Film Review: Mantrap (1926)

Clara Bow

This afternoon I jumped at the chance to view the 1926 silent black and white film ‘Mantrap‘ at the Regent Theatre in Dunedin, screening as part of the International Film Festival.  It is a rare experience to attend a silent film with live piano accompaniment, something that must almost be considered a forgotten art.  I’ve been meaning to occasionally blog about historical dramas and while this film is historical only because of its age and not genre, I think it is worth a write-up.

The history of media is an important part of my day job as I work with many international film and photo archives. Something that has always fascinated me is how the way we experience and share media has changed over the last century, or even just in the last decade.  The transition from silent to sound marked a pretty big change in cinematic history so it is something that I love to experience firsthand at the cinema when possible.

The acting in silent films is often considered melodramatic and much more theatrical than contemporary acting but it is amazing how quickly you accept this and are drawn into the story.  It works in Fawlty Towers and it works in silent film.

Mantrap tells the story of Joe Easter (played by Ernest Torrence) a goods-store owner in the rural outpost of Mantrap, Canada.  He heads into Minneapolis to “see some ankles, err I mean uncles” and falls in love with a flirtatious flapper played by the famous Clara Bow.  They marry and move back to Mantrap where they meet Ralph Prescott (Percy Marmont), a divorce lawyer from New York who has gone on a camping trip to take a break from his flirtatious clients.

The resulting love triangle unfolds mostly in the wilderness, a signature of films from a time just before camera movement became more limited with the early introduction of microphones.  That is one irony of new technology, often during transitional periods it seems that innovations can often compromise other aspects of functionality.  In the case of sound, not only did camera movement and remote location shoots become a little more difficult but in many instances the actors themselves were limited in the amount of movement they could make onscreen.

Clara Bow has no such limitation in Mantrap and flirts her way across the Canadian wilderness with unrestrained vibrancy.

There are two levels to the humour in Mantrap.  The first is conveyed through the strength of the original performances and story, and the second is in the few lost in translation moments that you’d expect when watching a racy 1920’s film in the 21st century.  There is an overwhelming sense of cuteness around the twenties exploration of sexuality and humour.  It is a theme that I sometimes see in postcards from my collection, like this one from a decade or so earlier.  Taboos such as showing a bit of an ankle are a sure way to get a giggle from the MTV generation.

The marathon live performance by local pianist Eli Gray-Smith was met with well deserved cheers and applause.  To experience a silent film with live accompaniment is something that I urge you all to do if ever you get the chance.  The New Zealand Film Festival usually offers one such film screening every year so keep a look out next time around.  It is fantastic to so thoroughly enjoy a film over eighty-five years since it was made.  To last the test of time is surely testament to the importance of having a good story, as well as perhaps the ability to show a bit of ankle.

© Lemuel Lyes

4 replies »

  1. One film I would love to see live like this is Vertov’s Soviet classic ‘Man With a Movie Camera’, the soundtrack was remade by the Cinematic Orchestra back in 2003 and performed in Portugal a few times. Apparently there is a live DVD so this post has inspired me to seek it out on Amazon. Wish there was more events like this to go to.

    It used to be a respectable profession playing piano and organs in theatres. Not so common now though unfortunately, however I like to see professional VJ’s who put video to live music, the emphasis is more on the mood setting rather than the drama though. No doubt with access to your archive you could make some very interesting visuals to music!

    • Wow that would be a great film to see with a live orchestra!

      It is a fantastic idea to have these kinds of events, they usually have one a year here and often go to a bit of effort to get an interesting film from overseas collections. Mantrap was from the Library of Congress. The only other silent film I’ve seen with live accompaniment was Safety Last! (1923), which was very amusing but I have to say I enjoyed Mantrap more.

      I think there is some merit in the idea of taking something silent and adding music to it to help tell a story. Perhaps someone could write a soundtrack to their twitter feed? Thanks for stopping by!

  2. What a unique and remarkable experience! There was something communal about the movie experience of the 1920s that, I suspect, we’ve lost today in our soul-less multiplexes. And apropos raciness – the pre-Code stuff absolutely pushed the edges in period terms, worldwide. NZ society was plunging into one of its tighter phases at the time, and suitably horrified. The drive against scandalously racy films started here in the First World War with an effort to restrict the more lurid promotional posters in film lobbies, and it went from there.

    • I think you are right, the experience of going to the cinema has changed a lot over the decades and isn’t nearly as communal.

      It is interesting to ponder what it must’ve been like to only be able to view film of international news as a member of a large audience like that. Also I expect that the audience may have been expected to stand to sing ‘God Save the King’ (I almost wish they had asked the same of us at the silent film screening!). The part of the experience that was the most striking was the very genuine appreciation for the efforts of the pianist.

      I’m already looking forward to attending the silent film screening at the 2013 film festival!

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