Crank Program Notes: The Love Trap (William Wyler, 1929)

Poor Evelyn Todd.  “I’m innocent and you won’t even let me explain!” she cries, but it’s much too late.  On the same day she’s fired as a New York chorus girl, she’s evicted from her apartment and nearly prostituted at a socialite party where she’s promised a quick fifty bucks for “looking pretty.”  By the end of the night, she’s dripping wet from the rain, with mud from the road splattered on her cheeks.  Enter the dashing Neil Hamilton, who saves her and her furniture from the storm, only to find out after their shotgun marriage about the tricks she supposedly turned the night they met. The evidence: one of the two men Evelyn danced with that night was none other than Neil’s own uncle, who objects that he marry such a lowly woman, although what the incident says about the uncle’s own culpability never becomes an issue.

An above-average entry into the bedroom comedy genre of the 1920s (“not merely another chorus girl picture” claimed Variety), THE LOVE TRAP was the third non-western by William Wyler, who entered Universal Studios in the early 20s with the help of Carl Laemmle, the first cousin of Wyler’s mother.  At the time, Wyler specialized in two-reel and B westerns, and THE LOVE TRAP (originally titled Evidence) was seen as his opportunity to prove his worth beyond the genre.  According to telegrams sent to Wyler before filming commenced, the test would be how well he could direct Laura La Plante, today a forgotten actress but who was then Universal’s most popular star, having starred in the landmark SHOW BOAT earlier that year.  Laemmle himself wired Wyler his congratulations, as well as a warning: “This is your big opportunity.  [It] will largely depend on what [you’re] doing with La Plante…. [I] am pulling for you but you will have [to] do your part.”  La Plante and her husband, director William Seiter, were suspicious of the untested Wyler.  The couple requested a private screening of Wyler’s previous non-western, The Shakedown.  Sensing the importance of the screening, Wyler secretly hid in the projection room and laugh at all of the jokes, even the unfunny ones; the hope was that if even the projectionist seemed to be laughing, La Plante and Seiter would have to give in.

Wyler’s many efforts paid off.  While the $75,000 part-talkie itself received modest box office and mixed reviews, critics pointed out Wyler’s deft direction of the actors, especially La Plante as the lead.  Her performance demonstrates her gifts as a comedian.  In an early scene in which she cozies up with the man who would turn out to be her uncle-in-law, La Plante mugs for him – and the camera – and gives an entertaining performance within a performance, trying on his glasses, touching him flirtatiously, throwing cute glances.  It’s clear from her gestures and timing that her training is in the silent cinema, and Wyler incorporates her series of visual gags – part of the fun is that we can’t hear what she’s saying – in a way that combines La Plante’s innocence and sexuality while preserving the film’s overall charm.

Flirtation, suggestion, voyeurism, and female sexuality are at the core of THE LOVE TRAP, so it’s no wonder that the film ran into problems with the censors.  Shots of Evelyn undressing and wandering about in a revealing gown were cut in Pennsylvania, as were shots of Evelyn mussing up pillows and blankets to indicate that they’ve “been used” in a culminating scene in which she throws the “love trap” back on her uncle-in-law.  The film was banned outright in British Columbia for “immoral suggestions.”  The language in a memo from Jason Jay’s office at the Studio Relations Committee to Carl Laemmle reveals that what was deemed problematic by the censors was in fact Evelyn’s sexual agency in the face of proper social norms.  The memo points to that penultimate scene in particular, where Evelyn takes off her dress to “compromise the judge” in front of her husband.  The wording here suggests that what was objectionable was not only the revealing of her body, but the sacrilege of an aristocratic patriarch and a senior member of the justice system.

Despite the threats of censorship, Universal made sure sex was on the minds of its potential customers.  An ad for THE LOVE TRAP read, “O-o-o-o-oh!  What was she doing in the millionaire’s bedroom?  And how was she lured there?  What happened?  See the delightfully daring answer in this hilarious farce – a picture as snappy as its own chorus girls and as speedy as its own wild parties  See the story of a beautiful chorus girl who tried to be naughty to be nice – and who had to prove that she wasn’t – naughty.”  More amusing is an advertising ploy suggested in Universal’s advertising guide for exhibitors: “Display in the lobby for about a week before the opening, a suit of fancy pajamas without anything to explain their presence.  They will create considerable curiosity and the public will be watching to learn what the idea is.  About two days before your opening of ‘The Love Trap’ place a card on the display explaining that the pajamas are the same ones worn by Laura La Plante in the production of ‘The Love Trap’ coming to this theatre on Monday.”

Female fashions were another major way Universal aimed to position the film before its potential audiences.  The same exhibitor’s guide suggests strategies of cooperating with local clothing merchants, so that clothes, shoes, hats, jewelry, and beauty accessories could become unofficial tie-ins with the film, and THE LOVE TRAP could then gain free publicity at local stores frequented by women.  The guide also includes pre-written articles focusing on the film’s many fashions, proposing fluffy phrases like “exquisita imported lace lingerie” and “extremely tailored sport ensemble of yellow silk pique” to bring exoticism and sexuality to gowns and underwear that’re otherwise quite average.

While the film wasn’t a huge box office hit, Wyler’s strong direction enabled him to graduate to larger pictures, including the “A” Western HELL’S HEROES (1930) and the Mary Astor classic DODSWORTH (1937), which would give Wyler his first of a record 12 Oscar nominations for Best Director.  THE LOVE TRAP is also commonly seen as the thematic precursor to other class-hopping fairy tales THE GOOD FAIRY (1935) and ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953).  While not a classic on the level of Wyler’s later films like THE LETTER (1940), THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), and BEN-HUR (1959) – in fact, toward the end of his career, Wyler referred to THE LOVE TRAP as “the love crap” – it remains a delectable bedroom comedy and a reminder of La Plante’s comic agility.

Sources:

Anderegg, Michael A. William Wyler. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

Herman, Jay. A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler. New York: G.P. Putnam Sons, 1995.

William Wyler papers. UCLA Arts Library Special Collections: Los Angeles, California.

William Wyler collection. Margaret Herrick Library: Beverly Hills, California.

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