they wouldn’t prevent me from writing twice about films of particular note.

Mantrap I covered in the “early days” (2011) and didn’t really go into much detail – I had seen a VHS copy and it wasn’t great... no more than a bootleg view of a great concert.  But now the film has been cleaned up and released as part of the Treasures from the American Film Archives: Volume 5: The West (1898-1938) box set, it’s worth another, clearer, look: you can certainly see more.

Clara Bow
Directed by Victor Fleming, Mantrap is a vehicle designed to allow Clara Bow to dazzle as she flirts with all around her… but far from showing a woman exploited, Mantrap actually shows a woman in control.

Watching with my blue stocking mother–in-law (she takes pride in that term!) confirms this and we got to considering how much 20s film helped in liberating women or at least changing perceptions. After all, even the 60s looked back to icons of the earlier decade, Greta, Louise and, of course, Clara. It wasn’t just their looks or their style it was their intelligence and self-determination.

Ernest Torrence
Clara snags herself a husband from the middle of nowhere but this is what she wants – it’s not an escape but a choice. Joe Easton played by Ernest Torrence (the bad prison cap’n from Captain Salvation) isn’t everyone’s idea of a leading man but he’s steadfast and smart and will just about do for Alverna. The intervention of disaffected city lawyer, Ralph Prescott (Percy Marmont) provides only a temporary destabilisation.

Percy Marmont
For a while he takes Alverna’s fancy but he’s not strong enough to see through her “rescue” and she’s already bored with him when hubby arrives to sort things out. Initially the two men are bargaining amongst themselves but after Alverna threatens to take off in Joe’s boat they quickly realise that the situation is not theirs to dictate.

Throughout Clara Bow is genuine and energetic: she is thoroughly naturalistic and effortlessly powers through this film with ease. Mantrap was one of her favourite films and you can see why. She has the central role, in spite of all the male introspection, and emerges with her free will intact at the end.

It’s a very entertaining film with first rate support from the wildly expressive Torrence and  the uptight sophisticate Percy Marmont (who I’d last seen getting bumped off by Peter Lorre in Hitchcock’s Secret Agent).

The film starts with Marmont’s character driven to the point of ennui by an endless succession of lucrative divorce cases and their endlessly needy divorcees. He’s had enough and needs to escape from woman kind.

Getting away from it all...
His friend, (Eugene Pallette, on the right), suggests a fishing trip to the wilds to clear the air and cement their friendship. Cut to the two men looking miserable sat drenched outside their tent as the rain falls hard on their parade.

Meanwhile, back-woodsman, Joe, has headed up to the big city where he is in a whirl of disorientated surprise. His eyes fall on a shapely ankle and the camera follows his gaze up to the owner… it’s Clara of course.

Clara Bow and Ernest Torrence
He follows the legs into a barber shop and orders everything on the menu just so long as Alverna is the one serving it up. The moment when Clara enters the salon and strolls majestically towards camera, drawing the eyes of all around her is the mark of a player at the height of her powers. So casually commanding and always with a twinkle in her eye that says, you’re in on this and we’re going to have some fun.

Alverna accepts Joe’s invitation to dinner and the two end up marrying and returning to Joe’s home. This is where they encounter Ralph who has been rescued by Joe from his miserable fishing trip. Ralph immediately recognises that he’s in trouble…

Clara Bow - City Girl or Lady of the Wildwoods?
You’d be surprised if either Ralph or Joe could win Clara’s heart under normal circumstances, but then this was part of the Bow phenomena – if these guys stood a chance with Clara then maybe you could too? Reciprocation might might – just might – be a possibility. All you needed was the chance and to be yourself… How many stars had this affect on their audiences?

You can measure Clara Bow against all the other stars but she was uniquely grounded in the reality of the everyday. In fact, she’d probably had it much tougher than you, so dust yourself down, pick yourself up and keep on… Energising and empowering what more can you expect from a true star?

Mantrap is available as part of the Treasures from the American Film Archives: Volume 5: The West (1898-1938) which also includes Al Jenning's Lady of the Dug-out as covered here.

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