The first time I saw a picture of Clara Bow was in my history textbook junior year of high school. She had a two page spread as a representative of the Jazz Age. She was by far the most popular screen star of the era, and her films freely used her sexuality and the attention given to her sexuality, to discuss the changing role of women, and the rapidly changing structure of society.

But none of this matters as much as the sheer energy she puts into her performances. You can (and should) see an example here. It is this sort of giddy, nearly frantic, performance, that brings up images of flappers, jazz, and gin joints, and still enthralls viewers today.

Bow considered Mantrap her best silent film, and it’s hard to really disagree. She was surrounded by talent for this film, most notably Victor Fleming, who directed the film, and James Wong Howe, who was the cameraman. Fleming gave considerable leeway and encouragement to Bow to ratchet up her acting style, and that they were lovers at this time really comes through in the energy of the film. Fleming reinterpreted much of the moralistic source material to celebrate female independence, and many of the scenes where men try to be manly are satirical, and quite funny. For Howe’s part, the film features a number of shots from canoes, which in the newly restored version are absolutely beautiful.

I have been enraptured with Clara Bow ever since I first saw her. And seeing the new restoration of this film at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was probably the highlight of the event. It is very much worth hunting down this film, and particularly the new restoration, if you get the chance. The DVD is only available in a box set, though it is completely worth the full purchase price for this one movie.

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