David Manners (originally Rauff Acklom) was born in Canada at 108 Tower Road in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on April 30, 1900. He was the son of British parents, Lilian Manners and writer George Moreby Acklom, as well as being the nephew of Cecil Ryther Acklom, a senior officer in the United Kingdom's Royal Navy. His father in Halifax was then the headmaster of Harrow House School, a prestigious private boarding school for boys. Eight years later, Rauff, his mother, and his older sister Cecily left Canada and immigrated to the United States to join his father, who had immigrated the previous year and secured a job as a "literary advisor" for E.P. Dutton, a publishing company in New York. By 1910 the entire Acklom family was living at 108 Hillside Avenue in Mount Vernon, New York, a northern suburb of New York City.
The Ackloms by January 1920 had moved again, then to West 123rd Street in Manhattan, where 19-year-old Manners (still Rauff) continued to reside with his parents. He was employed as an assistant publisher and seemed destined to follow in his father's proverbial footsteps and live out his life as an editor and publisher. Soon, perhaps in an effort to chart an entirely different career path for himself, Manners stopped working as an assistant publisher and returned to Canada to study forestry at the University of Toronto. He found the curriculum there boring; however, he was attracted to stage work on campus. After receiving some drama training, he made his acting debut in 1924 at the school's Hart House Theater in Euripides' play Hippolytus. Despite his father's objections, Manners continued to pursue an entertainment career when he came back to the United States. Before long he was performing in theaters in Chicago, on Broadway, and elsewhere after joining Basil Sydney's Touring Company and later Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Company in New York. During his time, before he moved to Hollywood at the beginning of the sound era in films, he obtained additional training under Le Gallienne, even though she had remarked that he was "a very bad actor" after seeing one of his performances. Manners in this period also appeared on the New York stage with Helen Hayes, with whom he co-starred in Edgar Selwyn and Edmund Goulding's play Dancing Mothers at the Booth Theatre.
After arriving in California, around 1927, Manners was serendipitously "discovered" by the film director James Whale at a Hollywood party, and within a few years he was a popular leading man, playing opposite such actresses as Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Gloria Stuart, Myrna Loy, Loretta Young, and Ann Dvorak. He was paired several times with Helen Chandler. After performing in an uncredited role in The Sky Hawk in 1929, he was featured the next year in Journey's End. Reviewers of the latter film, such as The New York Times and Variety, officially bestowed their endorsements on the fledgling movie actor's work. His subsequent performances were critically praised again in The New York Times and by other influential film critics.
In late 1930 Manners filmed his best remembered role, as Jonathan Harker opposite Bela Lugosi, in Universal's horror classic Dracula (1931). Until the end of his life, he continued to receive mail from fans of the movie, although he claimed to have never seen the finished film. In his tenth movie, he co-starred with Barbara Stanwyck in Frank Capra's critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful The Miracle Woman (1931). The New York Times lauded Manners yet again for his portrayal of a blind war veteran, stating that "Manners does exceptionally well with this sympathetic assignment".
During his brief tenure with Warner Bros., which had loaned him to other studios quite frequently, Manners progressed from being a supporting player to achieving true movie-star status following his role in Crooner in 1932. Shortly after that production's release, he began to freelance with much success. One of the final films he made before the end of his Warner Bros.' contract was RKO's A Bill of Divorcement, starring John Barrymore and Billie Burke. Katharine Hepburn, who made her debut in the same film, once commented that "David was a big star. I was so nervous working with him ... He was... just a dear to work with and a totally professional and talented actor."
Lucille Ball, a "Goldwyn Girl" dancer in the 1933 musical Roman Scandals, also expressed her admiration for Manners and appreciation for his encouragement early in her own film career:
David wasn't in the one scene I did in Roman Scandals, but he watched every scene shot. He was tremendously enthusiastic, and he...invited me to supper. ... He was mobbed everywhere. All the time he kept telling me I had style and personality. He said if I persevered I'd get somewhere in Hollywood. Not once did he ever hint that he'd like to take me home to his boudoir. ... He was so utterly charming.
In addition to RKO and Warner Bros., many other studios vied for Manners' talent and services, including Columbia, Universal, Paramount, Fox Film Corporation, Tiffany Pictures, and United Artists.
After the success of Dracula, Manners worked for several years as a romantic leading man, and was most often seen in a tuxedo in romantic comedies and light dramas. The Last Flight (1931), a Lost Generation celebration of the high life in Paris, and Karl Freund's The Mummy (1932) with Boris Karloff were two standouts. But by 1936 he had grown bored with Hollywood, and abandoned his film career. He reportedly never acclimated to Hollywood, which he found to be "a false place". Although he was among the first group of actors to join the fledgling Screen Actors Guild in 1933, he returned to New York City, but he moved back to California three years later. Manners grew increasingly frustrated with his roles in Hollywood and with his film career in general, despite all its successes. Following his work on three films released in 1936—Hearts in Bondage, A Woman Rebels, and Lucky Fugitives—he left the studios and retired from film work. He did, however, continue to perform regularly on stage for another 17 years, appearing in various productions on tour, in summer stock, and on Broadway, including the ill-fated 1946 play Hidden Horizon. In 1953, Manners retired from acting entirely.
Manners married only once. In New York City, on May 23, 1929, he wed Suzanne Bushnell, a native of Springfield, Ohio. A year later, according to the United States Census of 1930, he and his 23-year-old wife were living together in Los Angeles in a $175-a-month rental property, along with Antonio Dumles, a 22-year-old Filipino who was listed as the couple's "Servant". David and Suzanne's marriage proved to be a brief one; they divorced in 1932.
In 1940 he officially changed his name to David Joseph Manners (Manners being his mother's maiden name), a change that is verified by its citation in the federal census of 1940. That same census also documents that he had applied to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. It further identifies Manners as an "Author/Actor" and that he was then living in Victorville, California, residing alone in a home, part of a ranch, that he had purchased several years earlier. Later, in 1948, he established a long-term partnership with playwright Frederic William "Bill" Mercer. Initially, they lived together at David's ranch but left Victorville in 1956 to move to another residence in Pacific Palisades. Manners and Mercer remained partners until Bill's death in 1978.
Following his retirement from acting, Manners spent the remaining decades of his life pursuing his personal interests, including painting, writing, and studying philosophy. Several of his novels, published by Dutton, sold over 100,000 copies each. His reflections on philosophy were presented in Look Through: An Evidence of Self Discovery, published in 1971 by El Cariso Publications.
In 1998, 20 years after Mercer's death, Manners died at age 98 in the health center of a retirement community in Santa Barbara, California. His body was cremated and the ashes were taken to San Bernardino County and scattered at Rancho Yucca Loma in Victor Valley.