Directed by Victor Fleming, Mantrap is a silent comedy starring Clara Bow as Alverna, a manicurist whose flirtatiousness is apparently untameable.
The film is based on the novel of the same name, written by Sinclair Lewis and originally serialised in Collier’s magazine February – May 1926. Lewis would win the Nobel Prize for Literature just four years later, but Mantrap wasn’t a success upon release, and was poorly received by contemporary critics. Paramount scenario writers pushed ahead regardless, discarding both Lewis’s ending and the original moral of the story, in which his male protagonists come to the realisation that marriage is merely a trap.
Clara Bow had appeared in more than thirty films by the time she made Mantrap, including the hugely successful The Plastic Age (1925), which brought her to the attention of Paramount Pictures. They signed her the same year along with B.P. Schulberg, who had Bow under personal contract. She made her debut for the studio in the drama Dancing Mothers (1926), impressing director Herbert Brenon with both her talent and her ability to take direction. Paramount were pleased with their latest acquisition, and cast her in a new film to be directed by Fleming, who was fast becoming one of their most reliable directors.
Victor Fleming made his directorial debut with the Douglas Fairbanks comedy When The Clouds Roll By (1919), and had been working with Paramount since The Lane That Had No Turning (1922). He’d since directed a little over a dozen semi-successful pictures for the studio, and the opportunity to adapt Mantrap was a significant one for Fleming, who was keen to put his own twist on Lewis’s tale.
The title itself has a double meaning; it’s both a descriptor of Bow’s Alverna, and the name of the backwoods Canadian town in which most of the film takes place. Alverna is working as a manicurist in a Minneapolis barbershop when she meets Joe Easter (played by Ernest Torrence), who’s visiting from Mantrap in search of a wife. The pair wed – despite their obvious differences in both personality and their expectations from life – and begin their married life together in the small town. Alverna is soon bored by both her husband and her surroundings, and her eye wanders to Ralph Prescott (played by Percy Marmont), a divorce lawyer from New York.
Shot mostly on location at Lake Arrowhead in California, Mantrap was the perfect opportunity for Bow to demonstrate her cinematic talents. She is positively electric on-screen, and it was after the film’s release that her career really began to take off. Fleming and Bow became romantically involved during the film’s production, and on September 17th 1926 the New York Times reported they were engaged. By December 2nd however, the wedding was off; in the same newspaper, Bow is quoted as saying that “she and Fleming were still great friends, and…disagreements can still be fixed up.”
The release of Mantrap on July 24th marked the beginning of Bow’s stratospheric rise to the top of Hollywood. The film’s popularity and financial success secured Paramount’s faith in Bow, and the following year she would appear in the films for which she is perhaps best remembered: It, released in February 1927, and Wings, released in August and recipient of the first Best Picture Oscar.
One person who wasn’t a fan of the film was Sinclair Lewis. After seeing it, he allegedly said that “he was glad he had read the book, for he would not have recognised it from the movie”. However, Bow herself felt very differently. In her later years, she gave her sons a set of production stills from the film. They were accompanied by a note; “From Mantrap—the best silent picture I ever made”.