Effervescent Clara Bow Brightens First 2018 Duck Soup Cinema Show
For 31 seasons, Madison, Wisconsin’s Overture Center for the Arts (formerly Madison Civic Center) has offered 2 – 5 showings per year of silent movies in its historic Capitol Theater (formerly Oscar Mayer Theater, rededicated in 2005 under its original 1928 venue name) as accompanied on the theater’s Grand Barton Organ, one of the last theater organs of its kind in the country. Originally known, from 1986 to 1998, as Sounds of Silents, the series was renamed Duck Soup Cinema in 1999, and has since incorporated live vaudeville-style performance along with the live organ-accompanied movie. Recreating the movie theatrical experience of 90 years ago, Duck Soup Cinema is now one of the longest-running, continuous silent movie series in the Midwest. Duck Soup Diary is my attempt to both document and advertise this fun and unique combination of live performance and historical revival.
Following two showings last fall, of Harold Lloyd in The Freshman (1925) and the independent African American production The Flying Ace (1926), Duck Soup Cinema returns in 2018 with the bright and effervescent Clara Bow in director Victor Fleming’s Mantrap. Based on a 1926 novel by Sinclair Lewis, the Nobel Prize-winner best known for his trenchant and mordant satires on American life and morals in Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Elmer Gantry (1927), Mantrap might at first have struck this long-time attendee as slightly unusual fare for Duck Soup until Miss Bow’s stockinged gam filled the frame about ten minutes into the proceedings. With a lilting laugh practically audible across 92 years of movie history in this silent film, the screen embodiment of the flapper era brought the 1920s to life once again for 90 enjoyable minutes of light romantic comedy.
Arriving ten minutes early to the 2PM matinee show, Jim “Doc the Rube” Carter and Wayne the Wizard were once again on-(sleight-of)-hand to entertain kids and their parents alike with balloon animals and card tricks on either side of the Capitol Theater lobby. A table display on the ongoing restoration of the Capitol’s Grand Barton Organ, the 3-manual instrument that has been with the theater since its 1928 opening, came with a film which includes interviews with organist Jelani Eddington and organ technician Glenn Tallar. (Those interested in preserving the legacy of one of the country’s few theater organs still being used for its original purpose are invited to give generously!) Grabbing a program near the right entrance to the theater, a volunteer kindly led me to my seat, where a close view of the organ and returning organist Jelani Eddington enthusiastically at play captured the live musical aspect of the event. With a medley of tunes roughly contemporary to the release of the film, I recognized the classic late ‘20s standard “Side By Side” in possibly the same rendition that the song might have received on this instrument 90 years before.
One of three 2017/18 Duck Soup shows accompanied by a pre-feature vaudeville show, returning MC Joe Thompson was accompanied by Wisconsin Public Radio classical music host Norman Gilliland to jokingly “class up” the proceedings before each act. (A notion entertainingly undercut when Gilliland appeared after the first act with Thompson’s pink bowtie wrapped above his collar.)
First up was the mellow, vintage pop strings-stylings of the Django Reinhardt-inspired French Jazz duo Mal-O-Dua (literally: “My fingers hurt!”), who combined virtuosic guitar-picking with laid-back vocals.
Madison singing-songwriting mainstay Ken Lonnquist followed up with his fun blend of topical and observational humor, and even managed to rope in Thompson, Gilliland, and (next act vocalist) Althea Bernstein as backup singers.
Lonnquist’s guitar and Thompson’s surprisingly expressive vocal stylings returned as backup themselves for 16-year-old Althea Bernstein’s powerful rendering of Lonnquist’s “A Night of Miracles”, the traditional “Leave Her Johnny”, and the foreign language “Somos el Barco”.
