Directed by Leigh Jason, The Mad Miss Manton is a screwball mystery film, starring Barbara Stanwyck as Melsa Manton – a socialite on the hunt for a murderer – and Henry Fonda as Peter Ames, the newspaper editor trailing in her wake.
This post is part of the CMBA Hidden Classics blogathon
The Mad Miss Manton was released on October 21st 1938, three years before the iconic pairing of Stanwyck and Fonda in The Lady Eve (1941), regarded by many as a shining example of the screwball genre. This fun (and surprisingly lighthearted, given all the murder) crime comedy deserves at least some of the spotlight given to its more mature successor, as what it lacks in finesse it more than makes up for in charm.
Melsa Manton returns home from a night on the town at 3am, and decides to take her collection of small dogs for a walk. While she’s out she sees a man she recognises, Ronny, leaving a nearby house, and curiosity takes her to the front door, which she finds unlocked. Entering, she finds a large sparkling brooch on the ground, and, more alarmingly, a dead body upstairs. As Melsa runs to call the police, her cape gets caught on something, and in her haste she flings it off of her shoulders.
However, when the police arrive they don’t take her seriously whatsoever. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, underneath the cape she’s still wearing the Little Bo Peep outfit from the costume party she attended earlier that evening. Secondly, and more importantly: the body is gone, along with her cape.
“Melsa Manton? Aren’t you one of the bunch that held a treasure hunt last week and stole a traffic light?”
“Oh yes, but it was a treasure hunt for charity! We run a TB clinic”
“And aren’t you the dame who got an ambulance from Bellevue because one of your dogs had distemper?”
“Well it was very sick, and the veterinary was out of town”
“And aren’t you the dame-“
The police see this incident as nothing more than another in a series of pranks played by Melsa and her Park Avenue friends, and newspaper editor Peter Ames agrees with them. He puts Melsa on the front page of the newspaper, admonishing her and “her group of Park Avenue pranksters” for what he sees as her interminably childish behaviour, leading her to storm into his office and slap him squarely in the face, threatening to sue him for a million dollars for libel. Frustrated by this parade of men who refuse to believe her, she declares “there was a corpse, and I’ll prove it if I have to find the body myself!”.
Melsa knows who to turn to in times of trouble: her friends, a glamorous group of debutantes who know how to have a good time, and never go anywhere without being beautifully dressed and perfectly coiffed; not even the scene of a murder. Before they can leave Melsa’s apartment to assess the crime scene, she receives a telegram from Peter Ames saying he’s coming up, and soon there’s a knock at the front door. But it isn’t Peter – it’s Melsa’s missing cape, stuck in the door with a knife, and a note: “next time you’ll be in it”.
Undeterred, the girls head over to the house where Melsa found the body. The door is locked, but it’ll take more than that to stop these detectives, and they climb in through a window. They’re momentarily terrified when they’re disturbed by a man they think is the murderer, but it’s just Peter, who insults them and calls them nothing but “dressmaker’s dummies”, so they tie him up and leave him there as they continue to pursue the killer.
Next it’s on to Ronny’s apartment – as the last man seen leaving the scene of the crime, Melsa is convinced he’s the killer. He’s not home, and they search his empty apartment, finding several things to link him to the house that night. But their theory is foiled when they find Ronny’s body in the icebox. Again Melsa calls the police, and again they write it off as a prank, so the girls take the body to the newspaper office, which leads to all of them being arrested for Ronny’s murder. After a long night of questioning, they’re finally released when Melsa’s lawyer arrives.
“Miss Manton is the name. You made liars and social parasites out of us. Now we girls are going to collect that million dollars from you. And as for you Inspector Brent, false arrest is a very serious charge and we’ll have your badge before we’re through with you. We’re going to make you all feel pretty small and silly. Who’s got a lipstick?”
It turns out that it was Peter Ames who summoned Melsa’s lawyer, who, in classic screwball fashion, is already on his way to falling head over heels for the woman he found so irritating just a few days previously. Now they must work together to find the killer, before they strike again.
The role of Melsa was originally intended for Katharine Hepburn, but the poor box office performance of Bringing Up Baby (1938) earlier that year, also an RKO film, made the proposition of another screwball picture less appealing for star and studio alike, and Stanwyck inherited the role. Unfortunately Fonda didn’t seem to enjoy being a part of the production however, reflecting later that “I was so mad on this picture – I resented it”. It could have been the sweltering heat while they shot at the Columbia Ranch in Burbank, standing in for the streets of New York City. But maybe it was because his character is so undeniably sidelined in The Mad Miss Manton, because the relationship between Melsa and her friends is just so much more fun to watch.
Fun, in fact, is this film’s real strength. While little about it – the script, the costumes, the stars themselves – is as polished as it would be a few years later in The Lady Eve, there’s so much to enjoy here. Melsa and her friends aren’t afraid of anything, and the banter between them never stops, even when faced with a possible murderer;
“I’m going to open the doors, get ready girls – we’ll rush him!”