Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Tied up with a big, pretty Bow


When I purchased DVDs of It’s the Old Army Game (1926) and Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em (1926) from Sunrise Silents recently, I threw a third title into my shopping cart—the 1926 Clara Bow comedy Mantrap. Many Bow acolytes rank the film as one of her best (Silents’ founder Rich Olivieri puts it in second place after Bow’s better-known It), and the disc sold by Sunrise is one of their “full program” specials—meaning that not only do you get the main feature but several other goodies as well.

The “full program” kicks off with Fatty & Minnie He-Haw (1914), a Keystone two-reeler directed by and starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, with support from Minta Durfee (Mrs. A) and Arbuckle’s nephew Al St. John. No Arbuckle short, I’ve long since learned, is completely without merit—but this 1914 effort isn’t any particularly great shakes. A Selig Tribune newsreel from 1916 follows, plus Chapter 6 (“The Dead Come Back”) from the 1917 Pathé serial Mystery of the Double Cross, a pulse-pound…well; maybe I’m exaggerating a tad. I’ve not seen as many silent serials as I should, but this chapter provided some brisk if bewildering entertainment, directed by Louis J. Gasnier, the auteur of the 1938 cult weed film Reefer Madness. Add to this lineup a cartoon short entitled The Cat and the Monkey (1921), produced by the Aesop Fables’ Studio (which was, of course, run by animation great—and I use that word loosely—Paul Terry) and a pre-Perils of Pauline Pearl White in a 1913 oddity entitled Lost in the Night, and you have a fun (if lengthy) way to spend an evening. Interspersed with this material are glass slides advertising coming attractions (and those long-ago announcements like “Ladies—Please Remove Your Hats”), silent movie trailers and a photo gallery of the glamorous Bow before the feature gets underway.

Admittedly, I’m not as gaga over Clara as I am Brooksie; I don’t know whether it’s because Bow isn’t my type or because I haven’t seen as many of her features as I have of Louise’s. (I think I can count the Bow films on one hand: It, Mantrap, Wings, Down to the Sea in Ships and the 1932 talkie Call Her Savage.) I really did enjoy Mantrap, though; Clara plays Alverna, a flirty manicurist from Minneapolis, who marries backwoods hick Joe Easter (played by Ernest Torrence, Buster Keaton’s pop in Steamboat Bill, Jr.) as a lark but begins to get bored with him very quickly. She finds a new distraction in misogynist lawyer Ralph Prescott (Percy Marmont), who befriends Joe and Alverna while vacationing in Mantrap (yes, the film’s title refers to a small Canadian town…and not Bow herself)…and soon falls under Alvy’s spell. High-tailing it back to New York, she insists on going with him, culminating in the inevitable complications as the two fall in love…while Joe doggedly determines to hunt the two star-crossed lovers down.

Bow plays a Louise Brooks-type in this picture, but what’s interesting to note is that her constant flirtation with members of the opposite sex isn’t because she’s some sort of tramp but because she simply can’t help herself—it’s in her nature. She’s simply first-rate, and I also enjoyed seeing Torrence in something other than Steamboat. Marmont acquits himself nicely, too—I think the only features I’ve seen him in are the Hitchcock films like Secret Agent (1936) and Young and Innocent (1937). You’ll also see a considerably slimmed-down Eugene Pallette in this movie (as Marmont’s camping buddy) and third banana Tom Kennedy as a hygienically-challenged Canadian Mountie. Kennedy had a lengthy resume of both credited and uncredited appearances (you’ll recognize him as the bouncer in the opening scenes of Some Like It Hot) but is probably best-remembered for being the go-to guy at Columbia whenever their shorts department insisted on manufacturing a comedy team. He worked alongside Monte Collins (Midnight Blunders, Free Rent), Johnny Arthur (Halfway to Hollywood), Shemp Howard (Where the Pest Begins, Society Mugs) and El Brendel (Ready, Willing But Unable, Phony Cronies) in shorts that ranged from delightful (Blunders, Mugs) to abysmal (in other words, all of the Brendel shorts).

Mantrap was adapted from the novel by Sinclair Lewis, and features some big-name talent behind the camera—Victor Fleming directed (with a young Henry Hathaway as his assistant) and the cinematography supervised by the legendary James Wong Howe. It’s a breezy, entertaining little romp, and it’s provided encouragement for me to seek out more Bow films. Right now, I’m curious to see Hoop-la (her last picture, and one given a rave review of 3-stars by film historian Leonard Maltin in his Classic Movies Guide) and The Saturday Night Kid (1929)—a remake of Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em with Bow and Jean Arthur in the Evelyn Brent/Louise Brooks roles, respectively.

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