During the intermission I marveled at the packed house Duck Soup had drawn this matinee show for Mantrap, a film outside the usual silent clown purview of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but happily attributed the interest to the goodwill the series has inspired over the past thirty-one seasons. The first movie in ten of my twenty years regularly attending Duck Soup to which I, as a quite dedicated silent film fanatic, had not been previously exposed (the last being Duck Soup’s special showings of Douglas Fairbanks’ exceedingly rare Flirting with Fate  and female producer/star Constance Talmadge’s Kiki  back in Spring 2008), even my disappoint over once again *not* winning one of the raffle prizes after the break did little to dim my enthusiasm of anticipation as the lights dimmed, the organ roared, and the projector whirred on the title card to the silent era-evocative title of Mantrap.
In his brief introduction to the film, Eddington stressed the hard work and long hours a silent film accompanist of the period typically invested, often playing without breaks from early shows until the late evening, and my first thoughts as I struggled to recognize the main characters and to follow the emerging plotlines was how marvelously an effective score can evoke not only the personalities of the performers but also a clear understanding of the story.
Opening with the jazzy strains accompanying the elegantly-appointed New York offices of coolly misogynist divorce lawyer Ralph Prescott (Percy Marmont), the music’s folksy switch to the film’s titular resetting in the open woods of Northern Canada, and equally open-hearted character of gruff trading post proprietor Joe Easter (Ernest Torrence), signals a clash soon to be effected by the twin meanings of the word “nature” and “Mantrap”; both in regards to the great outdoors and the conflicting human element. While on vacation, Easter’s fish-out-of-water ramblings through downtown Minneapolis soon bring him into jaunty, up-tempo contact with the final, third element of the film’s entertaining conflict of human nature – this time in the flirtatious form of barbershop manicurist Alverna (Clara Bow).
And with a comic ellipsis that picks up with the unlikely pair of Joe and Alverna now married, the potentially confusing storylines now converge in the little general store of Mantrap, Canada as handsome lawyer Prescott, fleeing a fish-out-of-water vacation of his own – this one in the surrounding Northwoods – stumbles on to the tension-fraught scene and inadvertently interrupts the uneasily wedded bonds of the Easters. Following a gaspingly hilarious get-together of all rural Mantrap’s “finest” – including a sour-faced clergyman, a Royal Mountie, and a disapproving shrew (the last played by familiar silent era character actress Josephine Crowell) – Alverna “escapes” her now stultifying backwoods life and accompanies the increasingly distraught and conflicted Prescott back to “civilization”. Pursued by Joe, Alverna unthinkingly lashes out at their native guide, who promptly steals their food in the night and abandons them in the middle of the woods [historical footnote: calling a native person “Hiawatha” – or any male/female stock/stereotypical-variation thereto – was just as cruel in 1926 as it is today], leaving the pair to the untender mercy of the elements before Joe (eventually) catches up with them.
Clothes torn, supplies depleted, and spirits crushed, the more literal meaning of the word “Mantrap” once again resolves with the lively Alverna, the luminous glow of Clara Bow’s carefree smile brilliantly captured by camera pioneer James Wong Howe’s beautiful outdoors photography, deserting both men to their mutually deserved fates, the outboard motor of her escaping skiff whirring on the Grand Barton’s toy counter. And though it doesn’t *quite* end there, Hollywood storytelling conventions dictating a conventionally-unsatisfying conclusion, where Joe and Alverna somehow end up making a go of it back at the trading post (despite an unconcealed, flirtatious interest in the Royal Mountie’s handsome young replacement), the more vivid impression left with this viewer was certainly the smooth-shimmering image of the departing Bow on an outbound skiff over brightly-reflecting waters. Take that, Mantrap!
History and entertainment once again successfully converged and conflated for this Duck Soup Cinema fan, and one hopes to see all classic movie enthusiasts at their next, special showing – Saturday, March 17th, at 7PM – of all-time film masterpiece Sunrise (1927) for a decidedly different resolution to an outbound skiff skimming over bright-reflecting waters. As a shimmering musical tremor of my own here, I’ll leave the vibrato pitch on that suspenseful note until my next Duck Soup Diary entry.